The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

directed by Carl Dreyer

Plot Summary
In 15th Century France, Joan of Arc is on trial for heresy in front of a court of French religious judges who are sympathetic to the English. The judges relentlessly question Joan in an attempt to force her to sign a recantation concerning her personal beliefs and visions. She is tormented by jailers and threatened with torture by the judges. Faced with her imminent execution, Joan signs the recantation and is give life imprisonment instead. As she sits her cell having her hair cut, Joan realizes she has betrayed her self and her beliefs and renounces her signing. She is tied up to a stake and burned in front of a group of grieving spectators. These people begin a riot that is violently suppressed by the presiding English military.


Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those rare works that seems to have its very own cinematic language, foreign to the rest of film history. One may see strands of earlier dialects present, those from Griffith or Gance for instance, but the combined, finished product is completely unique. Jean Cocteau gave an accurate description when he said the film "seems like an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist". The formidable talent behind the camera including Dreyer, cameraman Rudolf Mate, and art director Hermann Warm of Caligari fame could probably have produced a first-rate film even without superb performances; in fact, they later collaborated on the stunning Vampyr where the actors are not as crucial to the overall effectiveness. However, for this film they were lucky enough to be working with Renee Falconetti, whose role as Joan of Arc has to be one of the most indelible performances in cinema. Every one of her emotions are captured, mainly in extreme close-up shots which lend the film a certain intimacy and an undeniable power. This emotional force combines with the minimalist visual style and abstract editing to produce a work of a rare spiritual nature, much like its protagonist.

Falconetti’s much-celebrated Joan demands careful attention. Besides registering the varying nuances of emotion, her eyes often give the viewer the only clue to the spatial relations within the scene. Rarely is Joan seen with someone else in the frame, and she, therefore, seems as large as her persecutors or even the soldiers. This may suggest her strength of spirit even while being victimized, and it is striking to see her diminutive physical size in the few shots showing her entire frame. As she is interrogated about her fantastic visions, Joan’s reactions range from a wide-eyed recounting of certain details to a weary, almost pitying realization that the judges could not and would not understand her absolute faith. Joan claims that she will be delivered from prison "by a great victory", although she doesn’t realize this deliverance will be spiritual rather than physical. Later in her cell, the judges continue their questioning, and Joan thinks that Loyseleur is her ally, although the viewer knows otherwise. A very moving sequence follows in which Joan looks to him with such need of assurance and is comforted when he, at first, tells her how to answer. But her comfort turns to confusion when he refuses to help her with their inquiries, and one sees the painful manipulation the judges will use to break this trusting girl. Yet as eagerly as she looks to the judges for any sympathy, Joan realizes what they are doing to her as indicated by her point-of-view shots showing them studying her carefully, waiting for any mistake upon which to begin their assault. Falconetti effectively displays the constant fear and confusion this unrelenting scrutiny would produce.

Dreyer also suggests these emotions while the jailers torment Joan by using off-center framing and confusing the spatial relations even further to show the unusual cruelty of their actions. Joan hardly acknowledges their mocking and takes their abuse with a Christlike detachment. This comparison becomes even more apparent as the film proceeds and as Joan realizes that her spiritual ideals are the most important things. But the viewer never forgets Joan’s humanity as she wearily waits to be executed—she notices a skull sitting in the dirt next to an open grave and then some flowers growing nearby. These objects contrast the beauty of life with the ugliness and finality of death, and the fear this realization engenders, along with others’ encouragement, persuades Joan to initially sign the recantation. As she sits in her cell having her hair cut, Joan watches her hair trimmings being collected and sees the woven crown, a symbol of her faith, also being swept away. This simple action becomes significant by illustrating to Joan how her beliefs cannot be simply cut away and discarded as her fallen hair has been; she decides to put eternal concerns over her earthly fears and tells the man sweeping to "get the judges". Her belief in another, spiritual life allows Joan to tell Massieu, a younger priest, that her deliverance will take the form of death and her victory will be her martyrdom.

The film also clearly illustrates the judges and soldiers who feel they must destroy Joan. Rather than trying to spell out all they say, the film focuses on their frenzied and unbecoming expressions as they launch their verbal assaults. Early on, this technique reduces them to a group of older, uncaring men who are trying to trap Joan with their legalistic and small-minded questions. The film interestingly allows some information to be filtered through the judges’ viewpoint. Soldiers are ordered to follow a judge who bowed before Joan, and and an elderly member of the court becomes visibly upset at seeing this. This shifting of perspective allows the viewer to see that it is not just Joan’s contrasting viewpoint which witnesses the judges’ tyranny; some of their own kind are frightened by it as well. The vulturine nature of these priests is displayed in a sequence in Joan’s cell where she appears weak and confused by their questions, and they lean in toward her, as if ready to finish her off. But as she suddenly answers their charges with a divine confidence, they back up fearfully. The judges eventually try to create doubt in Joan’s mind about the origin of her visions, but her faith is unshakable. Interestingly, when she later accuses them as being tools of the devil, they stop trying to change her and begin preparing for her execution. The instant the judges’ religious authority is doubted, they concede and realize they will be unable to combat Joan’s apparently stronger beliefs. Meanwhile, the English captain could care less about these theological debates and cares only that Joan will eventually be executed, reminding one of the political side of the story. A sad and pitiful sequence involves the head judge, Cauchon, being just slightly kind to Joan after her bleeding. At this glimpse of sympathy, Joan reaches her hand out to his, but a complete lack of compassion causes him to swiftly withdraw from her grasp. However, after Joan makes her conscious decision to die, these cold, cruel men show their human side and seem to pity her; even the judge that had spit on her earlier begins to weep.

One of the themes running throughout is the value of an intense, personal faith over the more structured, elitist belief system put forth by the judges. A rare shot of Joan relatively happy has her sitting alone in her cell as she notices a shadow from the window forming a cross. She works contentedly on the woven crown, pleased with her isolated devotion. But this devotion sets her up for the mocking of the jailers and the attacks of the clergy who are ignorant of or indifferent to her powerful faith. Clearly, it requires an ample amount of courage to believe so strongly in such a private way, as others will attack what they don’t understand. When one of the judges speaks of the church abandoning her, causing her to be alone, Joan seems pleased with this idea and replies, "Yes…alone with God!" Later, the film shows how the judges use the rituals of the Church in an attempt to break Joan. As communion begins in Joan’s cell, she says, "I am a good Christian," as if the rite reinforces this fact. Because she seems so dependent on this process, the judges withhold the Eucharist as a way of torturing her. When Joan finally recants, the church welcomes her back into its arms by sentencing her to imprisonment for life; symbolically, perhaps the filmmakers saw the bureaucratic religious practices of the time as a form of prison. But it seems that the English military wields the ultimate power of this trial, and they would be happy with nothing short of Joan’s execution. When this actually takes place and the people riot, the camera makes sure to show rocks going through the church window to signify the anger rising up against the religious leaders who burned this saint. The final symbol of the split between the people and the Church is the raising of the drawbridge which separates the people on one side from the clergy and soldiers on the other and also suggests these last two groups’ complicity in the injustice that has occurred.

The stylistic mastery and visual richness add incalculably to the film’s appeal and power. The actors were forbidden to wear make-up, and the many close-ups expose all of the character contained within their faces. In one documentary-like shot a fly lands on Joan’s face, and she naturally brushes it off. These techniques give the transcendent drama a recognizable human base. In general, abstract or symbolic framing and a sparse mise-en-scene counter the naturalness of the actors’ appearance. When the deceptive Loyseleur enters Joan’s cell, his shadow causes the cross on the floor to disappear, illustrating his evil intent even as he returns Joan’s ring. The tracking shot of the simple items used in the torture room emphasizes their clean, sharp edges and jagged shapes. As a grave is being dug, a skull rests on a mound of dirt in the foreground, while a tiny cross can be seen in the hazy distance. This aesthetically interesting shot represents the concrete immediacy of death and the less well-defined, metaphysical promise of salvation that leads to Joan’s initial recantation. As she signs her name, there is a cut to a guard’s helmet on a stick and a menacing hook to remind one of he threat of violence that has caused her submission. There’s also an interesting image of a misbehaving spectator being thrown into a pool of water, photographed using the reflection of the water, which somehow looks forward to the odd imagery in Vampyr. The splash of the water also provides a rare form cut to Joan’s falling hair inside her cell. When she is taken outside to the stake, Dreyer begins complex and poetic intercutting between Joan, a flock of birds, the burning wood, the spectators, and Massieu holding up a cross. This montage reaches its climax as the people begin rioting, and the soldiers violently suppress them. Joan’s suffering is then echoed by the widespread suffering in the crowd: soldiers brutally beat unarmed people, a child is seeing crying alongside a fallen parent, a cannon is fired into the melee. Although the world Joan leaves behind is violent and cruel, her willing sacrifice and steadfast faith give hope that there is something better to follow.

Although much of the middle of the film seems comprised of static close-ups, there are several tracking shots at first and all kinds of camera movement at the end. The frenetic shooting style present during the climax is reminiscent of Abel Gance’s experimental and innovative Napoleon, released a year before. Dreyer occasionally uses his camera subjectively, like Murnau in The Last Laugh, in order to register the perceptions of the protagonist. It is not difficult to see the influence of Griffith’s gradually accelerating montage in the torture room sequence where Joan passes out as the spiked wheel spins. The film makes Joan’s suffering and sacrifice seem almost contemporary by ignoring most of the décor, costumes, and sets. By synthesizing various techniques of effective filmmaking and inventing many of its own, The Passion of Joan of Arc becomes a complete work of art. It describes man’s yearning for the ideal in the face of pain and injustice and suggests the ultimate triumph of the soul, doing so primarily through the eyes of a 15th Century French girl who died at the age of nineteen.

9 of 10

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© 1999

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