La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) is one of the “most emotionally intense and visually rewarding works in cinema history”, Rober Sklar writes in Film: An International History of the Medium. Cinema critics have called it the last masterpiece of the silent era. While strong with French nationalistic sentiment, it was made by a Danish director and a German designer, but its powerful message speaks to people of all nations.
The canonization of Jeanne D’Arc (Joan of Arc) fell into the upheaval of post-World War I France. Although she was always a popular figure of French history, when the Catholic Church recognized Jeanne as a saint in ‘20, assorted media about her life began to appear in the public realm. La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc premiered in Copenhagen in April 1928, but was by no means the only “Jeanne” movie of the time period. A more elaborate movie called La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne D’Arc (The Wonderful Life of Joan of Arc) , directed by Marco de Gastyne, hit the box office at the same time, and essentially drove Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc to the more obscure and “art-house” movie theatres worldwide (“The Criterion Collection: La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc”, DVD commentary by Casper Tybjerg).
The story of La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc is very simple. It follows the life of Jeanne D’Arc from the beginning of her trials for heresy through her torture, confession, and execution by burning at the stake. The main focus of the movie is the human side of Jeanne. Usually only ever portrayed as a heroine, Dreyer relied mostly on facial nuance to humanize her, since every French viewer would have known her life story by heart, already.
Film: An International History of the Medium
Cinema of Cruelty
The history of La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc is, on the other hand, surprisingly complex. In 1925, Joseph Delteil, who was later involved with the French surrealist movement, wrote a deeply psychological overview of Jeanne’s life. Dreyer was originally hired to make a film of that book, and Delteil is still credited as co-writer. However, Dreyer eventually scrapped most of Delteil’s work and wrote his own script. A stickler for authenticity and research, Dreyer later claimed that “all the words spoken [in the movie] were from history (Tybjerg),” meaning they were taken directly from trial transcripts found in the Bibliotheque Francaise. His decision to cover Jeanne’s life only from the beginning of her trial through her execution was an unusual one for the time period, and he was later rebuked by French nationalists for not treating the French heroine with appropriate honor.
Its premiere in Copenhagen was the first and only public projection of the complete film. The Paris premiere was delayed until October 1928 due to popular outrage about the film. French nationalists disapproved that a Dane and a non-Catholic had been entrusted with such an important treasure. The Archbishop of Paris and government censors changed the film so drastically before release that it became ardently pro-Catholic, which infuriated Dreyer. In December 1928, a fire destroyed the original negative. Fortunately, alternate takes had been stored elsewhere, and Dreyer pieced together an entirely new version which matched the original almost shot for shot. His habit of overshooting to get the perfect shot had come in handy, although the newer version remained, in his eyes, decidedly less than perfect. In 1929, disaster struck again, and the second negative was also destroyed by fire.
Different, altered versions of the film continued to surface, including one that had been cut almost in half and overdubbed with a radio announcer’s voice. Finally, in 1981, a complete and unedited print of the original film was discovered in the closet of a Norwegian mental institution. This almost miraculous find (known now as the “Oslo version”) led to the restoration and re-release of the film on the aforementioned Criteron DVD, The Many Incarnations of Joan (a featurette on this DVD).
Dreyer used many innovative and exciting cinematic techniques in making La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc, and broke many of what most people considered the rules of cinema. Hermann Warm, the set designer for Das Cabinet der Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), designed the sets for La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc as well, working from 15th-century illuminated manuscripts. Dreyer was adamant that the sets be emotive but invisible; he was not recreating the time period, but the religious intensity and persecution of Jeanne. Warm actually constructed a miniature town out of concrete, complete with moat, drawbridge, and castle walls. It was sturdy enough to support crew and lighting equipment, and was also used as dressing rooms for the cast. This set was what made La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc the most expensive film of the time period, coming in at nine million francs.
Furthermore, Dreyer insisted on absolute realism for his actors: they wore no make-up and the monks’ heads were shaved. In one memorable scene, Maria Falconetti as Jeanne is about to be led to the stake, and her hair is actually cut. According to Dreyer, his attention to realism allowed viewers (and cast) to focus on the story at hand rather than on “frivolous” details, and to identify with the extreme spirituality of Jeanne herself (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Andre Bazin. Originally printed in Radio-Cinema, 1952. Reprinted: The Cinema of Cruelty).
La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc’s use of close-ups was also revolutionary. Filmed almost exclusively in extreme close-ups, there are no establishing shots (shots designed to identify the surrounding location). Dreyer’s framing is often eccentric, cutting out bits of faces and bodies in favor of an expanse of blank white wall. Using such extreme shots brings home the “close-quarter combat” between Jeanne and her judges. Dreyer wanted the audience to feel uncomfortable and trapped, as Jeanne did (Tybjerg). Even shots that are not close-ups feel like them because of their intensity and stark backgrounds.
Dreyer’s focus on the faces of the actors, coupled with his refusal to let them wear make-up, makes the movie feel like a documentary; we see freckles, warts, and wrinkles, and, finally, reality. Reality is not perfect, Jeanne’s trial was far from perfect, and in that lack of perfection is the truth of the human condition. Andre Bazin said: “Seen from very close up, the actor’s mask cracks. As the Hungarian critic Béla Balasz wrote, “The camera…reveals one’s true face. Seen from so close up, the human face becomes the document.” (Bazin)
At the beginning of the movie, Dreyer says that the trial transcripts reveal Jeanne “as she was—not with helmet and armor—but simple and human” (Dreyer). Only by stripping away all mythic flash and glamour can true humanity be revealed. Through focus on one individual (in this case, Jeanne), with the scrutiny of Dreyer’s extreme close-ups, we gain a better understanding and knowledge of people as a whole.
Falconetti’s Jeanne shows utter perfection in her devotion to God. She also shows imperfection in her mistakes and simple background and way of speaking. This dichotomy underlines her humanity; if such a strong and pure individual as Jeanne can have faults, then our own faults are justified and we are united. When asked her name at her first interrogation, she replies “In France I am known as Jeanne, but in my village, I am known as Jeannette.” (Dreyer) Her facial expression is naïve and open, and betrays her attachment to her home and village life, a failing in one who has supposedly dedicated her life to God. In the very next scene, she is asked if she knows the Lord’s Prayer. When she answers yes, the priests ask who taught it to her. The following shot of Falconetti’s face is the most beautiful of the entire movie. Weakness and pain shine from Jeanne’s eyes; a tear runs down her face as she answers, “My mother”.
This scene in particular highlights Dreyer’s goal of portraying human truths. We all have mothers, and can strongly identify with Jeanne’s longing for hers as she recalls all she has given up for God’s service. With this simple statement by a simple woman, Dreyer has tapped into the much deeper well of the human soul.
Later, Jeanne is in her cell, and she succumbs to despair. As she raises her eyes, she sees that her window frame casts a cross-shaped shadow on the floor. The cinematic design of this is quite beautiful, and further drives home to us how strong her faith is. Even in such trying circumstances, the film points out, she sees God in everything. This strength of faith, or perfection, might be appreciated by the audience but is difficult to identify with or understand.
Shortly after, a wily judge hopes to turn her trust for him into a confession. In trusting someone who obviously wishes her harm (the judge looks benevolently at her and his face changes instantly to craftiness as he looks away), her humanity and failing are revealed. As the judge crosses the floor to begin the questioning, he steps on the cross-shaped shadow and it fades…and Jeanne does not even notice. Her individual truth (her faith in God) is stripped away and she is revealed for a simple girl who later signs a confession to avoid death.
Jeanne is fallible and frightened, and therefore not the perfect messenger of God she could be. No wonder French nationalists resented the film’s portrayal of Jeanne; it is as far from the overwrought, sainted image of Jeanne that resides in national consciousness as you can get.
The final shots of the movie again bring us back to humanity as represented by an individual. Jeanne is engulfed in flames, and cries her last words (“Jesus!”). The mob of people, formerly enjoying her execution, revolt against the English and French armies who are standing by. This sequence is not in any historical documents, and was written into the script by Dreyer. When the rest of the film relies on identifying the truth of the group through the truth of the individual, it’s a bit dissonant to be suddenly presented with the reverse: a mob acting on Jeanne’s behalf.
However, Dreyer highlights Jeanne’s individualism by making her the inspiration of the townspeople’s riot. The mob is outraged at Jeanne’s death, prompting the audience to notice how unique Jeanne was that so many unconnected people could care that she is dead. There are several shots of people clutching crosses as they rush about, highlighting Jeanne’s faith. She represents the truth of the people, and the people, ultimately, represent her truth: faith in God.
Interspersed with these crowd shots are the shots we would have expected from Dreyer: Jeanne has been reduced to a black outline, a shadow in the rising flames. We see the outline of her head, hanging as if in penance, flames rising from her hair. Again, she is in close-up, but this time, she is obscured by fire. The stake, outlined against the sky and framed by soldiers fighting from castle walls, replaces Jeanne as she falls into the fire. The paper list of her crimes which has been tacked over her head (deliberately reminiscent of Jesus on the cross) catches fire and burns away to ash, as does Jeanne herself. We can almost feel the heat of the flames.
These shots are very evocative of the movie’s theme. They parallel one woman’s suffering with a sense of humanity’s suffering. The stake, standing alone and surrounded by soldiers, is Jeanne at the last: simple and alone, yet representing the weight of the world. Although she died in perfection (she recanted her confession and chose to die for God), which the audience is unable to identify with, the fact remains that she dies. This, that we all die, is the ultimate human truth.
Poignantly, the final shot is of the stake, still surrounded by fire, from a different angle; this time, instead of attacking soldiers in the background, we see the cross. Jeanne’s truth and humanity’s truth are combined in one frame, and the individual and the crowd finally become one.