La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc or “The Passion of Joan of Arc” (1928) Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the greatest films ever made and is based on the surviving record of the trial of Joan of Arc (1412-1431) when she was captured by the English and burned at the stake during the 100 Years War. Her mythic life is highly celebrated worldwide and has become a legend that is integral to French national identity. The film details the final hours of Joan’s life and compresses the 29 sessions of Joan’s trial into a single day as she is examined by the judges, tormented and tortured by the guards, and publicly burned at the stake in Rouens.
In 1925, the French production company Societe Generale de Films invited the Danish director Dreyer to make a movie after experiencing recent successes. Ideas for themes included Marie Antoinette or the Medicis, but they settled on Joan of Arc who had been sainted only six years earlier. The pre-production for the film lasted over a year as Dreyer conducted exhaustive research on medieval life and hired Pierre Champion as a historical consultant because he had recently published an updated edition of the trial of Joan of Arc.
Renee (Maria) Falconetti was a popular actor on the French stage, but for the part of Joan, along with all other characters in the film, the actors were asked not to wear any makeup. This was made possible thanks to a new kind of film developed, panchromatic black and white film stock that broader light spectrum sensitivity. Dreyer was unusual in that he demanded complete silence on the set, an unusual demand for a silent film. He also often took many different takes of the same scene, sometimes as many as forty, he would playback the poor scenes with the actors until they found the perfect pose that he wanted. Falconetti pleaded that her head not be shaved at the end of the film, but Dreyer required absolute authenticity. As an actress she mainly performed in comedy shows before Dreyer found her, and she struggled with mental illness all her life. During the scene in which they bloodlet Joan’s arm, real blood from a real puncture wound was filmed, though it was a stand-in for Falconetti. The entirety of the film was shot in chronological order.
The production designers Hermann Warm (a designer of the sets for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) and Jean Hugo constructed a medieval village for the set, one of the most expensive sets in Europe. However not all of the massive set is visible in the movie as the cinematography is one of the most daring achievements of the silent era with rapid montages inspired by Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, intimate closeups and obscure camera angles that create a unique connection between the audience and Joan. In an Aristotelian way (see Poetics), the audience is brought down to Joan, the object of pity, and is always looking upwards at the magistrates and judges. There is a clear hierarchical recognition of the tragic hero and her villainous interlocutors, despite the disorienting spatial recognition the audience feels.
At the time of its release, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a commercial failure as it was marketed as an art film and the general public preferred more exciting talkies, rather than slow emotional silent films. Critics, however, lauded the film, particularly in the United States.
The film was thought to be lost after the original negative was destroyed in a fire at UFA Studios in Berlin in 1928 and a shattered Dreyer was forced to edit a second version using his many other shots for a second rate edition. However the following year, this nitrate version was lost in a fire, as well, and was thought to be totally lost until in 1951 a film historian recovered a copy of the second rate edition that had a baroque musical score dubbed over it. Miraculously, an original Danish print was discovered in 1981 in a janitor’s closet at a Norwegian mental institution.
As an actress, Falconetti lived a life of frivolity off-screen. She only ever acted in two films, The Passion of Joan of Arc being her last. She quickly fell into debt and eventually lived a distant life, increasingly involved in strange mysticism in Buenos Aires, and struggled to make a living after the death of her French benefactor. She died under mysterious circumstances that many sources claim was a suicide in 1946. She was 35 when playing the role of the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc.
While a difficult film to score, the best version is Richard Einhorn’s acclaimed 1994 Voices of Light whose bell sounds were recorded in the church of Domremy where Joan was born.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is an unceasingly towering film that is without equal. Falconetti delivers one of the greatest performances of all time and the highly experimental cinematography is shot and edited to perfection. The Passion of Joan of Arc is undoubtedly one of the greatest films ever made.