A Review of Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

Re-watching Carl Dreyer’s silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), was the final piece of my self-taught Spring Film School that started in April with The Third Man and continued in May and June with M, Metropolis, The Big Heat, The 400 Blows, The Innocents, Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Citizen Kane and finally Dreyer’s film.  One of the most interesting facts about Dreyer’s film is that the “text” is taken verbatim from confirmed historical documents of Joan of Arc’s actual trial.  Catholics are meticulous record takers.  Fans of Dreyer should also note that the Criterion Collection will be issuing a new re-mastered edition of his other bona-fide classic, Vampyr (1932), sometime next month.

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CAPTION:  A silent picture speaks a thousand words.

Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”
      - Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Thoughts on My Craft”

Dreyer’s “Realized Mysticism”, 7 June 2008
10/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

*Note: This a review of the Criterion Edition DVD with the “Voices of Light” accompaniment.

Over the decades Dreyer’s film was a victim of religious and politic censors, two fires that destroyed valuable prints, unauthorized cuts, and zealous editors working against his wishes to modernize the film. An original, uncensored cut was found miraculously in a Norwegian hospital for the mentally ill (ironic?) in 1981 and fully restored for the Criterion Collection. Famed composer Richard Einhorn created his libretto, “Voices of Light”, in response to his own experiences viewing the film and researching the history of Joan of Arc. The film can be viewed with or without the accompaniment, though I can’t imagine Dreyer would’ve objected as Einhorn with great care honored the spirit of the film and arguably of Saint Joan with his compositions.

Carl Dreyer’s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a shocking example of the potential of film as art. No amount of scholarly critique can account for the raw power in viewing the film. It’s one of those rare experiences that can only be seen to be understood. Dreyer’s meticulously crafted aesthetics (the film is almost entirely composed of close-ups of the actors’ faces) are perfectly married to the gut wrenching performance of Maria Falconetti (a theater star who never acted in another film) in the lead role. I think Dreyer was most accurate in describing her performance as nothing short of “the martyr’s reincarnation.” One need not be religious to understand what is meant or to feel for Joan as portrayed so humanely and exquisitely by Falconetti. Her face is beyond the realm of haunting, and Dreyer seers it into the audience’s memory along with other stunning imagery like a window frame’s shadow turning into a cross on the floor, worms crawling through a skull unearthed from a freshly dug grave, or a bored executioner barely able to hold up his head in the company of his torture devices. And then there’s the burning at the stake and the brutal suppression of the peasant riot–unimaginable horrors rendered so beautifully and hyper realized onto a series of moving images projected onto a blank screen.

The genius of Dreyer’s visuals and Falconetti’s performance is that they create a deep psychological complexity that can engage a modern viewer on multiple levels. In their bold suggestions and through the artistic integrity of their respective crafts, Dreyer and Falconetti leave it to their audience (weather it be a French nation still celebrating and mythologizing their 15th century hero Joan a mere eight years after her canonization in 1920 or a more skeptical 21st scholar studying the history of film) to decide the veracity of Joan’s convictions. Was Joan truly a mystic, a martyr, a saint? Or was she simply mad and the unfortunate victim of the time period in which she lived and died? Either way, she is presented here as human. And in relating to her, one thing is for sure: the mysticism of film was realized by the Dane Carl Dreyer and Maria Falconetti in the year 1928 with The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019254/usercomments-119

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The following gives a good glimpse of the powerful imagery found in the film, and I found especially effective done to the theme from 28 Days Later.  This may seem like just the type of thing Dreyer would’ve frowned upon, but I feel this should be viewed as an extended independent trailer that honors the film rather than blasphemes it:

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3 comments on “A Review of Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

  1. striderdemme says:

    I’ve been wanting to watch The Passion of Joan of Arc for quite some time now. I recently attended a presentation about both Carl Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman.

    It’s a definite must see. –DHS

  2. Char says:

    I just watched the film (for a class), and it was truly amazing. The feelings and emotions on Maria Falconetti’s haunting face will leave its impression on me for a long time to come.

    This is a truly great work of art, and something that has trancended time and space- all without the use of spoken language. Wonderful.

    Char, well said! –DHS

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    “Carl Dreyer’s silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is a shocking example of the potential of film as art. No amount of scholarly critique can account for the raw power in viewing the film. It’s one of those rare experiences that can only be seen to be understood. Dreyer’s meticulously crafted aesthetics (the film is almost entirely composed of close-ups of the actors’ faces) are perfectly married to the gut wrenching performance of Maria Falconetti (a theater star who never acted in another film) in the lead role. I think Dreyer was most accurate in describing her performance as nothing short of “the martyr’s reincarnation.”

    This is really a brilliant extended statement here that for me captures the very essence of film and performance here. I have always promoted Falconetti’s performances as the greatest by a man or woman in the history of the cinema, and you are obviously on the same page here with this fantastically passionate appraisal of this titanic film and work of art. The opening quote there from Dreyer too about the suggestiveness of the human face is priceless.

    Thanks, Sam. I love, too, how Dreyer used a completely non-Christian/non-Catholic concept, that of reincarnation, to describe how Falconetti’s performance was so amazing not because she “became” Joan, but because she “was” Joan. Brilliant idea. –DHS

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