The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Director: Carl Dreyer Joan: Renée Falconetti
It is probably safe to say that more Americans have viewed Dreyer’s film of Joan of Arc on video tape or DVD than ever saw it in a movie theater. Even if you haven’t watched it, you may still have come across a photo showing the suffering eyes and shaved head of Renée Falconetti.
Roger Ebert has called this film about Joan “the greatest and most important silent film ever made.”
Dreyer gives us the only Joan who actually looks as if she might have grown up on a farm doing heavy, tedious work. Her broad hands and stocky arms suit the reins of a warhorse, but she seems to be lacking in the intelligence necessary for tactical planning. Her willingness to trust the treacherous confessor and her continued hope for mercy at the hands of Bishop Cauchon reveal a simplicity of thought that would be disastrous in a military leader.
In looks Falconetti is the most satisfying of all the cinema Joans. She lacks the prettiness of Jean Seberg or the refined elegance of Ingrid Bergman, but Dreyer’s unrelenting close-ups of her face from every possible angle would be intolerable if she were not beautiful.
Her large, dark eyes convincingly convey both ecstasy and suffering. Her preoccupation with objects, plaiting straw into a crown, for example, seeing a cross in the the shadow cast by her window, enable her to distance herself from her brutal jailers and heartless inquisitors.
Falconetti conveys a sense of the imprisoned Joan’s utter loneliness. The Joans of the other films have pasts in which they enjoyed relationships with other people. Those films show friends thinking of her and even attempting to rescue her.
Dreyer’s Joan inhabits a world empty of anyone who cares about her on a personal level. Some of the priests and spectators sympathize with her, but without being personally involved, as one pities a caged animal.
By limiting his treatment of Joan’s story to the last four months of her life, Dreyer leaves out the scenes we have come to expect. Dreyer’s film begins with Joan already a prisoner of the Englsh. We see none of the epic of the raising of the siege at Orleans, none of the spectacle of the coronation at Reims. We don’t get to see Joan in armor. According to the historical record, Joan retained her masculine clothing until the last few days of her life. Dreyer’s Joan wears a woman’s dress throughout.
Although Dreyer’s Joan looks the part, the filmmaker alters the historical facts in order to present her as a helpless victim.
At the beginning of the trial he has Joan refuse to say the Lord’s Prayer because it reminds her of her mother and the memory moves her to tears. The historical Joan wouldn’t say it because she wanted to force Cauchon to hear her confession. She was bargaining, not wallowing in self-pity.
Similarities more than coincidental exist between Dreyer’s film and Fleming’s (1948). In both films, Joan exhibits extreme fatigue in the cemetery/abjuration scene. Onlookers urge her to sign and save her life. The camera follows her hand as she signs. In Fleming, as in Dreyer, she first draws a circle. In Dreyer, one of the priests then guides her hand to write “Jehanne” and she makes a cross after her name. In Fleming she makes a cross through the initial circle, but does not write her name.
Fleming’s depiction of the execution echoes Dreyer’s. Falconetti is bound to the stake with ropes; when one falls, she stoops and picks it up for the hangman. Ingrid Bergman performs a similar action with the chain that is used to bind her to the stake.
Dreyer makes his intention clear in the title. His Joan is a Christ figure, an extremely good human being who is humiliated, falsely tried and put to death by people who are blind to anything but their own view of the world.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is definitely a film worth viewing. For a special bonus, get the one with Richard Einhorn’s <i>Voices of Light</i> as the musical soundtrack. It is performed by the Anonymous Four and sounds heavenly.