The Rear-View Mirror: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There has rarely been a story as good at portraying the conflict between belief and organised religion as that of Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, the peasant girl that believed to have seen archangels and saints and whose fight for her king and her god finally led her to a martyr’s death at the stake.

And while I haven’t seen any of the more recent cinematic takes on the story, I doubt that any of them are as harrowing as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc.

So much of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc lies in Maria Falconetti’s hypnotic, heartbreaking performance. I don’t particularly know the world of silent movies very well, but my main expectation is that the acting will veer towards the melodramatic: big expressions, big emotions, everything turned up to 11, but not very believable for a modern audience. This may be true for some silent movies, but Dreyer’s film doesn’t work like that at all, especially in its central performance. Falconetti’s Joan of Arc is something else altogether, the performance is stark and raw. Joan knows that there is only one way all of this will end, at least in this world, and she is only barely hanging on. She blends the exultation of a true believer who longs for release with the very human emotions of fear, pain and sorrow.

Apart from Falconetti’s performance, though, it is the cinematography that I found most striking. When I think of the early days of cinema, I think of cameras that are big, heavy and unwieldy. I think of stagey, static shots. Dreyer’s film, however, moves its camera: it slides, pans and tilts, sometimes dizzyingly so. We get a shot of peasants running through a gate where the camera is placed at the top of the arch, and as the peasants pass underneath, the camera follows them, turning the image upside down. Never for one second does it feel like the cinematography is determined by physical reality. Rudolph Maté’s cinematography isn’t showy, though, but at the service of the story and characters, and this is evident especially in the close, almost painfully intimate shots of faces, in particular Joan’s. You can see how a director like Tom Hooper watched this film and got exactly the wrong ideas; the close-ups in Hooper’s Les Misérables clearly seem imspired by Dreyer and Maté’s work, but they feel affectated. They feel like a reference, not like the real thing. They feel unearned.

Joan’s story is a challenge to secular audiences. It is essentially about a woman driven by her belief in her god, a belief that many will see as delusional, and again, it’s easy to see why modern storytellers often frame her fight in more patriotic terms or why they try to make her into a proto-feminist action figure. Dreyer doesn’t let us do this: his Joan isn’t a warrior of France, she is a martyr in the making, a woman of faith who nonetheless fears what she knows will happen. Her suffering is fully human. And the stark, naked sorrow, fear and resolve on Falconetti’s face makes it obvious that The Passion of Joan of Arc couldn’t possibly be more different from the stereotype I’ve been associating with silent film, the big-eyed exaggerations of melodrama or the hyperactive, ha-ha funny piano.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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