“It’s a wonderful tour de force but it’ll get cinema nowhere. It’s too individual a style of expression. It has pathological interest as a study of hysteria.”
That was Ernst Lubitsch on Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC — he’s wrong, of course. Maybe being Jewish was a barrier, but then I don’t think the film’s fundamentally about religion — it’s about integrity, which is a more fundamental impulse. Ran this for students, and for myself — it’s one of those film classics I’d “seen” but so long ago and under such dim circumstances that I really couldn’t say I’ve seen it at all.
Scott Eyman, from whose Lubitsch book the above quote comes, duly uses the word “austere” to describe Dreyer’s film, a word well suited to later CTD films maybe, but one that requires some qualification here. The film’s sets are certainly austere — designed by Jean Hugo (no other credits) and Hermann Warm (CALIGARI and much more besides), they’re not only sparsely furnished, cold and stony, they’re overwhelmingly WHITE. White tends to be avoided in production design, for the normally excellent reason that in close-ups, where the background goes out of focus, it turns into a glaring void, whereas with greyish or coloured surfaces, some detail or texture always comes through to anchor the face in reality.
Of course in TPOJOA, close-ups dominate overwhelmingly, and the background is positively encouraged to recede, allowing skin textures to prevail, every pore, mole, liver spot and wrinkle lovingly lingered over. If Dreyer is guilty of any silent-movie over-simplification, it’s in the film’s apparent equation of physical aging with spiritual corruption. Integrity and purity need not belong solely to the young — but it’s OK to make that the case for the sake of argument in this film.
Antonin Artaud’s character is a more complex case than at first appears — he’s genuinely sympathetic to Joan, unlike the judges who are always claiming they are — but he’s a bigger threat to her integrity in his way, because he still wants her to sign a confession and be saved. He’s also Captain Obvious: the guys who says things like “Careful! That’s a dangerous answer!” so the dumber folks in the audience can keep up.
All this relishing of dermatological detail is rather lush and intense, but is it austere? And the film is far from slow — though there are relatively few scenes, and they’re relatively long, Dreyer’s filming is dynamic in a way that prefigures today’s “intensified continuity” — faces pop up, loom in, are tracked into, making for a very impactful mise-en-scene indeed. Far from being a cinematic blind alley, Dreyer’s experiment was an early clue to the new direction. I just wish modern filmmakers who jump in close early, and stay there, had as many visual resources for keeping the approach fresh as Dreyer evinces here.
(When David Fincher shaved Sigourney Weaver’s head for ALIENS³, critics knocked him for shooting everything in close-up: “These pop promo guys don’t know how to direct.” But obviously Fincher was copying Dreyer — just not skillfully enough, or in a suitable context, to make it work.)
Films I was reminded of — Erle C. Kenton’s GUILTY AS HELL, with its leering ugly faces thrust at the camera like so many animatronic penises; THE DEVILS, obviously — Mad Ken kept the whiteness, and much of the structure, including the emphasis on head-shaving — I was unsure just how deep the influence went until Dreyer’s maggoty skull sprang up — THE DEVILS is the pop-art porno version of TPOJOA, with 57 times the violence and 90,000,000 times the tits; Welles — the effect of these sharply focused kissers, the canted angles and rushing figures, suggests Welles must have known this movie, although it’s possible his ideas grew up independently, or both Dreyer and Welles were looking at Eisenstein (both MACBETH and OTHELLO strongly suggest this).
For a film banned in England at the time for its portrayal of the English as, effectively, blasphemous Christ-killers, the multi-national production has one distracting feature — many of the evil English characters resemble British character actors of later years.
And finally, I always wonder at the circumstances that lead to the film being rediscovered in the janitor’s cupboard of an Oslo mental hospital. Screening this film for the inmates might not be advisable — surely any poor schizophrenic patient would be bound to identify with Joan and see her persecutors mirrored by the medical staff? Still, if this lead to the film being retired from the screenings roster, it may be precisely why the film survived in such comparatively good condition to be appreciated today.