Carl Dreyer's
silent masterpiece

by Chris Dashiell

is one of those films that is spoken of respectfully as a "classic" without very many people actually seeing it. So it may be a shock for those who finally do get to view it, to discover how weird a film it is. At first glance, the subject may seem conventional enough - plenty of artists have been fascinated by the 15th century French martyr, and have written books and plays about her. Dreyer's film, though, is very unusual in its choice of emphasis, its theme, and especially its technique. I have been fascinated by this picture since I first saw it twenty years ago. Other films have left deep impressions because of their emotional power, bold storytelling, profound ideas, visual beauty, or a combination of these and other factors. I think this film is different in a radical way from anything else I've seen - it's a work of transcendence, an attempt to express in visual terms a spiritual perspective which is verbally inexpressible.

Carl Theodor Dreyer had already directed eight pictures before this one, four in his native Denmark and others in Sweden, Norway and Germany. Master of the House (1925), his seventh film, was a big success in France and caught the attention of the Societe Generale de Films. This was an exciting time in French cinema, and "patronage" filmmaking was not unusual. Some of the early surrealist works of Clair and Cocteau were financed by millionaire aristocrats. The Societe Generale (which also sponsored Abel Gance's mammoth Napoleon) approached Dreyer and offered him free rein on his next work. He came to Paris and conceived the idea of a film about the trial of Jeanne d'Arc, based on a book by Joseph Delteil, who was brought in to help with the scenario. The preparations were lengthy and painstaking - costumes and other details were developed according to research on life in medieval France. Sets were constructed in which the entire story was to be shot: a prison with drawbridge, a chapel, and a courtyard where the burning would take place.

For the title role Dreyer chose Renee Maria Falconetti, a popular stage actress in Paris, whom he happened to see perform in a light comedy. He wasn't sure about her at first, but after she did a test without make-up, he knew immediately that she would be perfect as Jeanne. The film took eighteen months to complete - a very long time for those days. Dreyer insisted on rehearsing and shooting all the scenes in the exact order of the script. The idea was to approximate the experience of the story in the actors' own experience of the shoot. The film was released in 1928 and received critical accolades from around the world. But it failed badly with audiences - the Societe lost its money, and for the rest of his career Dreyer struggled for financial backing to make his films.

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc compresses Jeanne's trial, which actually took over a year, into a single day. In that day she is repeatedly interrogated by the ecclesiastical court, threatened with torture, and the sacrament held out to her and then denied to her unless she confesses to witchcraft. Finally, when she is faced with being burned alive, she recants, but then retracts her recantation and is publicly executed. Most of the intertitles were taken directly from the transcript of the trial. The first image we see is of a hand turning the leaves of a medieval manuscript, as if to transport us into the past through the pages of this book. We then see the interior of the prison, with the camera panning across the room - priests, monks and soldiers milling about, some talking together in the foreground. Finally we see the small figure of Jeanne led in, her feet chained together. It is one of the few times she will be shown full length. For here begins one of the most striking aspects of the film's technique - it is composed almost entirely of close-ups.

Dreyer wrote in "Thoughts on My Craft": "Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry." La Passion is a great procession of faces. The faces of Jeanne's persecutors, many of them lined with age, look down at us from above with anger and indignation, cunning and contempt. The actors did not wear make-up, and panchromatic film was used to make the faces appear as if in relief. Jeanne is almost always seen looking up at us from below. Her face, stained with tears, looks on her tormentors with stunned grief, with fear, and then with the warmth of belief in her mission. In motion pictures the usual procedure is to regularly alternate close-ups with long shots and establishing shots of some sort. Dreyer's technique is odd in that he refuses to do this. There is almost never a figure or object carried over from one shot to another. Instead we see, for example, a shot of the head priest Cauchon asking a question, then a cut to Jeanne responding, then a close-up of another priest, then Jeanne again from a slightly different angle - with no indication of the actual spatial relationships between these characters. This technique is deliberate and consistent throughout the film, and I believe it is designed to produce a particular effect on the viewer, an experience of affliction, that is, a loss of everything that secures us comfortably to the physical world.

But why compose this film with close-ups? Because Dreyer wishes to focus on souls, the world as an experience of the soul - and the soul is reflected more than anywhere else in the face. The film attempts to reproduce a sense of complete inwardness, moreover an inwardness faced with the harshest experiences of suffering and mortality. So instead of using a more conventional style, a fluid storytelling style, Dreyer employs a strange montage of close-ups and fragmentary cross-cutting, a style intended, I believe, to convey the feeling of a spirit suffering in the confines of a body and subjected to terrible oppression from other human beings.

The historical background of Jeanne d'Arc really matters very little here. Dreyer has no interest in exploring the historical or cultural aspects of the case. The Jeanne of La Passion is no longer the heroic leader who raised the siege of Orleans. She has been beaten down in her captivity, with only her simple faith to sustain her, and she suffers to the limits of human endurance. No melodramatic defiance - Jeanne is broken and full of grief, unable to understand her tormentors, reaching out for any shred of hope from them. Her courage lies in her integrity, her inability to betray her own truth. She takes a long time to answer when questioned, often not answering at all, or when she does, very briefly. It is as if she has to search deep within her for words, only speaking if she finds them in her heart. The first time they try to get her to sign the abjuration, you can see in her face how she is simply unable to bring herself to go against her vision, even though the cost of refusal is unimaginable anguish.

Falconetti's performance is beyond praise. It is among the most wrenchingly vulnerable ever filmed. It is rumored that Dreyer's perfectionist style, going over each little facial expression again and again until they got it right, put a tremendous strain on her. She had appeared in two previous films. As it turned out, this was her last screen performance. One can search film history in vain for another example of such greatness from an actor only known for a single role.

The cast as a whole is very impressive. The visage of Eugene Silvain, who plays the headinquisitor Cauchon, is a powerful force in the film. Antonin Artaud plays the sympathetic young priest Massieu. If at times some of the acting is exaggerated (excepting Falconetti, who never seems less than genuine), it is actually a model of restraint compared to the melodramatic style prevalent in most films of that day.

Another thing that makes this film difficult is that there is no story to tell. There is none of the usual development we see in dramatic narrative. Jeanne undergoes several interrogations - it is inevitable that she will be condemned even if she signs a recantation. So the elements we associate with plot are missing - suspense, story progression, resolution of conflict. The interest of the film, once again, lies elsewhere. It is in the depiction of a soul who is persecuted to the point of affliction. Dreyer wants us to experience Jeanne's complete loss of solace, companionship, confidence, and any sense of connection to the life of the earth. The film shows the successive stripping away of everything from her until there is nothing left but a suffering soul relying on God alone. This makes the film a painful experience. There are no romantic interludes to relieve the stress. It is this very unflinching and unrelenting quality, this determination to show the roots of human suffering and persecution to the bitter end, that I find so fascinating and so admirable. Of course, there's nothing that will turn audiences away quite like a direct gaze into the heart of darkness. But then, King Lear is not exactly a crowd pleaser either. There are rewards in seeing such works that go beyond our desire for entertainment.

The images are often framed in a peculiar manner. A close-up will be pushed to the corner of a frame, or a shot will be taken at an unexpected angle. An example of both is when Jeanne is in bed after a fainting spell and we see her head from above, tucked into the lower right corner of the screen, and turned away from us. Contrary to accepted practice, a person will be shown from one side and then in the same scene from a different or even opposite angle. There are so many examples of this bizarre technique that it would take a small book to catalogue them. It reinforces the effect of dislocation from the physical world that is part of Dreyer's intent. Another way of describing it is that it is dreamlike - the action has that strange and unfamiliar quality we associate with the dream state.

Dreyer constantly intercuts still shots with shots of movement. In most films the cuts would not be so sudden - there would be transition shots of movement to ease the eye. But once again the director deliberately flouts this convention, the most powerful example being the scene where Jeanne is confronted with the instruments of torture. The man turns the spiked wheel, cut to Jeanne's face, the spikes turn faster and faster, cut again to Jeanne's face, etc. Whatever objective action takes place is always immediately placed in the context of the witness, the soul that is seeing and experiencing all of it. Thus the tense, often jarring interplay between rapid pans or other movement, and stationary close-ups.

Mention must be made of the use of whiteness in La Passion. The interior of the prison is white, with white walls, white doors, white ceilings. So the figures are almost always seen against a white background. The effect is abstract - once again the focus is completely on the faces, without extraneous detail to distract us. Whiteness has an association with ghosts and is also a traditional symbol of death. Jeanne's ordeal takes place against the background of mortality.

Images of the physical world. A fly lands on Jeanne and she brushes it off. Her blood squirts into a bowl as they bleed her after her fainting fit. When they take her outside to question her for the last time, we see a grave being dug, and a skull flies out of the pit. Jeanne looks on in sadness. Then we see a field of flowers. The world is beautiful and Jeanne does not want to leave it. She even goes so far as to sign a confession that her visions were inspired by the devil, just so that she can remain in the world. But the beauty of the world lies in its very evanescence - we pass away and become a skull in a graveyard and it is in this quality of passing away that life becomes precious. The graveyard becomes a field of flowers. Behind the passion of Jeanne in the film there lies, of course, the passion of Christ. She sees this herself in the shadow on the wall which appears as a cross. It is most clear when she is mocked by the English soldiers, who place the crown of straw on her head. And when she has renounced her visions, and they cut her hair off, she sees them sweeping the hair away, and the crown of straw, and she realizes that she has betrayed the calling of Christ. It is significant that the hair, scrap from the body, is coupled with the crown which symbolizes the spirit, in the moment when Jeanne decides to take back her recantation and face the stake. For Dreyer, the spiritual mission is not renunciation of the body, but a spiritual unity with it and a radiance from it. It is not the natural world that crushes Jeanne, not the force of material necessity, but human cruelty and human power.

It is the theme of power, of the naked force exercised by human beings over other human beings, which demonstrates most clearly how Dreyer stands outside the religious tradition which he depicts. The film does not take a stand on whether or not Jeanne's visions are real. Theology is not important - in fact it is seen only as a tool used by the judges to trap Jeanne and defeat her. Dreyer sides only with the absolute validity of Jeanne's experience, because of its essential integrity and aloneness. When they tell her that she has rejected the Church, and therefore she will be totally alone, she replies, "Yes alone - with God." Jeanne's spirituality is a matter of the soul's relationship to God and thus stands outside all social relations based on power. It is this conflict between an intensely subjective point of view (Jeanne's) and the point of view of power and social control embodied by the priests, that constitutes the tragedy of the film.

Another aspect of the theme of power and force, which is by no means incidental to the film's purpose, is the fact that the judges are all men who are occupied in persecuting a lone woman. Dreyer returned to this essential insight again and again in his films, most notably in Day of Wrath (1943), which also concerns a woman accused of witchcraft. One of the recurrent sources of indignation is Jeanne's wearing of "man's dress" - another example of her spiritual expressions contradicting the dictates of the supposedly God-given social order.

The image of men towering over the female victim, bringing to bear all the trappings of power and authority in order to subject her, has political resonance in the theme of the authorities controlling the people through military force. Always standing near the priests is the contemptuous English general, who cares nothing for theological niceties and only wants to get rid of Jeanne. The riot at the end of the film has puzzled many critics. One might expect Dreyer's attention to focus solely on the pathos of Jeanne's execution. My opinion is that the film intends us to draw a connection between the spiritual affliction of Jeanne's martyrdom, and the rule of physical force in the social and political world. As Jeanne begins to burn, maces are thrown from the tower window to the soldiers below to arm them against the crowd. The film ends with the troubling juxtaposition of the images of Jeanne's immolation with those of guards beating the people back with weapons. The world without grace is ruled by nothing but violence.

The entire sequence of the execution and riot shows Dreyer going to the limits of stylistic eccentricity. Several times there are overhead shots which are inverted so that people are seen upside down - when the guards are walking to open the gate, for instance, and as the crowd rushes toward the execution site. There is no stable perspective to take within the sequence. Why would Dreyer do this? I think it is a clear progression from what he has done previously in the film. The force of hatred and persecution is not natural, according to Dreyer, but most unnatural, and here it culminates in a sense of the world being literally upside-down. But there is really more here than this analysis of the content would indicate. It is, once again, an attempt to reproduce the experience of disintegration in the viewer.

The rigorous adherence to principles of montage reminds me of Eisenstein, except that Eisenstein cares about the "masses" more than he cares about individuals. For Dreyer, the individual is everything. We first see the crowd not as a formless mass, but as a succession of grieving persons. The camera pans across their faces as they look at Jeanne (and this is the first time we see women in the film besides her) and each face has its own character and its own sorrow. As for the burning of Jeanne, it's hard to imagine the pace being done any better.
The film does not succumb to false idealism here either, (except in the ending title, which seems tacked on by some other author) but the agony is followed through right to the end when Jeanne's body, silhouetted in the flames, slumps forward. The repeated shots of birds flying away reiterate the connection between the truth of spirit and nature.

Sound technology was just beginning when Dreyer went to Paris to make La Passion. Supposedly, he was hoping to make a sound film, but was disappointed to discover that there was no equipment for sound in Paris. In any case, the absence of sound has often been a source of complaint even for admirers of the film. Truffaut wrote that watching the film was like actually getting to peek into the medieval world - and the only thing keeping it from perfection was the absence of sound. It's impossible to say what La Passion would be like with a soundtrack. But I would venture to disagree with Truffaut and say that the film might very well have been lessened by it. The silent images, interspersed with titles, lends a measure of awe to the picture. Sound might have broken the "spell" and brought La Passion down from the heights to a more mundane level of artistry. In fact, Dreyer would have had to employ an entirely different style if he had used sound. It's impossible for me to imagine spoken dialogue matched with the bizarre and uncanny techniques of the film as we have it.

The movie was plagued by bad luck after its completion. It was opposed by rightist forces in France, who objected to its treatment of the church. The original negative was destroyed in a fire, and Dreyer actually constructed a second version from additional footage. Tragically, this second version was also lost in a fire. Understandably, Dreyer let go of the whole project in despair, moving on to other films. Extant copies of La Passion circulated for the next fifty years in varying degress of completeness - some patched together from fragments of both versions, some marred with crude editing by later hands. The discovery in 1981 of an almost pristine print of the first version, in a closet at a mental hospital in Norway, was one of the most fortunate events in cinematic history.

Of course a silent film is not really silent - there is usually musical accompaniment of some sort. It is important to have a good score, or at least music that does not clash with the tone of the picture. I highly recommend the Home Vision video of the film, scored by Richard Einhorn's beautiful oratorio Voices of Light. This print is that of the one discovered in '81. I had the pleasure of seeing this print of the film on a big screen, with orchestral and choral accompaniment conducted by Einhorn. I had loved the picture since the first time I had seen it over a decade before, but this print was much crisper, and I definitely noticed shots that I hadn't seen before, as well as the absence of some I had seen in previous prints. Seeing it screened in a theater as it was meant to be, with the splendid music, was an overwhelming experience. The visonary power of this great film brought me to tears. La Passion came at the very end of the silent era, and this is fitting, because it is the climax of the silent film art form. As expert as the Hollywood product had become by that time, when I compare La Passion to other silent films, even the greatest ones, there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of a kind. I consider it one of the most important works, in any medium, of the twentieth century.

Earlier I called La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc a work of transcendence. There is a sense of "beyond" which permeates the film. The struggles and sufferings of Jeanne are seen as if from the vantage point of the eternal, or some place on the other side of death. The emotional intensity is somehow greater for this, rather than less as one might expect. The film not only depicts a spiritual ordeal, but dares to put me through one when I watch it. The question, or perhaps the challenge, is - what would it be like if your personality, everything that you normally think of as you, were brutally stripped away? What would be left? And if you had faith, like Jeanne, what would your faith look like after that? This is what the film tries to show us.

Carl Dreyer disrupts the comfortable distance between viewer and film in every way he can. I believe that his intention was to do something few artists ever do - recreate for those who view the work, the experience of affliction, desolation of the spirit. Not just pathos, not looking on a character and learning some sort of lesson, but a radical sharing of the experience of that character. It's an impossible thing to attempt, really. The only success that can be hoped for is to get close to the experience, to give us a taste of it, if you will. And this is what fascinates me and draws me back to the film again and again. It succeeds in giving me this taste, this glimpse. With tremendous power it continues to force its way past my defenses and affect me in ways that are as difficult to describe as they are profound.

CineScene, 2001