• Realized Mysticism in The Passion of Joan of Arc

    By Carl Theodor Dreyer

    The virgin of Orleans and those matters that surrounded her death began to interest me when the shepherd girl’s canonization in 1920* once again drew the attention of the public-at-large to the events and actions involving her—and not only in France. In addition to Bernard Shaw’s ironical play, Anatole France’s learned thesis aroused great interest, too. The more familiar I became with the historical material, the more anxious I became to attempt to re-create the most important periods of the virgin’s life in the form of a film.

    Even beforehand, I was aware that this project made specific demands. Handling the theme on the level of a costume film would probably have permitted a portrayal of the cultural epoch of the fifteenth century, but would have merely resulted in a comparison with other epochs. What counted was getting the spectator absorbed in the past; the means were multifarious and new.

    A thorough study of the documents from the rehabilitation process was necessary; I did not study the clothes of the time, and things like that. The year of the event seemed as inessential to me as its distance from the present. I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life. What streams out to the possibly moved spectator in strange close-ups is not accidentally chosen. All these pictures express the character of the person they show and the spirit of that time. In order to give the truth, I dispensed with “beautification.” My actors were not allowed to touch makeup and powder puffs. I also broke with the traditions of constructing a set. Right from the beginning of shooting, I let the scene architects build all the sets and make all the other preparations, and from the first to the last scene everything was shot in the right order. Rudolf Maté, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism.

    But in Falconetti, who plays Joan, I found what I might, with very bold expression, allow myself to call “the martyr’s reincarnation.”

    Reprinted by permission of the Danish Film Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark

5 comments

  • By T.C. Cleland
    March 18, 2009
    07:59 PM

    Having just seen this film for the first time, I was struck by the lack of overly ornate sets and costumes. Renee Falconetti's performance was one of the finest I have seen, very possibly the best. The amount of subtlety and nuance that was brought to the performance without the advantage of sound was incredible. In her, I can see why Dreyer thought he had found the reincarnation of Jeanne d'Arc, she exudes the image in my head of what I had always imagined she looked like. Not as a warrior clad in armor, but as a fearful christian, not quite knowing what she should do, and then having the intervening hand of God to guide her to the correct decision. Whether you believe in the religious stories of the virgin of Orleans or not, whether christian or atheist, this is a beautifully real telling of this story, the best I have seen. I already consider it the best silent film I have ever seen, and possibly the best all-time, and I am not a religious person. Thank you Criterion for a beautiful transfer as well.
    Reply
  • By A. DiStefano
    February 20, 2010
    08:06 PM

    I've watched the film twice recently, & am preparing for a group discussion of it in a few days. Trying to describe the film to those who have yet to see it is difficult. What to say? "It's about the trial & death of Joan of Arc. It's a silent film, with a haunting opera/oratorio." This won't do, as the film, especially the scenes of the burning, are stunning in a way that defies description. "You just have to see it" has never been truer than with this film. As I watch it, I keep thinking of everybody who I have to get to watch it, as well. This is for me a sign of its greatness; the experience must be shared. Thank you, Criterion. Now, how about a 2-disc edition with all the goodies?
    Reply
  • By Annika
    May 23, 2011
    07:37 AM

    When was this article actually published? I would like to cite it, but there is not enough information here to do so or to find it elsewhere
    Reply
  • By Anna T.
    May 23, 2011
    11:46 AM

    Hi Annika, It was originally published as a statement from Dreyer at the time of the film's release (1928).
    Reply
  • By Barry Moore
    March 04, 2014
    08:27 PM

    There is an interesting anecdote of Dreyer, after an emotionally fraught scene for Falconetti had concluded, approaching the actress, then touching her tears and kissing them. It's remarkable that Falconetti was primarily known, as a stage actress, for popular, comedic roles, and that this proved to be her only foray in cinematic performance. In spite of the excellence of Dreyer's masterwork and Falconetti's performance in it, I have wondered how accurately they convey the historical Joan's personality. Joan's documented statements before her inquisitors suggest an overriding defiance that is only intermittently expressed in Dreyer's film.
    Reply

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