Director Jean Cocteau once observed of Carl Dreyer’s great silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc that it plays like “a historical document from an era in which cinema didn’t exist”. Certain films (including some I’ve blogged about before: The Seventh Seal, Aguirre, Eraserhead) give that impression – they are so self-contained that they seem to come to us as special messages from another world. It’s difficult to define the nature of this effect. It isn’t that these movies are “realistic” in a documentary-like sense – quite the contrary, many of them put cinematic tricks to great use. But they carry a conviction that makes it hard to think of them as existing outside the world they describe; when the lights go on it feels unreal to actually find a reel of film (or a DVD) with the movie’s title on it.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is leagues ahead of the others in this respect. Watching this 1928 masterpiece, the impression one gets is that Dreyer hopped into a time machine, flew back to 1431 France, recorded the Joan of Arc trial from many different angles simultaneously, returned to the present and then edited it for maximum cinematic effect. And he forgot to carry a sound recorder with him – which is just as well, for as Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard, “We didn’t need dialogues [in silent films]. We had faces.”
The most widely discussed aspect of La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (and, with full respect to Dreyer and his great vision, the aspect most worth discussing) is the face and the performance of Maria Falconetti in the title role. Falconetti’s Joan is wide-eyed, tired beyond description, tears often running down her sunken cheeks. The haunted expression on her face could represent the unwavering conviction of a girl who has experienced divinity firsthand - but it could just as easily be the face of someone who has been driven to madness and is no longer sure of anything. This isn’t, after all, a film about the rabble-rousing heroine who led French troops to war on the strength of her visions, God firmly by her side every step of the way. It’s the story of a frightened, exhausted, lonely, even confused young girl being repeatedly questioned and cross-questioned by a group of tyrannical inquisitioners.
There are moments where Joan attempts to live up to her image as the fearless heroine, but falters. Threatened with torture if she refuses to admit that she received her instructions from the Devil, she initially declaims, “Even if you separate my soul from my body, I will say nothing.” But then, as she sees a machine of torture up close – a large revolving wheel with serrated blades along its circumference – terror crosses her face; she holds up a trembling finger and adds, “And even if I do confess, later I’ll say I was forced into it.”
When watching silent-screen performances we usually have to suspend our disbelief, keep in mind how different the theories of acting were back then: that cinema was still a young form, most of its early stars had cut their teeth on the theatre and were unprepared for this new medium. Falconetti’s Joan is the most notable of exceptions – it’s a performance that would have any modern audience in complete thrall.**
Dreyer’s use of close-ups for both Joan and her judges is rightly famous – it almost seems like we can see every pore, every little scar, on their faces, and this adds to the sense of claustrophobia. (Credit must be given to the mid-1980s restoration of the film, based on a well-preserved print that was serendipitously discovered in a broom closet in a mental institution!) But he also extracts a lot of power from the smaller moments, the ones that might otherwise be considered “breathers”. Like the shot where Joan gazes at a skull lying in a graveyard, worms slithering in and out of its nostrils. Dreyer seems to invite us to ask what she is thinking about at that moment. Is she merely contemplating the here and now – that she herself might be dead in a few moments – or is she considering that her visions might be delusions after all, the possibility that the afterlife is a vast unknown? (I don’t think it’s coincidental that much of the imagery of this scene – including a gravedigger shoveling mud – is evocative of Hamlet, of “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler may return” and “your worm is your only emperor for diet”.)
My DVD of The Passion of Joan of Arc has two audio options – one silent, the other featuring the haunting “Voices of Light” choral soundtrack created especially for the film in the 1990s. Initially I tried to watch the film with the sound off, but the images were so stark and powerful that I needed an element of artifice, of manufactured drama. So I switched the soundtrack on after a few minutes – feeling slightly guilty until I remembered that when the film was originally screened in 1928 there would have been an accompanying score in the movie-hall anyway. I suggest anyone who gets hold of the DVD watches it with “Voices of Light” switched on. At least the first time.
** This is Falconetti’s only surviving film, which of course adds to the mystique surrounding her performance. Parallels can be drawn in this respect with the enigmatic German actor Max Shreck, who played the rodent-like vampire in F W Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu. So iconic is Shreck’s performance, and so little is known of him outside of that film, that it was possible 80 years later for a movie screenplay to suggest that he really was a vampire! The jury is still out on whether Falconetti was a saint in real life…
[Images from Wikipedia]