After finishing the film theory book about which I blogged a while ago (Film theory: an introduction through the senses) I have been watching a selection of the important films mentioned in it. One of the first on the list is Carl Theodore Dryers' LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC (1928) ; a sometimes hard to watch masterpiece that until 1981 was believed to have been lost in a fire, an unfortunate fate ironically very similar to that of its title-character. For more then half a century only mutilated copies and alternative versions were in circulation, until it resurfaced in Denmark. The Cinemateque Française restored it and it has been released in the criterion collection with the option of a spectacular musicalscore by Richard Einhorn; Voices of Light.


Dreyer was asked by the Société Générale des Films to come to France to direct the film, entirely shot on a stage near Paris. He put a great importance in the historical transcripts from the actual 1431 trial of Jean d’Arc, only showing this aspect of her story, and staying true to it throughout almost the entire film.

The performances in this film – as in so many films from this era I have come to feel – are incredible. Especially lead actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti leaves the audience absolutely no choice but to feel her pain and fear. Dreyer also leaves the audience no other option but to look at her and her suffering, shooting the entire film in close up shots, mainly of faces and their tormented expressions – hardly showing the huge set that was build in full 3D for Dreyer to enjoy complete freedom in choosing his angles and locations. Although producers were not exactly thrilled to find that very little of their expensive set was going to be used, Dreyer enjoyed this complete freedom. Meeting with fierce criticism on his choice of working exclusively with close-ups, he later stated that “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." As much as the genius of the film got recognized, many contemporary geniuses did not grand iteven as much as cinematic artistry. Sergei Eisenstein, when asked what he thought of the film,  said: “Very interesting and beautiful, but not a film, rather a series of wonderful photographs.”

Another unconventional decision Dreyer made was to not use any make-up on any of the faces in these close-up shots. Something only made possible by a new technology at the time: Panchromatic film stock. This black and white photographic emulsion was, unlike the autochromatic stock that was commonly used till then, sensitive to all wavelengths of light. Before this new technology emerged, film stock was much more sensitive to blue and ultraviolet light than it was to green and red wavelengths; making the use of cosmetics indispensable.

As many great filmmakers, Dreyer's uncompromising demand for authenticity did not only deny his actors music on set to get into their characters - as was customary on silent film sets - but also made him re-shoot many scenes after having watched the rushes with his star Falconetti, readjusting her performance until it was exactly what he wanted. (It did become her first and last experience with performing on the silver screen) Furthermore, the entire cast was at his disposal throughout the long 7-month shoot, due to the fact that the film was shot in chronological order.

The cinematography of Rudolph Maté is another aspect of this film that makes it such a remarkable accomplishment. The bold use of close-ups combined with many weird angles – mainly low and dutch angles that accentuate the surrealist set design – and very smart visual tricks – such as the tilt up from an upside down image to a top-shot to a high angle – really stands the test of time and feel quite fresh, even after almost a century of cinema. Maté’s lighting is naturalistic and aesthetically pleasing at the same time.

The surprising moderate success of LA PASSION DE JEANNE D’ARC is possibly to be understood as a result of the unfortunate timing at which it was released. In a time of rapid developing TALKIES (already on-going since the release of “THE JAZZ SINGER in 1927) this document of a painful chapter in history did not convince the movie going masses. It is however considered one of the early masterpieces of cinema, and Falconetti’s performance was more then once praised as the finest performance ever recorded on film!

seppe Van GriekenComment