The power of eyes and a face

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Released 21 April 1928 in director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s native Denmark, and 25 October 1928 in France, the country where it was filmed, The Passion of Joan of Arc is rightly, widely considered among the greatest of all silent films, and one of the greatest films period. It represents silent cinema at its pinnacle, shortly before the advent of talkies and their creaky recording technology made such films impossible to produce for quite some time.

At first glance, it might seem a film mostly built around closeups of faces won’t tell a very compelling, moving story, but that makes it the emotional powerhouse it is. I’m always so emotionally impacted. It’s a raw, stark level of emotion not found in many other films, with all the extras cut out. Eyes and faces tell most of the story.

Joan is played by Renée Falconetti, a stage actor who’d only appeared in one prior film, in 1917. This was her second and final film role. Afterwards, she returned to the stage.

Société Générale des Films invited Carl Theodor Dreyer to make a film in France following the success of his Master of the House in his native Denmark. The subject would be either Joan, Catherine de Medici, or Marie Antoinette. Dreyer claimed it was chosen by drawing matches.

He spent over 18 months researching Joan, who became a saint in 1920, and has long been one of France’s greatest national heroes. Dreyer based the script on the transcripts of Joan’s stacked trial and execution.

On 30 May 1431, Joan is subject to kangaroo court, headed by clergy who are no men of God. No matter how much she’s tortured or mocked, she refuses to recant her belief that she’s been sent on a mission by God to liberate France from the English.

The authorities are horrified she claims to be religious, in a state of grace, sent by God, etc., when she’s “just” a young, illiterate woman, acting without the orders of the Church, wearing clothes considered to be masculine instead of a dress or skirt, not acting meek and submissive. (Don’t get me started on people posthumously transing Joan because she wore pants and didn’t perform stereotypical femininity!)

Joan doesn’t fall for a fake letter from King Charles VII, telling her to trust its bearer, nor does she crack when shown the torture chamber. She faints, but doesn’t falter.

Joan panics when threatened with burning at the stake, and lets a priest guide her hand in a signature on a false confession. The judge then condemns her to a life sentence, and her head is shaved. Joan realises she’s disobeyed God, and demands the judges come back.

Joan recants that confession, and accepts the death penalty. All the while, her faith never wavers.

The film’s French release was held up because many nationalists were horrified Dreyer was neither French nor Catholic, and a rumour Lillian Gish had been cast as Joan. The film was eventually censored, which outraged Dreyer. The Archbishop of Paris demanded more cuts and changes.

Critics loved it, but it was a box office flop. Dreyer’s contract was cancelled, and he accused Société Générale des Films of mutilating his work to avoid offending Catholics. He sued them for breach of contract, and was unable to make another film till autumn 1931.

The film was banned in England, for its portrayal of English soldiers mocking and tormenting Joan.

A fire at Berlin’s UFA Studios on 6 December 1928 destroyed the master negative, and for decades, only versions of Dreyer’s patched-together second version were available. Then, in 1981, an original cut was discovered in a janitor’s closet in Dikemark Hospital, a psychiatric hospital near Oslo.

There were no records of the film being sent to Oslo, but film historians think the hospital director, who was a published historian, may have asked for a special copy.

This film is truly an emotional tour de force, all accomplished without any speech, or even a lot of full-body acting. Joan’s eyes and face are the story. There’s a reason she’s so beloved by the French people.

P.S.: Any comments posthumously transing Joan and distorting history to fit a TRA narrative will be deleted. Joan never claimed to be anything but a woman!