A few decades ago, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was considered a lost and mysterious masterpiece with the only surviving traces shoddy and pillaged dupes that made the rounds with amateur film collectors and historians.
Doomed from the start, the original negative was destroyed in a fire after its 1928 premiere and presumably lost forever. But since Dreyer was a taskmaster and perfectionist, shooting numerous takes of each shot, a new version of the film was constructed out of the alternate takes. This version too was destroyed in another fire in 1929.
Through the 1930s and 1940s, the only version circulating was worn prints of the original. In 1951, the French film historian Lo Duca put together a ‘modernized version’ that Dreyer immediately disowned: ‘The editor has tried to make the film more accessible to the general public by appealing to the public’s bad taste.’ After that came another version by Arnie-Krogh incorporating every bit of extant footage. Finally in 1981, a mother lode was discovered for the most complete version of the film, discovered in, of all places, a mental institution outside of Oslo, Norway. So, thanks to Norwegian mental patients, we can now put Joan back up on the burning stake as she was meant to be.
Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is nothing short of a masterpiece: not only one of the greatest silent films but one of the greatest films ever made. The power of the film hasn’t diminished since its premiere in 1928. Dreyer, inspired by the French impressionist filmmakers (particularly Abel Gance) and the Russian editing techniques of Sergei Eisenstein and Pudovkin, delivers a deeply felt and tactile psychological portrait of Joan of Arc still unrivaled — even more impressive for being a silent film. Dreyer rejected establishing shots, concentrating on close-ups and medium shots to accentuate the ‘close quarter combat’ between Joan and her inquisitors.
Although nominally based on Joseph Delteil’s popular 1925 novel about the French heroine (Delteil is listed as the screenwriter), Dreyer threw out Deltiel’s book and instead enlisted the actual court records from the trial of Joan of Arc, achieving ‘a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life.’ Dreyer mercilessly concentrates on Joan’s inquisition and condemnation with all the fervor of a fanatic.
But Dreyer’s film would be nothing without the charismatic and emotional performance of Maria Falconetti, in her only film performance. With her wide and expressive eyes, eyes that lock onto the spectator, conveying both hope and despair in the same instant, Falconetti delivers one of the most sublime and gripping of film acting performances. Pauline Kael wrote that Falconetti’s performance may be ‘the finest performance ever recorded on film.’ I won’t disagree.
And if Kael had included Dreyer in her words of praise, I wouldn’t disagree with that either.
Aka La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.