by Sam Juliano
“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.”
- Carl Theodor Dreyer, “Thoughts on My Craft”
Carl Theodor Dreyer’s shattering expressionistic masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was voted the greatest silent film of all-time by 15 bloggers in the long-running Wonders in the Dark polling. Featuring Renee Falconetti as the celebrated martyr in a performance many consider to be the greatest of all-time by man or woman, Dreyer’s film is a cornerstone of any serious film class or of those wanting to observe the power of the cinematic close-up. Reached at his home, Voting Tabulator Extraordinaire, Angelo A. D’Arminio Jr. reported that three voters placed the film #1 on their ballots, while the film was named on nearly every submission. Joan of Arc garnered 280 points, while the #2 film, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise finished close behind with 257. Rounding out the top ten were Nosferatu (245), Potemkin 235), Metropolis 233), Napoleon (205), The Gold Rush (196), The General (185), La Roue (172) and Greed (156).
Said Allan Fish in his countdown review of a few weeks ago, where he placed the film as his #5 choice:
“Joan of Arc has long been the subject of cinematic interpretation. One recalls de Mille’s visually arresting but dramatically stultifying epic Joan the Woman with Geraldine Farrar, the awful 1948 Hollywood borefest with Ingrid Bergman, the derided Saint Joan with Jean Seberg, the 1962 minimalist Bresson version with Florence Carrez and the more recent attempts with Leelee Sobieski and Milla Jovovich. Only Marco de Gastyne’s overlooked 1929 La Merveilleuses Vie de Jeanne d’Arc and Rivette’s 1994 epic two parter, Jeanne la Pucelle, come close to greatness, but even Rivette – in spite of the performance of Sandrine Bonnaire – fails to rival Dreyer’s seminal masterpiece. Put simply, Dreyer’s film is a true visionary work, a film of startling freshness and power.
The film is based strictly on the actual 1431 Rouen trial records preserved in the parliamentary library in Paris. As one of the titles says “we discover Joan as she was – not with a helmet and armour, but simply a human being, a young woman who dies for her country.” Whether Joan was indeed a blessed chaste saint or merely a misguided nationalist with insane visions is immaterial. At its heart, Dreyer’s film isn’t just about Joan, but about faith itself. It doesn’t matter whether we believe her, but that she believes herself. Either way it’s impossible, even for one of the nation to whom she proved such a bane, not to feel some sympathy for her plight. “It is you who have been sent by the devil to torment me” she proclaims at one point, and it would take a hard man not to sympathise. However, the overall feeling one gets as we watch the trial go on its remorseless, relentless way to its inevitable infernal conclusion, sometimes makes one forget just how revolutionary its approach was. No film before or since has used close-ups so menacingly or so effectively. No film has ever had such majestic period sets and then basically refused to show them. Dreyer’s camera is restless, rarely remaining still unless to dwell on the face of an accuser or the eponymous accused. The effect is shattering, its faces closing in as if accusing you the viewer. You feel every humiliation Joan receives and the final execution is surely one of the most realistic ever put on camera. We literally see Joan burning to virtually the last fibre of her being, long after we can recognise the cross she clutches to her chest. Religious figure or not, she is a martyr to her own beliefs, and for that alone we can only sit in awe. With no action or romance, only the sheer emotional pain of the ultimate cinematic experiment, is it any wonder it failed commercially?
Of course for such a film to work requires a truly exceptional performance, but what Falconetti gives us is nothing so common as exceptional, but rather a performance of unprecedented power and emotion. Considering it was her debut, it makes her work all the more remarkable and the degrees to which she went perhaps give us an inkling into her decision never to make another film. No disrespect to the great silent actresses from Lillian Gish (who ironically was first choice, but turned it down) and Louise Brooks to Ruan Lingyu and Asta Nielsen, she towers over everyone. In my humble opinion, it’s the greatest performance committed to celluloid. A performance captured down to the last look of terror and tear by Rudolph Mate’s magnificent photography, which also pushed the envelope to the nth degree. More than anything, however, this is Dreyer’s triumph, and one happily now available for home viewing in a gorgeous restoration from those masters at Criterion, adding a score which, though against Dreyer’s wishes (he wanted it silent), is still perfectly in keeping with the mood of this most reverential, spiritual piece.”
The Top 30 are as follows:
1. Passion of Joan of Arc 280