In my early twenties, the thought of watching a black and white film was already devastating, but watching a silent black and white film seemed like, well, it’ll be a cold day in hell before I do that. Turns out, with the apocalypse and everything around us, that might be the case.
I watch my first silent film only a couple of months ago, starting to see the world with a fresh perspective, realizing that the cultural heritage of classic movies is something I should not have ignored for three decades. It was the magnificent Metropolis. And yet I fell asleep. Not because it was bad, it was actually quite amazing, but I am unable to focus on such a film on my couch. I decided to watch everything in my local theater, and then I was amazed at how well the whole composition of images and music worked out. Recently, I watched Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). It was only after the credits rolled, that I realized this was a silent movie. It’s that good.
Back in the day, when the film as an art form was still a new kid in town, people were objecting to the introduction of the so-called talkies, which we now know as the dominant type of film form today. Viktor Shklovsky, one of the leading Russian literary critics, stated that a talking film is as little needed as a singing book. Critics thought that the uniqueness of this new medium lied in its use of clever directing, music, and expressive acting to tell the story. A talking movie was unnecessary — we already had the theater for that. You know how things turned out eventually. It is considered that around 75% of silent movies have been lost. Finding such a treasure as The Passion is even more of a victory, considering the dreaded fate of its contemporaries. This particular film was considered lost for decades. In 1978, an almost complete print was found in the home of an Italian priest who used to screen that particular piece in mental hospitals. Yes, you read that right.
Dreyer’s film tells the well-known story of Joan of Arc. I think the story is not important here at all as the investigation of human psychology is. I was amazed by the emotion itself. This film is a true embodiment of human emotion. Joan of Arc was Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s last film role, and her performance soon achieved iconic status. Dreyer stated that he found in her “a country girl, very sincere, but also a woman of suffering”. Being unheard of in the era of silent films, none of the actors wear any makeup. Dreyer wanted to emphasize the emotions showing on bare faces.
Ebert states that for Falconetti, the performance was an ordeal since Dreyer forced her to kneel painfully on stone to wipe all expression from her face — so that we as an audience could sense her inner pain. The power of emotion and amazing directing made this film scream even though it was silent. The scenes of Joan’s torture are rapid, and prosecutors are bombarding her with questions and accusations. The closeup of a prosecutor’s face changes from scene to scene, providing us with rapid dynamics and an overwhelming sense of confinement. We feel uneasy watching the interrogation since all of our senses feel attacked as well.
On its release, the film was almost immediately marked as a masterpiece. Dreyer’s use of closeups and fast shots. On the set, similar to Welles a decade later, he dug holes to achieve low angles used in this film. Low angles are putting us in the position of Joan of Arc, looking upon the priests deciding on her fate. Joan’s trial feels like our inquisition as well. The camera moves from judge to judge, and staring at Joan’s face which is looking up at the sky — both appealing to God and looking at her accusers — is a sublime experience.
Carl Theodor Dreyer spent almost a year researching the story of Joan of Arch, and the script follows the transcripts of her real-life trial and death. The least we can do is to spend less than an hour and a half empathizing with another human being.
Bordwell, David (1981). The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer. University Presses of California, Columbia and Princeton.
Dreyer, Carl Theodor. Four Screenplays. Bloomington & London: Indiana University Press.
Ebert, Roger (16 February 1997). The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). rogerebert.com.
Kenez, Peter (2001). Cinema and Soviet Society from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin. London and New York: I.B. Tauris
Slide, Anthony (2000). Nitrate Won’t Wait: A History of Film Preservation in the United States. McFarland & Co.
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