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Story of Film - September 2013
Remind Me
,The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc

Jeanne d'Arc (1412-1431), who was granted sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920, has become a mythic figure in world culture. In particular, her life and martyrdom are central to the French national idea: key elements of this myth include her humble peasant origins in Domremy; the "celestial voices" that inspired her to action; her controversial donning of men's clothes; her courageous military leadership resulting in victory against the English at Orleans in 1429 (the turning point in the Hundred Years' War); and finally her capture by the English, her trial for heresy and her execution at Rouens in 1431. She has since been made the subject of innumerable books, paintings, poems, plays and films. Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), one of the most celebrated of all silent films, focuses on the last period of her brief life. The narrative compresses the twenty-nine sessions of the trial into a single day, encompassing Jeanne's examination before the judges, the torments by the guards, her physical torture, her coercion into signing a confession that she later retracted, and finally her burning at the stake.

Thanks to the great success of Master of the House (1925) in France, the production company Societe Generale de Films invited Dreyer to make a film with them in 1926. Potential subjects included Marie Antoinette and Catherine de Medicis, but finally Dreyer and the Societe Generale settled on Jeanne d'Arc, who had been officially declared a saint only six years earlier. Some French nationalist critics complained that Dreyer, as a Dane, was not an appropriate choice for the project. Pierre Champion, who had published a 1921 edition of the trial transcripts, was asked to be a historical consultant. The preproduction period lasted about a year, during which time Dreyer conducted exhaustive research on the medieval era. Shooting lasted from May to November of 1927; the film was shot in chronological order. The initial budget was seven million francs and the final costs were approximately nine million, making it one of the most expensive French productions of its day.

Renee (Maria) Falconetti (1892-1946), the actress who plays Jeanne, was a popular star of the French stage, appearing in works like La Garconne by Victor Margueritte; incidentally, that play is credited with starting the fad for the Charleston in France. In an interview taken by Richard Einhorn and included on the Criterion Collection DVD edition, Falconetti's daughter relates that when Dreyer first approached her mother for the part, he stated that he 'could see behind the heavy makeup a suffering woman, and a rustic one, too.' As with the other actors in the film, Dreyer required her to perform without makeup, an artistic decision possible only due to the introduction of panchromatic black-and-white film stock a few years earlier; because of its sensitivity to a broader spectrum of light, panchromatic stock provided significantly improved rendering of flesh tones. Dreyer's directing method called for absolute silence on the set, which was unusual for silent films. He typically provided very little direction to his actors, leaving them to search within themselves for the best means of expression. At the same time, he was notorious for requiring multiple takes, sometimes as many as forty, until he found exactly what he wanted. Dreyer recalls: "With Falconetti, it often happened that, after having worked all afternoon, we hadn't succeeded in getting exactly what was required...And the next day, we would have the bad take from the day before projected, we would examine it, we would search and we always ended by finding, in that bad take, some little fragments, some little light that rendered the exact expression, the tonality we had been looking for. It is from there that we would set out again, taking the best and abandoning the remainder." Falconetti pleaded that her head not be shaved at the end of the film, but Dreyer was unwavering in his demand for 'authenticity.' While this was Falconetti's only major film role, it stands out thanks to its emotional intensity.

The film's production designers, Hermann Warm and Jean Hugo, consciously modeled the sets after medieval illuminated manuscripts, not only in terms of architectural details, but also in the simplicity of line and the naive treatment of perspective and scale. (Warm, one of Germany's leading set designers at that time, was best known for his use of distorted perspectives and painted shadows on the set for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920). Warm and Hugo's set was one of the most expensive created in Europe up to that time, a virtual city in miniature. The outer walls were solid enough to support lighting equipment and camera crews. Some of the interior walls were mounted on tracks to facilitate moving them for camera setups. However, because of the film's heavy reliance on close-ups not all of the set is even visible in the film.

Stylistically, The Passion of Joan of Arc is among the most daring works of the silent era. It is of course best known for its harrowing close-ups, but it is also noteworthy for its exaggerated camera angles, off-centered framings and unusually rapid editing. There are about 1,300 total shots in the film not counting the intertitles, a much higher count than average for that era, partly inspired by Eisenstein's use of montage in The Battleship Potemkin (1925). As David Bordwell points out, one of the film's more remarkable features is its disorienting sense of space as constructed through shot composition, editing and camera movement. Without necessarily sharing Jeanne's point of view, we get a feeling for the emotional stress under which she was placed.

According to film scholar Casper Tybjerg, Dreyer in fact intended the film for a wide audience and it was well-received at a free public advance screening. However, the film ended up being marketed mainly as an 'art film' and was not a commercial success in its initial release. Undoubtedly, matters weren't helped by the fact that sound films had already begun to take the world by storm by the time the film was released and silent films were losing their audience.

The film did, however, receive much critical acclaim. During its initial U.S. release, the film received a fair amount of coverage in the New York Times from the end of 1928 through the first half of 1929. Mordaunt Hall praised the film warmly, writing: "It is a production of unequaled artistry, for its technique, so different from other films, grows on one until thoughts are only for the story." Hall also wrote a subsequent article devoted solely to Falconetti's performance: "She, it is true, has been guided with veritable genius by Mr. Dreyer, but as one witnesses her eyes filling with tears or perceives a faint graceful smile crossing her appealing countenance, one feels that it would be difficult indeed to elicit from any other actress such an eloquent interpretation as she gives in this production." Pauline Kael later wrote: "One of the greatest of all movies....No other film has so subtly linked eroticism with religious persecution. Falconetti's Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film."

Almost as dramatic as the film itself is the history behind its destruction and resurrection from the ashes. In 1928, a fire at the UFA studio labs in Berlin burned the original negative. A shattered Dreyer was forced to edit an entirely new version of the film using outtakes; fortunately, his notoriously demanding working methods ensured that multiple takes existed for each shot. While this was necessarily a "second-best" version, it was nonetheless extremely close to the original. To compound matters, this second negative was long believed destroyed in a 1929 fire (the nitrate film stock used during that time was highly flammable). However, in 1951 the film historian Lo Duca discovered a surviving negative, presumably of the second version. This added a soundtrack of Baroque music, intertitles decorated with images of stained glass and church pews, and cut off the left edge of the image to accommodate the soundtrack. A less adulterated version was circulated by the Museum of Modern Art. Miraculously, in 1981 a Danish print was discovered in the janitor's closet of a Norwegian mental institution. Not only was it of the original version, but it was uncut and in good condition. The 1985 Cinematheque Francaise restoration, the version broadcast on TCM, uses this print with reconstructed French intertitles.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is undoubtedly one of the most difficult silent films to score effectively; one could even argue that it is, atypically for silent films, best viewed without music. There is always a danger that the prospective composer or arranger will fall back on cliched notions of "spirituality" without somehow confronting the film's radically experimental style. The searing close-ups, off-centered framings and disjunctive editing are, after all, an important source of the film's emotional power. The 1951 version distributed by Lo Duca, for instance, appropriates music by Bach, Vivaldi and Albinoni in an attempt to impose a comforting sense of piety on the proceedings.

The version broadcast on TCM is accompanied by Richard Einhorn's acclaimed 1994 oratorio Voices of Light, which has often been performed in conjunction with the film in recent years, though it is also designed to be performed independently. The voice of Jeanne is sung by Anonymous 4, a leading female vocal quartet specializing in medieval music; texts quoted in the oratorio include writings by the famed medieval feminist writer Christine de Pizan and male 'misogynist' writers from roughly the same era. The bell sounds were recorded at the church in Domremy, Jeanne's birthplace.

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Script: Carl Th. Dreyer and Joseph Delteil
Photography: Rudolph Mate
Art Direction: Hermann Warm, Jean Hugo
Principal cast: Renee (Maria) Falconetti (Jeanne d'Arc); Eugene Silvain (Pierre Cauchon); Maurice Schutz (Nicholas Loyseleur); Antonin Artaud (Massieu); Andre Berley (Jean d'Estivet); Jean d'Yd (Guillaume Evrand).

by James Steffen



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