With “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” Carl Theodor Dreyer Writes History With Fire


Joan, the Maid of Orléans, a/k/a “La Pucelle,” was canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, meaning that her admission to sainthood still more or less qualified as breaking news when Carl Theodor Dreyer went into production on what would become the definitive cinematic representation of her trial, her execution, and, what’s more, her piety. By the lights of Joan’s convictions, her unassailable faith both in God and in France’s right to expel the English were an inseparable duality. Dreyer was already one of the best movie directors in the world by the time he began production on The Passion of Joan of Arc, but in its aftermath, he became something else, something greater. Words indeed run aground when trying to assess the enormity and sophistication of this 1928 film. Dreyer’s subsequent work during the sound era — about one feature per decade until his death in 1968 — indicate preoccupations with a group of themes (spirituality, the body, faith, memory) for which The Passion of Joan of Arc, the subject of a new 4K restoration being released by Janus Films, helped to render the blueprints.

There have been great Joan of Arc films and lousy ones. One of the earliest was by Georges Méliès, the man who pioneered trick films and cinematic special effects and who tended to produce jaunty fantasies and surreal comedies running less than two minutes in length. Méliès’s Joan of Arc (1900), with elaborate, hand-painted frames and no expense spared on costumed pageantry, ran a comparatively epic nineteen minutes. Ingrid Bergman played Joan twice, first at RKO (Walter Wanger’s 1948 Joan of Arc), and once more, six years after that, for her then-husband, Italian maestro Roberto Rossellini (Joan of Arc at the Stake). Otto Preminger’s 1957 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan, starring overwhelmed novice Jean Seberg as the Maid of Orléans, is an honorable failure. One passes by Luc Besson’s 1999 version (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc) without comment, but at least two French masters excelled: Jacques Rivette with his 1994 epic, Joan the Maid, clocking in at nearly six hours (all of them glorious), and Robert Bresson, whose characteristically underdemonstrative deliberation on the trial and execution (The Trial of Joan of Arc, from 1962) runs a spry 65 minutes.

Following The Passion of Joan of Arc, each subsequent movie Dreyer made seemed to advance toward a nirvana of material calm. Gertrud (1964), his swan song, is a memory melodrama told through characters who recline on unblemished sofas in immaculate parlors. Yet each of these later films was also, on an inverse trajectory, more conceptually radical than the last. Much of The Passion of Joan of Arc’s reputation as one of the highest masterpieces of the cinema rests on a possibly misremembered purity and placidity of a manner more accurately resembling that of Ordet (1955) or Gertrud. We’re correct to regard the 1928 film highly not only for its litany of indelible close-ups but also for the unvarnished truth-telling qualities in those intimate images, the way Rudolph Maté’s lighting makes a sandpaper moonscape of Maria Falconetti’s face as well as those of the actors playing Joan’s deceitful, smirking inquisitors. But The Passion of Joan of Arc also happens to be a war film, made in the shadows of the eschatological near-miss of the First World War.

Its reliance on the original court transcripts, proclaimed at its start (and a method revisited by Bresson’s version), suggests a miraculous, cameraless cinema, naked before the audience, enticing one to surrender tearfully and absolutely, as Nana (Anna Karina) did when she saw Dreyer’s film in Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962). And you might do as much. But this is not a case of Dreyer’s intermediary hand concealed, endeavoring to invent a precursor to Direct Cinema. Dreyer films and edits the trial and execution within an elaborate nest of expressionist devices, canted angles, fish-eye lenses, and a host of other mechanical/visual distortions.

More recent to The Passion of Joan of Arc’s release than Joan’s 1920 canonization was a mid-decade wave of experimental cinema, chief among which was Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphy’s Ballet Mécanique (1924). Léger famously proclaimed that his radicalization as an artist pivoted on glimpsing a 75mm antipersonnel machine gun illuminated by sunlight. Artists like Léger (along with the surrealists, the Russian montage theorists, and so on) made it explicit that the cinema compresses itself into the crawl space between dreams and machines, and that it is inextricable from mass production and mass killing.

One should find that The Passion of Joan of Arc boils in this pot. With almost every camera mounted on tracks, topsy-turvy pans that glide like guillotine blades, and a montage accelerated by a spinning torture wheel, Dreyer’s arsenal of visual abstractions (which he would gradually cast aside over subsequent decades) in large part places The Passion of Joan of Arc on a continuum with Léger and Murphy’s landmark film, with Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant (1926), and with the early masterpieces by Jean Epstein and Sergei Eisenstein. The Passion of Joan of Arc is, finally, a storm, an ordeal that relentlessly tests a martyr’s devotion. Her trial and execution leads without obstruction or diversion to a violent insurgency in the public square, which itself rhymes succinctly with the conflagration that destroys Joan’s body and releases her to grace. No sooner have the flames reached their peak than armaments are handed down from parapets to crush the rioters. This is neither a hopeful nor a hopeless film, but one of feeling so colossal and resplendent, it can’t be constrained by prison or consumed by fire. If we can dare to extract one message from it, perhaps it should be: Believe women.

The Passion of Joan of Arc
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Janus Films
Opens November 24, Film Forum