It’s all in the face, or so they say.
The quivering mouth bound by a moist upper lip. The gaunt cheeks, whose almost perfect symmetry is broken by the frequent tear running down one or the other. The delicate crown of hair, in what we now call a pixie cut. And of course, the eyes. Those unforgettable eyes. Milky white ovals encapsulating silvery grey orbs. Twin pools beneath the wide and trembling brow, struggling under heavy lids. Staring, pleading, at not just her accusers but the audience itself, for patience and understanding, as she tries to make her case.
The face is that of Renee Maria Falconetti, as the title character in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. As nearly every other article on the film has pointed out, Pauline Kael hailed it as the greatest screen performance of all time and at the very least, it’s one of the most intense put on film. Even when a fly alights on her face (twice!) she remains defiantly in character, as stoic as the woman she plays. It’s tempting to call Falconetti the true auteur of the film, given that her performance is what for many both defines it and is the essence of its greatness. But the film is much more than just a memorable face or rather faces, as the ugly, cruelly glaring visages of Joan’s accusers (what a stunning contrast they are to Falconetti!) are no less striking. Much of the impact of Falconetti’s performance comes from Dreyer’s decision to shoot almost exclusively in close-ups or medium shots, as well as the rapid-fire editing which surprises many first-time viewers. Nearly a century later, it still remains one of the most riveting and thoughtful of cinematic experiences.
A test I have for cinematic greatness is: how many different ways can this film be read? The Passion of Joan of Arc joins that short list of genuine masterpieces that includes Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Seventh Seal in its ability to provoke such readings across a wide field of viewpoints. Everyone from progressive feminists to traditionalist Christians have made valid interpretations of the film, and it continues to invite new takes to this day. What’s remarkable about this wide diversity of perspectives is that unlike those other three films, Dreyer’s film tells a simple story in a very straightforward fashion. Yet so powerful is Dreyer’s direction, that the viewer is not only completely drawn in but is immediately set to thinking about what it all means. What is this film saying about the nature of faith and martyrdom? What does it say about how women and other marginalized individuals have been treated throughout history? Is the director honoring Joan’s unwavering commitment to her beliefs or is he as contemptuous of them as he is of her inquisitors?
One of the most unusual stories behind the film is that it was originally intended as a sound film; had Dreyer gone forward with these plans, it would have been France’s first talkie, preceding the same year’s Nile Water by six months. For various reasons the plan was abandoned, and it wound up being one of the last great silent films, coming out the same year as such other classics as The Crowd, The Wind, The Circus, The Wedding March, The Man Who Laughs and Steamboat Bill, Jr. The coming of sound had a devastating effect on the movie industry worldwide; the last two great silent films, G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, were also the only truly great films released in 1929 and the industry remained stuck in the doldrums for at least another year as it learned to cope with the new technology.
David A. Cook in his textbook A History of Narrative Film has argued that The Passion of Joan of Arc is a flawed masterpiece due to the presence of dialogue intertitles breaking up the action and that it would have worked better as a sound film. I must disagree with this position; sound and spoken dialogue would only diminish the film’s power. Each and every word spoken has an audible force, precisely because the viewer’s mind fills in the necessary gaps and is able to “hear” them loudly and clearly. Dreyer described the transcripts of the actual Joan of Arc’s trials as reading like “blows in a sword fight,” and that’s exactly how they feel to the viewer as well.
It’s also unlikely the film would have been improved stylistically, given the limitations of the sound film at the time. If anything, it would have appeared more static, as the audience’s attention would have been diverted from the actors onscreen to the words they said, and it might even have been indistinguishable from the other filmed stage plays that cluttered the early talkies. Dreyer would have also been unable to accomplish such remarkable camerawork as the tracking shot that opens the film if he had committed himself to the use of synchronous sound. In any case, when Dreyer did make the transition to sound with the horror classic Vampyr (1932), he made what was still at heart a silent film, with as little dialogue as possible and telling its story mainly through haunting imagery.
The brilliant cinematography is by Rudolph Maté, then at the beginning of a most unusual career. Dreyer and Maté along with set designer Hermann Warm took inspiration from watercolor paintings of the period in developing the minimalist look of the film, with the main characters and a few foreground props strategically arranged against mostly stark white backgrounds. Additionally, Dreyer and Maté made use of newly-invented panchromatic film stock, which with proper lighting picked up every last detail on the actors’ bare faces. Fine details ranging from the freckles on Falconetti’s face to individual threads on the actors’ clothing were picked up by this film stock. This helped achieve the goal of stylized realism Dreyer was aiming for; that seems like a contradiction in terms until you actually watch the film itself.
Although early panchromatic film had a low depth of field (the range at which it can remain in focus), Dreyer and Maté turned this limitation to their advantage by relying primarily on close-ups and medium shots and using blank background surfaces, so that audience attention remained completely on the actors. This narrow depth of field also had the strange quality of making a face or object in close-up seem detached from its background, but this also proved to be a blessing in disguise. Dreyer had taken note how in the aforementioned watercolors the perspective was skewed so that people in the paintings seemed much larger than the buildings, and wanted a similar effect in his film. This was achieved by filming actors at certain angles that would make them seem even larger than they were in actuality, an effect enhanced by the aforementioned background detachment.
Maté subsequently provided equally remarkable visuals for Vampyr, but after filming Fritz Lang’s Liliom (1934) joined numerous colleagues who had already fled to the United States, and began a long career at the studios. His use of deep focus and mobile long takes in William Wyler’s Dodsworth is especially notable, and other studio classics shot by Maté include To Be or Not to Be and Pride of the Yankees. In a supreme irony, the same cinematographer who deglamorized Falconetti and the rest of the cast of The Passion of Joan of Arc closed this stage of his career photographing most of Rita Hayworth’s films, helping to generate the enduring Hollywood illusion of flawless beauty. After the war Maté became a director in his own right, although only the noir classic D.O.A. and science fiction spectacular When Worlds Collide are truly notable in this respect.
Maté ended his career directing for television, which is quite appropriate considering that’s just one medium where The Passion of Joan of Arc has had a lasting influence. Generations of film students have watched and studied it, and for those just starting out, it’s a master class on how to make a riveting movie with a bare minimum of set-ups. Because so much of it is in close-up, it’s also one of the few theatrical films not to lose any of its power when viewed on a small screen. Not only should every aspiring director study Dreyer’s film, but they should compare it carefully to contemporary shows to see how deeply its influence runs through them, and not just in courtroom dramas.
Despite being for many years available only in truncated prints that were disowned by the director, the movie would have a massive impact on world cinema in the ensuing years to come. Ingmar Bergman, of course, would tread the same ground many times, focusing on emotional conflict resulting from spiritual struggle. Stylistically, the film’s influence on Bergman can be seen in his trademark use of tight close-ups lingering on his actors and actresses, as the camera contemplates their inner tumult. The spiritual descendants of Renee Falconetti in Bergman’s cinema are not just the women played by Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson but the men played by Max Von Sydow as well.
In France, the legacy of Dreyer is especially evident in the work of both Robert Bresson and Eric Rohmer, two great directors who shared Dreyer’s unusual blend of liberal humanism and social conservatism. Although Bresson (who directed his own version of the Joan of Arc story in 1962) is usually invoked in conjunction with Dreyer’s name, I personally see a much greater stylistic and thematic influence in Rohmer (who even directed a documentary on the Danish director for French TV), especially in his contes moraux of the Sixties. My Night at Maud’s, with its austere black-and-white photography, much of it in close-up, and long discussions on Catholicism, can even be seen as the lighter side of Joan of Arc, if such a thing is even possible.
For directors in Eastern Europe both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Dreyer’s Occupation allegory Day of Wrath (1943) must have held a special resonance, particularly in predominantly Catholic Poland. One of my own favorite directors, Krzysztof Zanussi, has in turn cited Dreyer as a key inspiration. The main difference between them is that while Dreyer made movies about historical crises of faith, Zanussi, a scientist by training, makes movies about modern-day crises of reason. The spectre of Joan of Arc also hangs heavy over Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog and Three Colours film series, the latter also providing a unique expatriate perspective on French culture and tradition, as seen principally through the eyes of their leading women.
The rediscovery of a complete negative of Dreyer’s original cut in the early Eighties helped to revive interest in both the film and its director, and as has been the case with many other silent classics, produced a succession of new original scores for the film by modern composers. In 2015, my own hometown theater screened the film accompanied by a live performance of Richard Einhorn’s Passion-inspired cantata Voices of Light by the Windsor Symphony Orchestra. Although the Criterion version of The Passion of Joan of Arc includes Einhorn’s score as an alternate track, don’t pass up the opportunity to catch a theatrical screening of the film either, especially if it also features a live musical performance. After ninety-five years, Dreyer’s film remains as much an epiphany for the first-time viewer as that experienced by the real-life Joan of Arc herself.