A discussion of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc between two of our critics in anticipation of the upcoming Criterion Collection Blu-ray restoration of the film.
Ben McDonald: Commonly hailed as one of the best films across the sound and silent eras alike, Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s The Passion of Joan of Arc was undoubtedly groundbreaking when it was released in 1928. And it remains so today. With very eccentric cinematography and editing, along with a breathtaking performance from the one-time movie star Maria Falconetti, there’s really nothing quite like it.
Interestingly enough, the original prints for the film were long thought to have been lost in a fire, until in 1981, an exceptionally well-preserved copy was discovered in a Norwegian insane asylum. This copy is now the standard for restored editions, including the upcoming Criterion re-release this month.
Matt Schlee: There was a cut that was used starting in 1951 put together by Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, but it is not generally well received and Dreyer himself took issue with Lo Duca’s cut. This version of the film can still commonly be found today but more as an artifact than a display of the film’s greatness.
Dreyer was one of the early filmmakers who bridged the silent and sound eras. The Passion of Joan of Arc was one of his last silent films, followed only by one of his other masterpieces, Vampyr.
Ben, tell me a bit about your background with Dreyer and especially with this specific film.
Ben: This is actually my first Dreyer film. I’ve known about The Passion of Joan of Arc for quite some time, but with its upcoming Criterion release, I decided to dive in headfirst and write a paper on it for my cinema history course this semester.
That proved to be a very insightful endeavor. Just watching it for the first time, I could tell something was ‘off’ about the way it presents itself, but researching about the film I learned quite a bit about the peculiarities of its production and filming.
What were your first reactions to seeing the movie?
Matt: Interesting. You should definitely dig into more of Dreyer’s work. Vampyr really flexes Dreyer’s muscles as a visual storyteller in a totally different way than The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The first time I saw the movie I remember being struck by how much it separates itself both from conventional modern storytelling and the typical language of silent cinema. Where filmmakers like Murnau prioritized minimizing the use of title cards, Dreyer embraced them and essentially constructed a dialogue driven silent film. It’s fascinating, in that respect, that the film works so well.
And even in respect to the screenplay, not much work needed to be done to conceive the story. Dreyer pulled the dialogue directly from actual transcripts of the trial which lends the film an authentic, almost documentary like feeling at times.
How did the story arc of the film affect you?
Ben: Agreed. I’m typically annoyed by intertitles and tend to drift towards silent directors that use them more sparingly, like Murnau as you said. But Dreyer uses them so effectively in this film. They’re only flashed on the screen for a brief moment, containing just a little piece of dialogue. To me, this method of using title cards is much more engaging and much less grating after an hour or so than say those in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
To answer your question, I actually found the story arc of the film fairly minimalist, almost non-existent. For those unfamiliar, The Passion of Joan of Arc follows its titular character, the French military leader and saint, through the last days of her life, as she is tried and eventually executed for heresy.
What’s odd about the story is how it presents itself. It’s almost completely unclear how much time goes by between the first moments and last. Like how the editing distorts its sense of location, the film’s narrative distorts its sense of time. The first half or so is devoted to an initial interrogation, which is then followed by a period of torture and more questioning, before finally culminating in Joan’s execution.
This isn’t to say the film’s narrative isn’t effective. Joan’s undergoing of both physical and psychological torture, forced apostasy, and finally a painful execution at the stake, is certainly emotionally engaging throughout.
This leads us to Maria Falconetti’s performance. How would you say this actress’s performance holds up to today’s standards, given the acting differences between the silent and sound eras?
Matt: Falconetti’s performance is one of the most powerful in the history of cinema. Her ability to carry the film through pure facial expression is something that few actors can pull off even if given the benefit of spoken dialogue. One thing that struck me on my most recent viewing is how convinced I was of her young age. Falconetti was 36 when she played the role of Joan, but Joan was a teenager (roughly 19) when she was executed. Yet I found myself constantly empathizing with Falconetti as a very young person.
The performance has inspired mass imitation and homage. Most recently I felt Falconetti being channeled through Jennifer Lawrence‘s performance in mother!. The religious subtext and the constant use of tight close up on Lawrence’s face recalled the framing of Falconnetti throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc. This sort of tribute shows the long term resonance of this performance. Nearly a hundred years later, modern film is still emulating the precise style of her on screen appearance.
What did you think of Falconetti’s performance?
Ben: It’s interesting that you brought up Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in mother!. I loathed that movie but thinking back on it, I can definitely see the allusion to this film.
I agree that Falconetti’s performance is one of the best in the history of cinema. After seeing the film twice, I’m amazed that she can consistently weep just a few tears at a time and have it look authentic. That’s a real talent, to not only be able to cry at will, but cry in a different number of ways.
It’s also amazing to me how she can convey so many distinct emotions on her face, all without the crutch of dialogue. Joan is tormented nearly every moment, but she doesn’t wear one suffering expression the whole time. Falconetti’s face can range from pained agony to elevated spirituality to panicked fear.
It’s especially those last two emotions that I think really sell her performance. Falconetti does this thing with her face, where she opens up her eyes as wide as possible, looks to the heavens, and says something profound that gives her character a sort of divine presence.
But then she’s able to dial it down and deliver a more humanistic, empathetic performance in other parts. In a couple scenes it almost seems like she’s hyperventilating out of extreme panic, knowing that her fate on Earth is grim. Supposedly there’s a rumor that Dreyer’s shooting conditions were incredibly grueling, and though Falconetti herself has denied it, that could very well explain how she was able to breathe such pained anguish into her role.
Matt: Indeed, a story like that certainly wouldn’t surprise me, given the authenticity with which Falconetti plays the role.
One other fascinating element of this film is the accompanying music. At the time The Passion of Joan of Arc was released, Dreyer recommended that the film be met with complete silence rather than a live score as was convention for silent films. It’s an interesting concept and you could see how it’d contribute to the quiet and somber nature of the film. Still, as a modern viewer it’s difficult to separate myself from convention to this extent.
My recent theatrical viewing of the new restoration of the film was accompanied by Richard Einhorn‘s Voices of Light score. It includes both an orchestra and a chorus which certainly lends itself to the film’s spiritual themes and underscores Joan’s suffering with an almost angelic accompaniment. It was a powerful way to view the film especially in a theatrical setting, and I can’t help but wonder how different scores, or Dreyer’s recommended no score at all, would impact my reading of the film.
What score did you view the film with?
Ben: I too watched the film with the Voices of Light score, and I actually didn’t care for it to be completely honest. It certainly complements the spirituality like you said, but I found it gave the film an almost melodramatic tone at times.
It might just be the setting. I have a feeling that the Einhorn score would definitely be far more effective in an actual theater versus my living room. I am definitely jealous that you have a nearby theater that allows you to experience silent cinema the way it was intended to be viewed.
I’m also more of a fan of anachronistic silent film scores. I think that, when chosen correctly to complement the mood and themes of a film, these music choices breathe a new life into works that are almost a century old.
Are you familiar with any of the other scores that the film has been set to? I too would be very interested in experiencing it with a different musical atmosphere or even none at all per Dreyer’s wish.
Matt: The first time I saw the film I viewed it with the Mie Yanashita piano score which was a more appropriate and muted score for a small screen setting. You’d probably like it as it offers more subtlety than the Voices of Light score which, I’d agree, is more suitable for a theatrical atmosphere.
The upcoming Criterion release includes both of these scores as well as one by Will Gregory and Adrian Utley which I’m not familiar with. The release looks to be quite impressive including, in addition to the scores, a commentary ported from the 1999 DVD release by Casper Tybjerg as well as Criterion’s usual array of interviews and essays. Of course it also includes the new restoration which was a spectacle on the big screen.
Ben: Interesting, I think I will definitely look into the Yanashita score for my next viewing. Agreed, the upcoming Criterion release is an impressive act of love towards this film, and certainly cinema in general as well.
I think what amazed me the most when I first saw The Passion of Joan of Arc, and even after a second viewing, was how alive it still feels today. Even though it’s 90 years old this year, the acting, the emotions, and the crisp manner of editing and dialogue really bring to life this incredible story.
As I’ve begun to branch out more into silent cinema, what I’ve found so interesting about this period is the willingness to try radically new cinematic approaches. With sound, most films have for better or worse taken a permanent step into realism. But in the silent era, all bets were off. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a prime subject of this type of rule breaking and experimentation, and it’s a masterpiece because of it.
Matt: I’d have to agree. The thing that amazes me most about The Passion of Joan of Arc is that it diverges so drastically from the usual style of great silent cinema. Rather than make use of grand set pieces and innovated visual trickery, it dwells in the emotions of its protagonist and therein dramatically altered the language with which cinema communicates with us. And in the way that it still speaks to the two of us and to many modern viewers, it displays its utter immortality.