“I wish it was one of those good American light things.”
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Since its release Carl Theodor Dreyer’s depiction of the trial and execution of the French Maid continues to stun audiences and film critics alike. In 1995, the Vatican included The Passion of Joan of Arc in their “Top 45 [Great] Films”. This list is subdivided into themes of Religion, Values, and Art (Joan is entered into the Religion category). Their brief review describes the film “as [a] Silent screen masterpiece portraying the heresy trial, confession, recantation and execution of the Maid of Orleans (Maria Falconetti) in a performance of such emotional power that it still stands as the most convincing portrayal of spirituality on celluloid.” Mordaunt Hall’s two pieces for The New York Times (March 29 and March 31, 1929) extol both the cinematic virtues of the film and Maria Falconetti’s performance as Joan. Richard Watts, Jr. echoed Hall’s sentiments in his The Film Mercury review (April 12, 1929). However, it is the poetess H.D.’s review in Close Up that truly does The Passion of Joan of Arc justice. Her review masterfully captures power of the film and the myriad of confused responses it draws from the viewer.
I find it impossible to clinically or objectively review The Passion of Joan of Arc. My own impressions and responses to Dreyer’s film are simply too complicated. My feelings during every viewing range from disgust to awe to claustrophobia and dread (often shifting within moments of each other). The film elicits a physical response from me, I feel unwell while watching. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the most powerful films I have ever seen (along with Bergman’s Virgin Spring, Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, and Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour) and one of the more difficult to come to terms with on a personal level. I have been unable to watch the film in one sitting since my first viewing; I have to break it into chunks. My copy of Einhorn’s Voices of Light score has become one my favorite scores yet I am unable to separate the score from the imagery of the film. The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the rare films that will stay with me and I will continue to puzzle over and discuss and read about for a long time to come.
But why? I’ve watched ero-guro pink-u eiga (Japanese erotic grotesque films). I’m familiar with the works of Fulci, Bava, and Argento. I love Herzog/Kinski films. Dark Scandinavian films, American and European ruminations on the nature of evil, chillers, thrillers, Night of the Hunter, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Triumph of the Will, and many other of my favorite films have never gotten their claws into me this deeply before (except maybe Fanny and Alexander or Peeping Tom). Joan is not a grand guignol or a penny dreadful or a “roughie”. Certainly the panchromatic film, Hermann Warm and Jean Hugo’s minimalist (and rarely fully visible) sets, Dreyer and Joseph Delteil’s script, and brutal edging given to the cast’s faces (unadorned by makeup) create an oppressive and discomfiting tone that is difficult to endure. The Passion of Joan of Arc evokes in me the same sensations as reading Kafka’s “The Trial” or Orwell’s “1984” and this is part the intellectual and emotional tug of war at work in The Passion of Joan of Arc. As H.D. wrote, “[this] is one film among all films, to be judged differently, to be approached differently, to be viewed as a masterpiece…but there is a Jeanne sobbing before us, there is a Jeanne about to kicked by huge hob-nailed boots.” H.D. reminds me of Orwell again, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face -- forever.” Dreyer denies his audience any catharsis, not Joan’s death nor the resultant riot provide any release from the level of tension the film creates. The climactic riot only allows the viewer to be swept along, frustrated and unsure, with the violence, an Orwellian “Five Minute Hate”.
Dreyer is a master of the close up (not only in Joan but his other films as well – e.g. Vampyr): tight shots of the Judges - craggy, menacing, darting suspicious eyes under heavy brows, cruel bemused expressions, the camera does not mask the subtle ticks and contemptuous askance the Judges deign to award Joan. Maria Falconetti’s performance is as far removed from Angella Salloker’s in Das Madchen Johanna (1935) as it is from Milla Jovovich’s in The Messenger. Falconetti’s Joan is not beatific, nor angelic, nor warrior woman. Her Joan bears a rapturous expression that borders upon the madness imparted by the divine. Falconetti and Dreyer also bring out a deep pathos for Joan who one moment looks like a confused, filthy, ignorant peasant girl and another looks like she truly could be the Maid of Orleans.
All of these points make for a truly impressive cinematic experience however it is deep undercurrent of madness that makes The Passion of Joan of Arc such a powerful film. It is not simply an issue of whether Joan is mad (schizophrenic or autistic by today’s standards) or whether the Judges are malignant sadists (though historically the Catholic Church during this time was corrupt and twisted). It is the sense of stark realism Dreyer creates and the performances that creates the feeling of madness. The Passion of Joan of Arc does not make excuses for protagonist or antagonists. While our natural inclination is to side with Joan, Falconetti’s performance instills feelings of doubt. Often I wonder if Joan is cognisant of her surroundings or her trial and the charges leveled against her. Falconetti’s Joan at times seems like an idiot savant, as uncomprehending of her impending doom as a cow to the abattoir. Yet, just as quickly and concurrently, I am filled with un-erotic love and adoration for Joan, the desire to defend and fight for her. Pauline Kael wrote, “No other film has linked eroticism with religious persecution” and while I can understand Kael’s point I (as I often do) have to disagree with Kael.
Contradictions and doubt and uncertainty and fear are the strongest themes in The Passion of Joan of Arc but it is Falconetti’s resolve as Joan, her depiction of true Faith (religious or otherwise), that, in the face of adversity she remains unbowed. I watch Dreyer’s film and am plagued by questions, not about the film, but about myself. Would I have the testicular fortitude to stand by my convictions? Would I refuse to admit that 2+2=5? Sadly, I lack the resolve of Falconetti’s Joan.