In a film sketched in stark, black and white imagery, with shades of gray providing some degree of soft release from the austerity of its fatal aura, there emerges from the harshness and brutality the face of one Maria Falconetti. Born Renée Jeanne, a renowned stage performer with only one prior film to her credit (1917’s La Comtesse de Somerive), Falconetti would forever exemplify the perception of global silent cinema thanks solely to her iconic turn in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Pure and unadorned, the young woman’s face is an expressive synthesis of bewilderment, terror and all-consuming devotion. Although she would never act in another film, the affecting impact of this single triumph solidified her legendary stature. It may be, at least according to Pauline Kael, “the finest performance ever recorded on film.”
Written by Joseph Delteil, whose script Dreyer basically abandoned in favor of a composite rendering based on the transcripts of Joan’s trial, published in 1921, The Passion of Joan of Arc was a hot commodity in France of the 1920s, or at least that was the case with its eponymous heroine and her dominant national saga. The Danish Dreyer had been invited by the Société Générale des Films to make a film about either Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette or Catherine de Medici. Recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church and installed as a patron saint of France, Joan seemed the more commercial choice. Although her life contained multitudes of dramatic potential, from her origins as a mere Orléans country maid to her decisive role in the French battle against the English during the Hundred Years War, Dreyer, through the course of his meticulous research, scaled back the central narrative of his prospective film. Following her capture in May 1430, Joan was brought to Normandy where she stood trial for heresy, withstanding a relentless interrogation at the hands of French clergymen with loyalties leaning to the English. Facing the threat of execution or at the very least life imprisonment, Joan suffered through 29 cross-examinations, which Dreyer condensed into one sweeping inquisition, before she was, ultimately, burnt at the stake in 1431.
For all his attention to historical fidelity, Dreyer also imbued in his Passion a more ethereal, distinctly transcendent presence. No less powerful nor compelling (quite the opposite in fact), this approach yielded a representation of Joan closer to her spiritual essence: “not the Joan in helmet and armor,” as an opening title card declares, “but simple and human.” Falconetti’s Joan, obviously a deeply religious individual, is armed only with the admirable courage of her convictions, intent on her salvation, motivated by her pride, defiance and her desperate quest for deliverance. An illiterate 19-year-old (she is unsure of her actual age), Joan is presented as a solitary figure, outnumbered and overwhelmed in every configuration; engaging with the examiners, their oppressive weight fills the frame, devouring the cutaways to Joan’s comparably meek demeanor and visually diluted disposition. Her emotions are vivid in The Passion of Joan of Arc , however, instantly realized and inevitably fulsome as the arsenal of theologians and lawyers lacerate her divine claims with their cutting derision. Spit on, humiliated and bled (to reduce a fever, they say), Joan is burdened by temptation, by reprieve, but her self-possessed faith prevails, enduring with an appreciable emotional thrust.
While so much of her comportment suggests internalized anguish, perhaps induced by the painstaking treatment at the hands of Dreyer, who is rumored to have worn down the actress, draining her of any perceptible fervor, Falconetti gives an underrated physical performance in The Passion of Joan of Arc . With her wide eyes glistening from a seemingly endless fountain of effusive tears, Falconetti’s Joan is the embodiment of pain and torment, her stilted movements and the slightest of her gestures a beguiling depiction of hesitation and assurance. Inducing slight sympathies from some, most of the ecclesiastical court relish in their scornful, mocking and careless disdain. Subjected to a series of underhanded contrivances, from political manipulation (a forged letter from French King Charles VII) to bodily intimidation (the dispiriting glimpse of a torture chamber’s horrors), Joan’s coveted state of grace comes at quite the cost.
The grilling is as much a matter of political intrigue as it is a battle between the sexes — Joan’s decision to dress like a man is a peculiar sticking point and there’s little doubt her treatment would vary considerably were she not an ostensibly frail, youthful female prisoner. Looking objectively at the topical material of The Passion of Joan of Arc , though, and of what actually transpired, the religious implications are less certain. The lack of faith on behalf of the inquisitors is, dare one say, even understandable. There’s no doubting Joan’s confidence, but there persists the blind bias inherent in religious appreciation. When she says he was sent by God to save France, and one man returns with, “Do you think God gates the English?” they raise a valid enough point. What of this prejudicial God? Does it imply the prayers of the Christian English are ignored? (Think of it as one opposing football team thanking God for their victory over another, insinuating a preferential deity.) Still, even in the face of such complicated pious probing, and even fronting such inane questions as “How do you tell a good angel from a bad angel?” or when one examiner wonders whether St. Michael was naked in her alleged visions, Joan’s judicial answers display an undeniably firm commitment. The power of her faith, no matter the objective logic or the influence of outside opposition, remains strong and true.
Working with production designers Hermann Warm and Jean Hugo (Warm was a frequent Dreyer collaborator and one of the graphic masterminds behind 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Dreyer set out to construct a massive set of the Rouen prison, infusing the construction with elements of medieval architecture and a surface façade that is both sparse and punctuated with subtle, strategic and significant detail. Conceived as an elaborate edifice with movable walls, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté (later to be a five-time Oscar nominee) expand the perceived limits of The Passion of Joan of Arc’s essentially singular location with smooth camera tracks along the interior, pushing in and retreating from aggressive, accusatory faces. But then the movement yields to pressurized close-ups, unrelenting and intense. Shooting from high, low and canted angles, the juxtaposition produces an exceptional visual variety rarely seen elsewhere in Dreyer’s filmography. What develops is a fascinating sense of discordant geography, further assembled from off-kilter windows, irregular surfaces, bodies overlapping within any given backdrop and incongruous eye-line matches. Dreyer thus achieves a sort of avant-garde intimacy, a setting that is at once fixed and isolated and yet appears boundless due to the jarring montage and the uncertain placement of specific characters. The compositions are precise and deceptively incidental, managed with a revelatory balance of light, movement and stasis, harmonized by a rigorous, masterful tempo (credit also editor Marguerite Beaugé).
The story of Joan of Arc has been familiar fodder for cinema, from a 1900 Georges Méliès release and Ingrid Bergman’s turn as Joan not once but twice (in Walter Wanger’s 1948 Joan of Arc and Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 Joan of Arc at the Stake) to Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan (1957), with Jean Seberg in the title role, and Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, from 1962; Dreyer’s film would itself be given a famous nod in the form of Anna Karina’s sorrowful viewing of the film in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 movie Vivre sa vie. Yet there remains no comparison to the formal, emotive brilliance of The Passion of Joan of Arc, nor to the sensitive potency of Falconetti herself. Exhibited throughout its existence with assorted musical accompaniment, the most famous of which is likely Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio “Voices of Light,” The Passion of Joan of Arc was met with initial censorship for its depiction of clergymen, especially coming from a non-Catholic director, and was banned in England due to its negative portrayal of English soldiers. Fortunately, such restriction didn’t last, and history has been kind to this phenomenal motion picture.
Today, what survives is a film of exquisite poise, of fleshly tenderness against concrete cruelty, an evocative warmth against the coldness of Joan’s formidable suffering. Notable images abound: Joan, alone in her cell, witnessing the shadow from a widow as it creates a cross on the floor (arguably the film’s lone example of heavy-handed, strained symbolism); an unearthed skull appearing in the dirt, a worm wiggling through its eye socket; Joan’s hair falling to the floor as her head is shaved; the spectacle surrounding her execution, a circus-like atmosphere, a cruel mockery of the occasion and a callous contrast to the spiritual severity of her martyrdom (Dreyer did take some historical liberty with the film’s riotous aftermath). More than anything, though, what indelibly reigns in The Passion of Joan of Arc is the visual echo of Maria Falconetti: the face of resignation, of searing agony, of unfathomable inner conflict and of unflappable faith.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, The Retro Set, The Moving Image and Diabolique Magazine. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.