I must have known on some level that this movie existed, surely. Joan of Arc has been an inspiration for centuries, an inspiration for plays, books, movies, even songs by Leonard Cohen and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. But this movie by Carl Theodor Dreyer was assumed essentially lost for years, and as a silent movie released after 1927’s The Jazz Singer – a fate it shares with another excellent silent, Murnau’s Sunrise – it’s a movie that seemed shamefully ignored by all but those much-maligned cultural elite, or people who came upon it by accident, like composer Richard Einhorn, whose composition Voices of Light has accompanied the movie on most DVDs of recent vintage. Once again, I will cite Mark Cousin’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey for convincing me this was a unique picture that deserved seeking out. The Criterion Collection seemed to agree, and it was with something approaching religious ecstasy that I found their DVD during a trip to Half-Price Books.
Dreyer’s research, taking over a year, was meticulous, as was his vision; transcripts of Joan’s trial were examined (a scribe is visible in almost all the interrogation scenes), apocryphal stories either merged into the script or discarded (one small detail – when Joan signs the confession disavowing her holy visions, she follows her name with a small cross – a practice she supposedly used for dispatches to tell her soldiers the contents of the message were false, to confuse the enemy. Never referred to in the movie, it demonstrates how deep Dreyer’s study went).
The Passion of Joan of Arc is famously – or infamously, depending on where you are on the timeline – composed almost entirely of close-ups. If, as Ingmar Bergman once said, “The human face is the great subject of cinema,” this movie is Exhibit A: our constant nearness to Joan’s suffering, the intractable remorselessness of the Church inquisitors, the martial brutality of the English occupiers – and then the transcendent serenity of Joan when she recants her confession, insuring her execution for heresy. She is finally allowed the holy sacraments, even if they are the last rites, and then we also made to feel the regret of her Church persecutors, and the fury of the French crowds as they witness her martyrdom.
The riot following her death is instructive on many levels; as befits a sequence pitting a mob against a troop of soldiers, the close-up strategy is largely abandoned for a thrilling sequence that is no less affecting than the preceding hour and forty minutes of close-up emotion. It’s also our first real opportunity to see bits of the massive village set constructed for the movie, the most extensive and expensive in European cinema at the time. Evidence of this set only exists in photos taken at the time, because you certainly don’t get a decent look at it in the course of the movie. And one does desire to see the whole thing, as Dreyer’s insistence on reproducing this period exactly extends to odd design choices, most notably in small things we do get to see, like oddly shaped windows in the background of many shots – replicated from contemporary drawings, when artists had not quite figured out the whole perspective thing.
Some silent film directors played music while shooting their movies, to create a proper mood, but Dreyer preferred silence to coax honest emotion from his actors (this extends even to a lack of makeup!), and may indeed have wanted Passion to unspool in silence, in the dark (this never happened, and Dreyer was not particularly impressed by the music that did accompany its first, disastrous showings). To harken back to my first paragraph, Richard Einhorn’s Voice of Light on the Criterion disc provides such an amazing accompaniment for the film that I have to disagree with the director on this point. As I write this, another artist has presented, locally, a new score based on medieval music for Passion. My first thought was, “Why bother? It’s been done,” but that is not a worthy question for any creative endeavor. If that was a question that should ever be asked, we would have no new productions of Shakespeare. Nor would The Passion of Joan of Arc even have been made, as a more traditional version of the story, with the expected military pomp and action, Saint Joan the Maid was being produced at the same time, and that after six other movies and shorts dating back to 1900. As I said, Joan is an extremely inspirational character.
As I also said earlier, The Passion of Joan of Arc was essentially lost. The original version of Passion fell victim to that bane of nitrate film, a fire, and Dreyer had to cobble together a version made of takes he had originally rejected, and that was the version the world knew for years (and that version was further cut by Church and government censors, to boot). Then, remarkably, a print of Dreyer’s original version was found in the janitor’s closet of a mental institution in Oslo in 1981. How that print journeyed to this place in 1928 and how it then survived a half-century of benign neglect is an argument in favor of divine intervention, or at least how fate can look after us, even when we are our own worst enemies.
Here’s a sequence with that Voices of Light goodness:
And here’s a more modern take on a trailer:
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