The Passion of Joan of Arc
La passion de Jeanne d’Arc
Reviewed by George Fleeton © 2013
For the third year in a row, the Ulster Hall’s Mulholland Grand Organ, in the hands of Martin Baker, Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, underscored the screening of a classic European film from the 1920s.
These events had been initiated in February 2011 (several months after the organ had been renovated and recommissioned) with Murnau’s Nosferatu (Germany, 1922), which I had the privilege of introducing then.
Last year the film was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (USSR, 1925); this year it was Dreyer’s La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (France, 1928).
Maestro Baker was at pains to advise us that his accompaniment was to be largely improvised, that the spirits of both Bach and Messiaen would haunt the music, and that two central themes from the film – the Passion and the Eucharist – could be discerned, developing and culminating in an incredible crescendo right across the Mulholland’s four manuals.
When I first saw this film, in the Cinémathèque Française over 40 years ago, not long after Dreyer’s death, it had a soundtrack with selections of music by Albinoni, Bach and Vivaldi, against the late director’s express wishes that it be shown in silence.
The edition of the film which we saw in the Ulster Hall (March 12) was, I believe, Dreyer’s final cut (a print of which was discovered by accident in 1981), and this version therefore had the original Danish intertitles.
It was of course easy to perceive that the actors were speaking French.
Dreyer, a Dane, had shot the film in the old Billancourt Studios outside Paris, at the invitation of the Société Générale de Films, the production company which has just made Gance’s Napoléon there in 1927.
The visual impact of this silent film still resonates after 85 years, and much analysis, often repetitive, has been published in the years since.
The dramatic tension in the film comes about through the clash of two distinct elements: the authenticated documents of the real trial (here compressed into the final day of Joan’s very short life, 30 May, 1431) and the unremitting use of close-ups that are one justification of the use of ‘passion’ in the film’s title (although the original Danish title reads ‘Joan of Arc’s Suffering and Death’).
It is that structure, with its harsh grandeur and its breathtaking, cropped focus on the actress Falconetti which makes this film quite exceptional in the history of world cinema’s aspiration to be considered as high art.
Falconetti, as Jeanne d’Arc, 1928
Falconetti, in her only film, seen without make-up, her freckles visible, her eyelids quivering, presents a visage that is almost immobile, expressionless – a silent screen on to which we project our own thoughts and reactions.
Sometimes her face is framed at the edge of the image, as if she were trying to escape her ordeal.
Carl Theodor Dreyer, who died 45 years ago, was the doyen of Danish cinema (just as Ingmar Bergman was in Sweden).
Of all of Dreyer’s films there are just four others after Jeanne d’Arc that are really worthwhile seeking out, one per decade:
Vampyr 1932, Day of Wrath 1943, Ordet 1954 and Gertrud 1964 – a work-rate that would make Stanley Kubrick feel inadequate.
In these films, Dreyer’s uses his art and his intelligence to depict human passions, with luminous conviction, like no other major European or American director: his raison d’être being that the potency of the close-up evokes the inner life, the expressions that lie in the depths of the soul.
Taken to its logical conclusion, in Dreyer’s films the close-up therefore is no longer a means but an end.
And in that way the great Dane re-wrote film grammar and syntax, by foregrounding the Aristotelian unities of time, place and action.
That lateral thinking began with Jeanne d’Arc, which is what renders this film so important and the final years of the silent cinema so rich.
And it also serves to make both Nosferatu and Potemkin look so pedestrian by comparison.
‘The records (from 1431),’ Dreyer has said, ‘give a shattering impression of the ways in which the trial was a conspiracy of the judges against Jeanne (she was 19, and couldn’t read or write), bravely defending herself against clerics (Burgundians, who had sided with the English) who displayed a devilish cunning to trap her in their net.’
‘This conspiracy could be conveyed on the screen only through huge close-ups that exposed, through merciless realism, the callous cynicism of the judges hidden behind hypocritical compassion.’
‘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 God,’ concluded Dreyer.
And so the style of this film grew out of its themes and changed the face of film history.
Renée Jeanne Falconetti (1892-1946)
*The restored version of the film has been available for the first time, on DVD and Blu-ray in Britain and Ireland, since November 2012.
*The Ulster Hall is to be congratulated on its initiative in screening this film, and must be encouraged to continue bringing us such examples of great silent film art, underwritten by the Mulholland Grand Organ.