Trapped with the Grotesque and the Sublime

By Sara Croft

La passion de Jeanne d’Arc is a film that reminds the audience of the power of faith and human suffering. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, this 1928 silent masterpiece has been hailed as one of the greatest performances of film art. The creator of classics, including Vampyr, Dreyer was given a budget of nine million francs for his exploration of the trial of Joan of Arc.

Dreyer studied the original transcripts of the interrogation and the work of Joseph Delteil, and created a vision of the trial that is claustrophobic. The interrogations which originally spanned part of the 1430-1431 year are compressed into a single series of moments. Dreyer researched the costuming and the trial thoroughly and did what he could to replicate their essential natures. We see the trial through to her death, and we are given a glimpse of the horror of an inquisition.

Joan of Arc is played by the phenomenal Renee Maria Falconetti in her only film role. She was thirty-five when she played the role of the nineteen year old mystic. It is her face that shares the experience of being alone amidst the wolfish priests, that tells us of the numinous experience of Joan as a mystic, and that lets us live through the torment of the trial. We are introduced to Joan without any indication of her history or her crime, only the stark knowledge of her lonely position amidst the priests. The fullness of the drama is squarely based on the acting by Mademoiselle Falconetti and she does not disappoint the audience.

The main antagonist, Pierre Cauchon, is played by Eugene Silvain. Unlike Joan, he is not alone but surrounded by an army of his fellow clergy. They are filmed from below in a harsh light, so that they loom with every flaw and darkness of their faces filling the scene. Their expressions tell us the story as much as the sparse French intertitles. From the leering inquiry when they are challenging Joan for dressing as a man to the false sympathy given to her when she has fainted from the threat of torture, there is never a doubt that it is Cauchon and his men who are in power. The overpowering numbers and strength of the men and their acting sets up a dynamic which feels surreal and leaves the audience imprisoned with a future saint.
It is the interplay of the priests and their victim that forms the tension of the story. The cuts between scenes do not give any real indication of how the thespians are positioned in relation to each other, beyond a vague indication that the priests are above Joan. Most of the film is in a succession of close-ups that force the viewer to face the misery or triumph or visionary impulse of the characters. The result is that the tension spills out into the audience. There is no relief from the angst, no romantic interlude, and no escape. The audience is trapped as surely as the woman who would one day be canonized a saint.

With the actors themselves rather than the linear story playing such a central role, it should not surprise anyone that the costumes are well-researched. The priests are dressed appropriately, with Cauchon distinguished from the other priests by the use of a more elaborate robe than that worn by the other. Joan spends much of the time dressed in the simplest pants and doublet of a man until the end of the film when she is led to the courtyard for her execution in a simple shift. The guards are dressed in similar fashion to the prisoner for much of the story, though with appropriate pole arms, foils and helms for the early fifteenth century.

The sets are not quite as carefully rendered. Dreyer tried to present the space as convincing, but the use of smooth white on walls that were more likely to be stone detracts from the accuracy. According to Roger Ebert, Dreyer built the set with angles that would heighten the sense of distortion that is set into play by the use of abrupt cuts and comfortable close-ups. But these angles are rarely noted, because the film is primarily presented through a series of close-ups and middle range shots that lend no indication of how the characters are arranged spatially. Elements of the set however are accurate, from the tiny window of Joan’s cell to the simple wooden furniture of each of the briefly glimpsed chambers. This certainly fits the atmosphere of the late medieval church, yet again, like the history of the characters themselves, the background is not central to the film.

Historical inaccuracies are more striking in the cadence of the story in the treatment of the plot. This is an unavoidable symptom of the collapse of time that Dreyer enforced for the film. It results in somewhat confusing dialogue, all of which is drawn from the original transcript of the trial. For example, when the priests are questioning Joan about how she perceives St. Michael, some elements of the question are taken from questions about Joan’s relationship with God. Yet, the result is not so discordant as to detract from the purpose of the film, to explore the fullness of Joan’s human suffering and the strength that she gains from her faith.

To emphasize Joan’s relationship with Christianity Dreyer has given the film symbolic language. There is a dichotomy throughout the film between light and dark. The darkness of the priests is contrasted very strikingly against the open light of Joan’s expression. The background is almost always white, a method that Dashiell sees as a symbolic reference to death. When Joan is alone in her cell, the window casts a shadow shaped like a cross on the floor, and she seems to draw strength from its presence. It becomes all the more significant when the priests come and their presence blacks out the cross. Those who should carry the gifts of God with them are instead responsible for pushing them away. The same symbolic force is carried by the brief glimpses of the doves during the execution scene. They are unsettled, stirred away from the cross, and in flight in response to the actions of the church. The symbols of peace and the Holy Spirit are disturbed by the treatment of a woman of faith. None of these are explained away by the film, but are accepted, in the same way that Joan is simply presented as existing only in the moments of the trial.

To that end, the film does not introduce the players of the story with any real history. Only this moment in their lives is put before us. We are not told who Joan of Arc is or why she is on trial, which requires the audiences to know something of her story. Thankfully, the arc of her myth has been carried throughout the world, and has been explored throughout the history of art and continues to be revisited by cinema. Other films on the topic vary in terms of accuracy and in focus, but none of them presents Joan as naked and as human as Dreyer’s rendition.

It is her humanity that gives this film its importance. Rather than presenting the same story of Joan of Arc that the other books and movies have repeatedly explored, Le Passion makes the black and white of the history book come to life. We see the torment of the person, Joan of Arc, and the rapture that she experienced in her visions. It never asks us to question whether her voices are real, and never explains them away as other renditions have done. The film is unflinching and bold in its honesty. It seems that one of the valuable aspects of the film overall is in allowing the student of history to get a sense of the particular experience of human existence for the woman who was tried and burned at the stake for stepping outside of the role of her gender, for leading armies and for crowning the dauphin. Too often we lose sight of the human beings that underlie the texts of history. We lift people like Joan of Arc above and see them only in terms of their eventual importance. This is the real value of films that present the humanity of the figures of history. Our world has been born from the acts of these individuals, yes, but they were also mortal and some of the acts that we have celebrated or that we have been inspired by are often also the very moment when they suffered the greatest indignities. Sacrifices that were made in our reiteration of facts or theories of the past, we should not forget.

Perhaps it is that bold rendering that made the film so controversial in its day. Dreyer did not shy away from depicting the priests in an unforgiving light. The film was censored by the Archbishop of Paris for this reason. Further complicating the history of the film, the original was lost in a fire, and a second version had to be created. Then it too was lost in a fire, and Dreyer lived out his life convinced that The Passion of Joan of Arc was lost. Then in the nineties, the first version was found in a janitor's closet in an asylum in Oslo, Norway. That version is available today on DVD that comes with the soundtrack made for it in 1994 by Richard Einhorn, which is titled “Voices of Light.” Composed primarily of English and French monastic choral chants, the sound works to highlight the numinous quality of Joan's faith.

Because of the limitations of what Dreyer presents us, the film makes no effort to explain the actions of the priests, and gives no context for the events of the interrogation and execution of Joan of Arc. Those who might want to learn more would do well to read Mary Gordon's title Joan of Arc. This readable and concise discussion of the short life of the heroine also explores the political and religious state of France that gives the trial a sense of order and context that this film is not interested in presenting. For a more in depth study, one might read The Interrogation of Joan of Arc by Karen Sullivan. Using the various trials of Joan of Arc and their transcripts, Sullivan tried to construct a more complete exploration of the trial and to explain some of the intricacies of the reason for the line of questioning that the priests pursued.

Ultimately, anyone with love of cinema should see this film. It is a hard thing to see, because people tend to shy away from unrelieved misery, and Dreyer looks upon the agony of the Maid of Orleans without flinching. He does not allow the audience to look away, and the result is a mixture of the grotesque and the sublime. There are no neat explanations of human cruelty or of human faith and no neat answers. Instead, Dreyer gives us art in all its brutality. This film, which has its intertitles in French, transcends the language barrier in its use of pure humanity, and is unique in the history of film.