The Passion of Joan of Arc/La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)With the arrival of sound in film, the death of the silent film wasn’t as quick as we believe, after Al Johnson uttered a few words in The Jazz Singer (1927) there were still a few classic silent’s still ready to be released, the power of overacting and subtlety and gestures. Coming from Denmark in 1928 we have Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s The Passion of Joan of Arc/La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) which I only became aware of whilst watching Mark Cousins documentary series The Story of Film: An Odyssey which itself was fascinating. I have finally found the time to take in this rarity that places acting above all else, even the plot which takes us back to the roots of the Joan of Arc, as the prologue tells us focusing on the transcript of her fateful trial of the daughter of God. A French Inquisition you could say by the church. After Leading France to victory against the English to drive us out of their country. There became more pressing matters, Joan herself who thought God to be more important than the King.

My only other references to the events are through popular culture and a rather pleasant and feeble film Saint Joan (1957) starring Richard Widmark as King Charles VII and Jean Seberg in the title role. It wasn’t what I expected when considering the subject matter. Depicted as a reflective tale of what happens after her execution and life as a saint. We see the events played in retrospect from the first time we see her humble beginnings to trial. 

Whereas this film focuses entirely on her trial and execution, we see the real pain and suffering of Joan’s (Maria Falconetti) being tested under the close scrutiny of a large number of priests who want to save her, yet only at the expense of her relinquishing of her declarations and closeness to God. Something that fears them, to have a person in their presence who feels so connected to the all mighty upstairs. Someone who is a threat to their own authority, in a time when religion was still the iron rule over Europe, whatever denomination that maybe.

Of course the film is most notable for the extreme close-ups which I thought would pull away in time to allow us to see more of this world. Instead we see very little of the minimal set. Rightly focusing on the suffering of Jeanne of Arc a now persecuted woman who cries single tears in every other shot. It’s not just for the audience, its as if she really feels the torment of these men who hold her life in their hands. This is real acting of the silent era that cannot be put in the same league as Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford who were more expressive and powerful in a theatrical sense. Falconetti has only her face to work with in this film, and to great effect, as if the hot sun is beating down in her in the hot desert, theres no escaping its power over her. Not many can lay claim to such acting abilities. Whilst men are hovering over her in these extreme close-ups as they decide her future. It seems so futile really but we watch on.

The version of The Passion of Joan of Arc I viewed was accompanied by a soundtrack by Lo Duca which added to the sense of emptiness and despair felt by Joan of Arc. The moments of chunkiness added to the aesthetic of a medium still finding its feet and experiment. Adding a contemporary presence which I also found with a screening of Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) by the Leicester/Yorkshire/Manchester/Londoners Her Name is Calla at the Handmade Festival (2014), Leicester which added extra dread and fear to the subject matter. A live soundtrack is something that cannot be beaten.

I really should catch more silent films, if not only to see film in its infancy, but to see the mostly forgotten classics that are foreshadowed by the era of sound. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is one of them without a doubt that is unrelentingly powerful. It’s minimal sets making way for the acting captured in horrifying and sensitive close ups which make this film something to be treasured for new generations.

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