In 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic church.The peasant girl who believed she had direct communion with God,protesting she was a valid vessel for God's word and as part of her mission dressed like a man to drive the English out of France.She defended what she'd done over many months of interrogation,even tried to integrate by wearing woman's dress,then stepped back from it and recanted,after cracking.Deemed heretic by the church tribunal for the fact she wore men's clothes and that she believed she was sent by God to save France,obeying the voices of God or angels.She'd outlived her usefulness for the French,the English and Burgundians had come to a deal.For Charles to have anything to do with her would be heresy.She was burned at the stake in 1431 Rouen.The retrial 20 years later found her innocent, when the French had recovered Normandy and Rouen,and it was politically expedient.The Joan we know is a creation of the 19th century 3rd Republic when different parties claimed her as a figure of national unity.Dreyer concentrates on trial and execution to focus on her inescapable fate.
Dreyer has a sympathy for women in his work and hates their oppression.Dreyer is regarded as the greatest artist in Danish cinema,though it was in France he directed his 1st masterpiece,The Passion of Joan of Arc(1928),with its remarkable leading performance by Renee Falconetti in her only screen role.This film inspired Godard and he shows Nana,his heroine in Vivre Sa Vivre moved to tears by another woman whose fate is decided by men. Dreyer's Joan of Arc was a 'hymn to the triumph of the soul over life'.Through his method of close-ups he avoids the elaboration of costume drama and make-up,expressing the character and spirit of that time,through intense psychologicalportrayal, dispensing with ornamentation and elaboration,to give the unvarnished truth,'the martyr's reincarnation'.Dreyer based this on actual historical transcripts of the trial.He telescopes the action into one day.Although he built large sets his drama is all in the facial expressions and eyes of the judges,the clerics and Joan depicted on white backgrounds,a kind of Beckettian paring of the essential.The `realized mysticism' of a corporeal spirituality, harmony between 'feelings' and 'things'.
The inquisitors hover over Jeanne,relentlessly questioning her faith and patriotism, waiting for any incriminating statement that would seal her fate. Unable to ensnare her in their verbal traps, she is led away to her cell, only to be taunted by prison guards as the daughter of God, placing a woven crown upon her head.Loyseleur,a monk,forges a letter from King Charles in an attempt to gain her confidence.The judges follow to her cell continuing their questioning.Loyseleur'(Schultz) reassurance is withdrawn when she's asked if she's in a state of grace.Massieu(Artaud),the sympathetic monk,warns her of the danger posed,to which Jeanne summarily replies: "If I am, may God keep me there. If I am not, may God grant it to me." Her response confounds the calculating judges, and compel them to employ a different tactic: physical torture.She collapses at the sight of torture instruments. Brought outside the courtroom as a public spectacle, a weak and delirious Jeanne reluctantly signs the confession, and her death sentence is commuted. Returned to cell, her courage and faith are restored by the sight of the woven crown, and implores Cauchon (Eugene Silvain) that she wishes to recant. Unable to force Jeanne into submission, the judges sentence her to death.
Dreyer's startling and innovative camerawork in The Passion of Joan of Arc creates visual imbalance. The courtroom scene recreates the abusive atmosphere of the inquisition by filming the oppressive judges upward, which contrast with the images of a victimized Jeanne filmed downward. The pervasive use of variable distance close-ups is claustrophobic, revealing the opportunistic judges' ulterior motives, as they carefully craft a means to ensnare Jeanne with their leading questions and insincere actions. The odd angle shots of the street performers, prison guards, and judges further exaggerate their physical features, creating a sense of the grotesque - in essence, an external manifestation of their innate inhumanity. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a profoundly moving, indelible film of courage and perseverance, spirituality and conscience.Dreyer breaks down her unattainable piety into the accessible language of compassion for the pain and suffering of Joan the human.This film can be watched with Einhorn's Voices of Light oratorio,inspired by the film,or in silence with subtitling intertitles,equally well.Up until 1992 it was in Sight and Sound's top 10 list of best films of all time.The film like its heroine suffered censorship,mutilation,burning,until this original copy was found in 1981 in an asylum cupboard in Oslo and restored digitally in 1985.