Widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 historical masterpiece chronicles the anguish of a mythical figure – Joan of Arc. Although many French nationalists believed that the Danish filmmaker was not an appropriate choice to handle the cinematic treatment of one of their country’s legendary icons, Dreyer’s film has inspired awe in multiple generations of audiences for almost a century now.
Brilliantly portrayed by Renée Jeanne Falconetti, the most striking feature of The Passion of Joan of Arc is the actress’ expression of suffering through visual manifestations. Falconetti’s performance has now been immortalised in the history books but she admitted that she never really understood why she was being praised for her work. The filmmaker discovered Falconetti in an amateur theatre while she was acting in a comedy production but Dreyer was already envisioning her potential: “[I] felt there was something in her which could be brought out; something she could give, something, therefore, I could take. For behind the make-up, behind the pose and that ravishing modern appearance, there was something. There was a soul behind that facade…[I] found in her face exactly what I wanted for Joan: a country girl, very sincere, but also a woman of suffering.”
Dreyer asked Falconetti to do the screen tests without make-up and the result was mesmerising. Using specialised lighting designs, the skilled director managed to extract a form of humanism in the characters that was raw and powerful. Combining close-ups with low-angle shots of the people who were terrorising Joan, Dreyer successfully translated the aesthetic qualities of the grotesque to the cinematic medium.
“There were questions, there were answers – very short, very crisp… Each question, each answer, quite naturally called for a close-up… In addition, the result of the close-ups was that the spectator was as shocked as Joan was, receiving the questions, tortured by them,” Dreyer explained later. Over the years, the legend of The Passion of Joan of Arc has grown and evolved with countless palimpsestic additions but the veracity of those claims remain dubious.
Many scholars, including Roger Ebert, have claimed that Dreyer ran a sadistic regime while making the film. He substantiated his assertion by giving a particularly disturbing example about how the filmmaker forced Falconetti to kneel on stone and make her face devoid of emotion so that the audience could get a better understanding of what suppressed pain is supposed to look like. In the tradition of a perfectionist, Dreyer also reportedly filmed the same shots repeatedly until he got the right facial expression on camera.
However, these stories surrounding the production were dismissed by Dreyer’s biographers who quoted the people present during the filming process: “Dreyer and Falconetti would watch the rushes of a single scene together, seven or eight times, until Dreyer could pick out a little bit, maybe a few feet, where the effect was what they wanted, and when they reshot the scene, she could play it without the least inhibition. Just those few feet of film had inspired her.” According to them, these conversations with Dreyer enabled the actress to play some of the scenes without the need for any rehearsal.
Due to censorship from the government and pressure from the Archbishop of Paris, Dreyer was forced to make significant alterations to the final cut of the film which compromised the totality of his artistic vision. A fire obliterated the master negative of the film, forcing subsequent viewers to watch re-edited versions of the masterpiece until 1981. That year, a mental institution employee in Oslo discovered several canisters labelled with the film’s name. After three years, it was finally determined that this was actually Dreyer’s original cut before the government forced him to make any changes.
The Passion of Joan of Arc holds a unique place for most modern viewers. We are used to the communication of emotions and ideas through dialogue but cinema is fundamentally a visual medium and Dreyer utilises its potential to the fullest extent. Through the simple reconstruction of the final days of Joan of Arc in captivity until her execution, he creates a masterful meditation that does not require any words for its unsettling commentary on the tragedy of the human condition.