Carl Dreyer's last silent film is one of the most famous films in the history of cinema. It is seldom missing on "World's Ten Best Films" lists. Few films have been studied and analyzed as thoroughly in articles and books, and one sometimes feels that the real film is buried in the theory and aesthetics. But, a true classical work of art, La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc)
From the time he started his script in October 1926 until the film was finished, Dreyer worked on it for a year and a half. The historical trial of Jeanne lasted for more than a year. Dreyer concentrated the actual 29 interrogations into one long interrogation, and in the film it takes place on 30 May 1431, the last day of Jeanne's short life; Dreyer thus keeps to the unities of time, place and story.
The style of the film, which has been called a film in close-ups, is derived directly from his sources and evokes the protocol of the trial. When the film was released, the close-up technique was regarded as shocking. Dreyer defended his method by stating: "The records give a shattering impression on the ways in which the trial was a conspiracy of the judges against the solitary Jeanne, bravely defending herself against men who displayed a devilish cunning to trap her in their net. This conspiracy could be conveyed on the screen only through the huge close-ups, that exposed, with merciless realism, the callous cynicism of the judges hidden behind hypocritical compassion – and on the other hand there had to be equally huge close-ups of Jeanne, whose pure features would reveal that she alone found strength in her faith in God." As in all of Dreyer's major films the style grew out of the theme of the film. In La passion de Jeanne d'Arc Dreyer wanted "to move the audience so that they would themselves feel the suffering that Jeanne endured." It was by using close-up that Dreyer could "lead the audience all the way into the hearts and guts of Jeanne and the judges."
The close-up technique is the core of the film, because it lifts the drama above a given place and a given time. It is a satisfactory way of abstracting from an historically defined reality without abandoning a respect for authenticity and realism. But this striving for timelessness is reflected in all the components of the film. And there is more to the film than close-ups. Dreyer uses medium close-ups, tilts, pans, travelling shots and intricate editing. Cross-cutting is used to great effect, especially in the last part of the film, and the hectic rhythm and swiftly changing shots towards the end of the film are as masterfully controlled as the close-ups. The visual language is very complex and not in the least monotonous. The sets and the costumes were consciously created in a way that furthered the balance between the historical and the modern. The lighting, the overall whiteness of the images, contributes to the film's emphasis on the simple and the lucid.
Dramatically, La passion de Jeanne d'Arc is composed as one long scene. This is Jeanne's last struggle, and the battle is for her life and her soul. The film is dramatically and psychologically intensified in two scenes. The first when Jeanne breaks down mentally and, to save her life, signs a confession as a heretic. The second is the scene in which she regrets what she has done and withdraws the confession. She knows then that her death is certain, but she saves her soul, and she triumphs in her faith.
La passion de Jeanne d'Arc is an intense description of the suffering of an individual, the drama of a soul transformed into images. It is a "cool" look, and Dreyer called his method "realized mysticism." With his sober objectivity Dreyer succeeded in making the difficult understandable and the irrational clear. The film is about the necessity of suffering for the liberation of the individual human being. As do all of Dreyer's heroines, Jeanne suffers defeat, but for Dreyer defeat or victory in this world is of no importance. The essential thing is the soul's victory over life. Dreyer's view of the historical facts is, of course, not a balanced one. Jeanne is the heroine, and Dreyer is on her side in a struggle against a cruel, official world.
In Dreyer's oeuvre La passion de Jeanne d'Arc brings together all the resources of the cinema at that time, and is the most pure and perfect expression of his art. Of none of his films is his own statement more fitting: "The soul is revealed in the style, which is the artist's expression on the way he regards his material."
The film was well received when it was released, but it was not a commercial success. Since then the film's reputation has grown, and for many years it has been continuously shown in film archives and film clubs all over the world. The original negative of La passion de Jeanne d'Arc was destroyed in a fire in 1928 at UFA in Berlin. Film archeologists are still working on a restoration of the film, which has survived in many slightly differing versions – but even a definitive version should not drastically change our impression of this masterpiece.
Essay by Ib Monty
Release Date: 1928
Starring: Maria Falconetti, Eugéne Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon, Jean d'Yd, Ravet, André Lurville, Jacques Arma, Alexandre Mihalesco, R. Narlay, Henri Gaultier, and Paul Jorge
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writers: Carl Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Delteil
Source Citation: Monty, Ib. "La Passion de Jeanne D'Arc." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 921-924.