A Look Back: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This week I’ll be doing something a little different. This will be the first post in a three-post series where I share my school reports from my first real film class, Film History. These were the first serious writings I did on film, and they offer a look back at the foundations that would eventually lead me to start writing reviews here at Silver Emulsion. I recently found them in a box while preparing to move, and I hope they are as entertaining to you as they are to me (they won’t be). These were written about twelve years ago during the Fall of the year 2000, when I was a spry nineteen years old. I will be re-creating the documents with the same formatting and images to the best of my abilities with the WordPress editor. Also, I’m leaving in any grammar errors or other things that I might want to change. It’s all about posterity and not falling into the George Lucas trap. Anyway, enjoy! Maybe.

“The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928)
A Film by Carl Th. Dreyer

Carl Dreyer once said regarding the close up shot, “The human face is a declaration on the context of the soul and in its delicate shifts, one can read the most delicate nuances of the emotion which words and gestures are incapable of expressing. The significance of cinema as a new art form resides in the ability to reproduce these shifts of facial expressions.” This statement best explains his reasons for filming The Passion of Joan of Arc in the way that he did. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the standout films from the silent era, elevating the closeup to new heights. It is one of my favorite films and I feel that it is the most powerful film ever made, even surpassing Battleship Potemkin. I attribute this to the deeply religious nature of the story and the revolutionary visual style contained in the film.

The film “documents” the trial of Joan of Arc. Over twenty interrogations conducted over many months were condensed into a single inquisition in one day in the film. We see Joan being questioned many times throughout the film which eventually leads up to her execution. The nature of the story is incredibly religious, but rightly so, the film is about the death of a saint. During the interrogations, the judges constantly try to trip Joan up and force her into answers that would condemn her as a heretic. A great example is a scene from inside Joan’s prison cell. A judge says, “Are you in a state of grace?” If Joan were to reply yes, she would be condemned because there is no salvation without the church. If she replies no, then she would contradict earlier answers and condemn herself. After some thought, Joan replies, “If I am, may God keep me there. If I am not, may God grant it to me.” Upon hearing this, the judges become very confused, not expecting any answer but yes or no. Just one of the great exchanges of dialogue in the film, something that a silent film is not known for at all, for obvious reasons.

Renee Maria Falconetti plays Joan of Arc, and does a marvelous job. This was her one film role. Her face will forever be linked in my mind with Joan of Arc. The character names are never referred to in the intertitles so one is left to identify the different judges by their outstanding features. Because of this, most of the judges end up sort of running together into a collective. The film ends up focusing on the struggle between the judges as a whole and Joan, with certain judges being more prominent than others. The Russian director, Sergei Eisenstein once said about The Passion of Joan of Arc, “Very interesting and beautiful, but not a film. Rather a series of wonderful photographs.” I can see why he would say this, if you freeze-frame the film at virtually any point, you will get a brilliant looking photograph, suitable for framing. To say that the film isn’t cinematic though, is a bit harsh on Eisenstein’s part. But, Eisenstein was never much of a supporter of the individual in film. All of his major works deal with the group as opposed to the individual.

Many symbols and motifs are woven throughout the film. The opening shots are of the trial transcript being opened and looked over. The scribe is visible in nearly every scene, linking the film to the transcript and furthering the audience’s belief that the film is truthful. There is a scene in which Dreyer crosscuts between Joan in her cell and the scribe taking a letter dictation. The letter he is writing writing is to deceive Joan into believing that the King is sending troops to free her. With this crosscutting, Dreyer keeps the judge’s pressure firmly on Joan, even though she is away from them all in her cell.

There are many shots that contain the motif of a cross, mostly of a cross-shaped window. In one scene, a corrupt judge steps into the shadow of the cross-shaped window directly before Joan decides to confide in him. After receiving communion in a scene before her execution, Joan is framed for the first time in shot with the cross-shaped window. Also, the final shot of the film is of the top of the burning stake framed with a cross on a nearby church.

The trial of Joan in the film follows the trial of Jesus Christ fairly closely as well. While in her cell, she notices the shadow of the cross-shaped window and she begins fashioning a straw crown, that much resembles the crown of thorns worn by Christ. The guards are very mean to Joan and mock her with taunts about being the “Daughter of God,” like Christ was teased and mocked as being the “Son of God.” Both Joan’s and Jesus’ so called “crimes” are posted on their instrument of execution, the cross for Jesus, the stake for Joan.

Dreyer used no credits in his original version, to preserve the authenticity and documentary feel. No makeup was used on any of the actors. Dreyer believed that without using makeup it would be much easier to portray the truth that he so eagerly wanted to capture on film. Dreyer wanted the actors in character as much as possible, again, to preserve the authentic feel he wanted the film to have. He shot the film almost entirely in sequence, requiring all of the actors to remain available over the seven month shoot, even actors that would end up with only a few seconds of screen time. He also would not allow music to be played on set, which was a common practice in the silent film days.

Dreyer uses many camera shots not typical of the silent cinema, such as lots of moving camera shots and high and low angle shots. Dreyer shot the film almost entirely in close ups, with only a couple establishing shots and some medium length shots. Dreyer, who intensely studied the original trial transcript, said that the “sharp exchanges of question and answers” was what determined his extensive use of close ups in the film. For Dreyer, only close ups could convey the struggle between Joan and the judges. Because of this style of filmmaking, where the actors are in relation to each other is unknown. Also, most of the medium shots in the film are shot in a way that a head or the upper half of a body is framed with only a white wall background to simulate a close up but still use the scale of a medium shot. There is a moment that is very reminiscent of Soviet montage, in which shots of torture instruments are intercut with the reactions of Joan. The editing in this particular segment is very quick to increase tension and bring the pace of the film to the max. The film’s unique visual style owes much to the crew as well, most of whom worked on the landmark French silent film, Napoleon.

Choosing to focus on the trial sets The Passion of Joan of Arc apart from other more popular Joan of Arc films and paintings of the times. Most of the films of the times focused upon Joan’s great war victories and used familiar imagery so that the audience would have an instant connection with the film. Dreyer purposefully did not use any of the familiar imagery in his film, so that the viewer would focus on the human drama instead of the sets of the 15th century style costumes. Nationalist critics hated it because of this and because of the fact that Dreyer wasn’t a French director. They felt that only a French director could truly bring Joan of Arc to the screen in any redeeming fashion. But obviously, after one has seen the film, you know that their arguments are unfounded.

What keeps drawing me back to this film is the intensity with which it is filmed and edited. I feel that I must mention the fact that another cut of this film composed entirely of different takes (not edited by Dreyer) was made after the original cut was thought lost to fire. In it there were many more establishing shots and more medium length shots. I find this interesting because this means that while shooting the film, Dreyer shot not only the close ups we know so well, but also the establishing shots that aren’t present in the film. This proves that the extensive use of close ups was purely the choice by Dreyer. So, even though shooting the standard shots that are in most films, in the editing room he dropped the shots in favor of more close ups. This is a testament to his often overlooked genius and a milestone in all of filmmaking. And without that genius, the intensity that I love so well in the film wouldn’t be present at all.

Wow, pretty fuckin’ wordy if you ask me. I remember thinking how good I had done when I had finished this, but man, it seems so juvenile to me now. Fun to revisit though. It makes me want to rewatch and review the film.

4 comments to A Look Back: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

  • Interesting; it’s good to see how you have matured (or immatured… LOL) from the time you wrote this to now. What would make this even more interesting now would be to re-watch the film, and write a new, from-the-ground-up review to see how your perceptions might have changed in the meantime.

    One thing I’ve noted about this article, and your normal reviews these days, is the fact that you can tell this is film student’s review. One thing I hate about film school – at least from the point of having to study something I love to earn merit from others – is that I think a lot of people over-analyze films to bits. When I watch a film, I like to enjoy it for what it is, whether that’s a good thing or bad. What I don’t like is to have to analyze said film for every nuance of subtext and “what do you think the director was trying to do here”… because my answer every time will be “to entertain the audience”… That’s where I come from, anyway. Film school students obviously have a more deep-seated love of the artform than I do, perhaps trying to discover how a film makes us feel, instead of just letting it. I have accepted the fact that while I may not try and pick apart a film to understand every nuance, I’m quite happy enjoying, and appreciating, the films I watch on their merits as an entertainment. If I ever use the word “motif” in any of my film reviews, you’ll know I’ve gone to the dark side! 😉

    That being said, this fuckin’ wordy document is well written, logical and intelligent – can’t wait to see what else you dig out of the time capsule!

    • Yeah I plan to re-watch and review this (and perhaps the others in the posts to come), but that will have to wait a few weeks. I’m in the midst of a cross-state move right now, hence why I’m posting these! Anyway, if I’m all settled and ready to go in April I’ll definitely do it. It’ll be interesting.

      I definitely take a more scholarly approach to film reviews, but at the same time I seek to enjoy the movie for what it is. My personal lean is always away from the pretentious, and I find it intriguing to try and pull off real, thoughtful reviews of low-budget movies. It seems lately there’s been a lot of movies that are shitty and hard to enjoy, even when giving them the benefit of the doubt though. When I write the reviews nowadays I just take whatever strikes me and run with it. Whether it’s a way a certain scene is shot, or the fact that the movie is about Manbirds (more on that next week), I don’t actively try to break anything down in general. I do approach film as someone that wanted to make them though, so I’m well-versed in the technicality of the medium and so my reviews have the tendency to go into areas that only I care about.

      Oh and I respect your answer to the question of “what the director was trying to achieve here”, but sometimes there are directors that are definitely not thinking about the audience. Like my nemesis Terrence Malick. 🙂

      Thanks for the comments and reading it though; I was fully prepared for the series to be merely a placeholder until more reviews went up!

  • F***ing Terrence Malick is a pretentious hack. You and I are on the same page there, my friend.

    • Indeed. I have been meaning to watch his early stuff for years because it’s those films that really built his mystique, but I don’t expect to like or enjoy them. Sorry it’s taking me forever to reply, as I mentioned before I’m in the middle of a big move.

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