This Masters of Cinema release of Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic 1928 French silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc) is a five star presentation of a five star film and is simply a mandatory purchase for anyone really interested in cinema. Presented in a stout cardboard box with a 100 page book (featuring articles by Jean/Dale D. Drum and Hilda Doolittle together with writing by Luis Buñuel, Chris Marker, André Bazin, Dreyer himself, an interview with Antonin Artaud, notes on the restoration by Casper Tybjerg and rare production photographs), there are two DVDs containing no less than three different versions of the film. The first disc has the 20fps version which Dreyer scholars now agree to be about the right speed for the film to be shown. Dreyer stipulated that his film should be shown mute with no music at all and that remains for me the best way to experience this remarkably concentrated work of art. That said MoC do include an optional Mie Yanashita piano score which (to my surprise) I found very moving. Watching it mute forces you to concentrate hard without any help and leaves you feeling exhausted by the end. The music of course subconsciously manipulates one's emotional response undoubtedly making for an easier watch, but one which is not as directly confrontational as Dreyer intended – for him we have to really 'feel' Joan's pain as if it is our own. My conclusion is that while watching this film mute is ideal, it is also worth experiencing Yanashita's subtle scoring for its beauty and quiet sensitivity.
The second disc has the same print as the first but shown at the faster speed of 24fps and with an altogether less attractive (indeed distractive) aggressively modern Loren Connors score. Seen after the 20fps version the effect is bizarre. It seems as if the film has been fast-forwarded with characters moving at unnatural speed and a foregrounding of the swift editing adopted by Dreyer. The editing is unusually swift for a film of this period, but in the slower version it is not so noticeable. At 24fps the effect is ultra-kinetic and makes for a very different film. It should be remembered that while people agree the slower version is better (closer to what Dreyer wanted), the faster version is the one that everyone has become used to down the years. This is mainly because most people will have learnt the film from the Lo Duca version which is also included on this disc. Dreyer hated this well-meaning bastardization of his original intentions and we should also scorn the various additions that original co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma Joseph-Marie Lo Duca sanctioned – credits both at the beginning and at the end, new backdrops (of stained glass windows) for the title cards, new translations, subtitles, and above all the addition of classical music (a popular baroque classics playlist of everything from Bach to Scarlatti) which is every bit as jarring and irrelevant as the 80s pop soundtrack for Giorgio Moroder's version of Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927). If you grew up with the Lo Duca version it's understandable that nostalgia might get the better of you, but this is not what Dreyer wanted at all. For me the Lo Duca version is worth watching for one reason only and that is the print was taken from a different negative from the one (then thought lost) used on the other version presented here. Two cameras shot the film at the same time and the negatives are slightly different featuring different framing and different movements from the actors. Once you get to know the film well, playing the compare and contrast game here is potentially fascinating. We should note though that the other version contains Dreyer's preferred cut and we should feel lucky that this print was discovered in 1981 in, of all places, a mental hospital in Oslo. MoC have not restored the Lo Duca print and it remains in worn condition. The other version here (offered at two speeds) has been restored and the results are breathtaking. Pin sharp to perfection (original aspect ratio 1.37:1), it is very difficult to imagine us ever seeing it better on DVD – a miraculous achievement for everyone involved.
And so to the film itself. Along with Napoleon (Abel Gance, 1927) The Passion of Joan of Arc is considered with good reason to represent the very peak of big-budget French historical reconstruction in silent films. Its considerable merits were not appreciated at the time, the film failing at the box office and upsetting both the Catholic Church and conservative politicians and journalists. This necessitated cuts on its French release from the beginning and the film also had an unfortunate reception elsewhere. By the time it reached the States talkies were all the rage and along with F. W. Murnau's Sunrise (another undisputedly great silent film), it failed to make an impact. It is often said that religion and politics are box office poison, but it is wrong to see Dreyer's film as being either religious or political even if his subject is both. It is worth stressing that while Joan is a saint and is an important figure in the Catholic Church, Dreyer was a not very devout Protestant Dane. Also, while Joan is seen as an important figure in the establishment of France's political freedom from England in the 15th century and then later from Germany in WWII, Dreyer is not interested at all in politics. No saint, and no revolutionary, for Dreyer Joan is simply a woman, the victim of patriarchal dogmatic and repressive society. From this simple desire to visualize one woman's victimization and then destruction springs all the factors that make this film so great.
First and foremost is the startling communion between Dreyer and his lead actress Renée Maria Falconetti. Never before or since has cinema witnessed such a profoundly moving connection between a director and his star as we have here. Central to this is the fact that Falconetti was an unknown actress at the time. Plucked from the stage by Dreyer who was looking for an ordinary girl with the right face to play in his close-up-obsessed conception of the film, Falconetti’s film career is defined by this, her one and only role. In it she became Joan of Arc to such a degree that it was impossible afterwards to see her as anything else. There is a grain of madness in her extraordinary assumption of the role. Already emotionally unstable before the film, she was later to tragically commit suicide in Brazil in 1947. For Dreyer though she was the perfect actress with whom he could create his Joan. Virtually every shot not only centers on Joan, but in giant close up as well. Denied the use of make-up (along with the rest of the cast) she is stripped naked for everyone to see and it has been said (inaccurately) that the final transcendental achievements came through Dreyer sadistically bullying, humiliating and inflicting pain on his subject, even to the extent of shaving off her very real hair. Actually, the film was achieved out of a close intensely intimate relationship nurtured out of a deep artistic need to express themselves for and to each other. The hair-cutting was something that Falconetti had agreed to when she accepted the role and she went to great lengths after the film to praise Dreyer for what they had accomplished together. For long hours the set would be emptied or screened off so that director and star could commune alone. They would go over the previous day’s rushes together and talk over solutions, ideas, things that worked and things that didn’t. There is no doubt that Falconetti felt deeply Joan’s pain and her performance is one of pure intensity which is always natural and never remotely melodramatic. From the opening inquisition of the judges through her torments at the hands of English guards who tease and provoke her, the attempt to trick her into a recantation of her 'crimes' through a faked letter from the French king, her fainting at the sight of the torture chamber, the shaving of her head, her relapse into signing and then her retraction leading to the final march to the stake, Falconetti's performance is unbearably moving – the way she walks, the way she looks fearfully at her tormentors, the way those wide eyes reflect pain and fear, terror and transcendence, the tears that issue from them are so terrifyingly real. Many critics hold her performance up as the very best ever given in a film. I don't know about that, but it is certainly way up there with the very best.
Of course, Falconetti's performance comes out of Dreyer's inspired direction. From the start he had planned to boil the whole film down to one set (Rouen Castle reconstructed impeccably by Hermann Warm and Jean Hugo), one day (Joan's real trial actually lasted a year, but miraculous editing reduces everything to a very natural-feeling 100 minutes) and a relentless series of close-ups courtesy of Rudolph Maté's extraordinary deep contrast cinematography from extreme angles both high and low. Such a flouting of film-making rules necessitated the central performance be of the highest quality and fortunately for everyone Falconetti delivers the goods and more. The oppressive set which we feel much more than we actually see and the close-ups stress relentlessly the innocence and inherent goodness of Joan as played against the evil of her tormentors, chosen one feels because of their fat heads, angular features, grotesque warts and pimples. Dreyer has said he didn't think that the various priests led by Pierre Cauchon (Eugène Silvain) were individually bad, rather their professional position forces them to press ahead a trial through mere duty. Indeed some of the priests, especially Jean Massieu (Antonin Artaud) show their doubt openly before being crushed by their ‘wiser’ seniors. Undoubtedly though, Dreyer's insistence on matching their ugly visages with the equally ugly purveyance of dogma through grotesque close-ups of heads without make-up heightens the tension and the sense that poor Joan is a woman doomed in a patriarchal society which will never accept her.
The heavy emphasis on close-ups means that the editing is much more obvious than usual, and in this film the cutting is nigh on inspired. Examples are too many to mention, but one particularly impressive one comes in the opening inquisition. The camera in close-up slips down the face of an English soldier. Dreyer cuts from this downward motion to another close-up of Joan's head, the eyes closing downwards exuding tears which prolong the downward motion. This happens as she is questioned about the rightness of the English being in France. As she says that she believes the English will one day leave France if they have not died there already the camera cuts to an angle over Joan's head looking down on her head stressing her vulnerability as she wrenches her head upward to look at Cauchon before another cut to the head of an English soldier leaning angrily into the camera in protest. The editing graphically relates the story and the psychology behind it without need of title cards. The downward movement conveys Joan’s hopeless situation, the camera angles convey her complete subservience to the powers of this kangaroo court and the severe movement of an English head conveys who is really in power here. Similarly the final riot sequence with bodies milling around in an almost abstract Expressionistic manner is intercut with great expertise with the nobility of Joan being burned at the stake. Dreyer insisted on the burning taking much longer than usual and the use of a waxwork Joan for the final stages is deeply shocking as the riot dies down. There's no doubt in my mind that Dreyer's visual treatment (the close-ups and the skillful editing) heighten even further what must have been already an extraordinary performance from Falconetti. Quite possibly, had this performance been rendered in the standard manner of historical reconstruction with standard battle scenes and the usual mixture of establishing shots, middle shots and long shots, it would have seemed overly melodramatic. Harnessed with exaggerated sets, angular camera angles (in some riot shots the camera is even upside down) and the grotesque onslaught of the inquisition, the performance seems totally natural and moves us deeply.
This film is an extraordinary achievement completely without precedent. No version of this oft-told story had been so intense before and none has equaled it since. Like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) which interestingly enough also had Hermann Warm designing the sets, the film is unique, existing without either imitators or followers. The film’s originality in itself guarantees its place among the greats. If I have a criticism to make it lies in what Robert Bresson had to say. He complained about what he saw as the “grotesque buffooneries” in a film which stresses repeatedly mere spectacle over intellectual content. For me Dreyer achieves quite extraordinary intensity in his film through purely surface means. By treating the story as a simple tale of a woman brutalized by a male society in a series of close-ups which could unkindly be described as cartoon caricatures and especially in the final conflagration where Dreyer seems to almost revel in Joan’s body blistering and melting in the searing heat, any sense of deeper reflection is denied. One only has to look at Bresson’s own version of the story, The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) to see how much more reflection can be brought out without resorting to mere sensation. After all the purple prose I’ve spilt on praising Dreyer’s film I have to admit to finding the Bresson to be the more moving, the more ‘spiritual’ experience. I am not a Catholic, but there is a sense that Bresson’s Catholicism informs his Joan in a way that elevates her out of the ordinary in a simple but profound manner. An article of faith, the film seems completely honest coming from its dedicated creator. The honesty in Dreyer’s film doesn't come from a dedication to his subject despite all the research put in. Remember, the film was the result of a random choice between three subjects proffered up by the Societe General des Films - Joan, Catherine de Medici or Marie Antoinette. Any honesty there is surely comes from the hidden agenda of Dreyer's childhood wherein he was given up for adoption while his mother was abused by her male employers into dying young (the victimization of women in a male society is a perennial theme in Dreyer's work). This is what filters through into the deep communion between director and actress (not between director and Joan) and a visual style which accentuates it. As a film experience it is certainly extraordinary and worthy of all the acclaim it has received, but I’m guessing that acclaim comes mainly from spectators responding emotionally who perhaps have little or no Faith at all.