It’s only been fairly recently that we’ve been able to see Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in a form close to the one he originally released. The discovery of a complete print in a closet at an insane asylum was the reason behind this. (One sincerely hopes they had not been showing this nightmarish film to patients. I don’t like thinking about the effect such a film might have.) Seeing the film in this new version only cements the impression from earlier truncated prints of both greatness and peculiarity. While I have never questioned the greatness of Dreyer’s film (though I’m not as keen on it as I’m supposed to be), I do think it should be noted that it is a strange film — a disturbing one in ways that other movies are not. Dreyer hasn’t crafted anything like a Joan of Arc biopic. This is simply the trial, torment and execution of Joan (Melle Falconetti) — made with the camera in tight on its characters. It’s a complete immersion into the events — a horrific nightmare that conveys something of what Dreyer must have believed Joan was feeling. It isn’t an easy film. It offers no religious comfort of any kind. There is no sentimentality — everything simply is. Whatever else it is, The Passion is unlike anything else ever made.
Don’t be misled by the all (or nearly all) close-up approach. This is by means a static film. In fact, it’s more fluid than most of Dreyer’s work. The camera is moving a good deal of them—moving in and out on faces, tracking past the judges, etc. There’s even one shot (used twice) where the camera movement causes the image to appear upside down. Plus, the editing is very dynamic. The torture chamber scene—during which we see not one actual image of torture—is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever seen. (In all honesty, this seems far more a horror film to me than Dreyer’s Vampyr.) I suspect it’s the extremely uncomfortable nature of the film that caused it to flop so spectacularly when it was first released. Combine that with the seven million franc set Dreyer built and then never showed except in bits and pieces (this is not an epic), and it’s little short of a miracle that he ever worked again.
This is not a perfect film, however, and I do question some of the accolades it’s received over the year—especially as concerns Falconetti’s performance as Joan. Oh, it’s every bit as powerful as has been said. The woman often looks like a terrified wild animal—and that may not be far from the truth. Dreyer drove her mercilessly, tormented her, and subhected her to take after take. I have little doubt she was terrified and on the verge of hysteria—but I also suspect it was Dreyer she was afraid of. The multiple takes were so he could “sculpt” the performance he wanted in the final film. Yes, it’s brilliant, but I’m not sure it’s quite what I’d call a performance. But, yes, it’s effective. (And it’s little wonder that she never made another movie.)