Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped with authority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane. No surprises there. Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint-by-numbers set. Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’s creator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and excommunicated him for life.
Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made. That honor probably goes to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.
Rarely do classic films live up to the hype. Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film. It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue. Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic. Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.
Then, in the early 1980’s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute. When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.
Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it. By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.
Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde. The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts. This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.
The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid. But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense. Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the rare gesture of presenting his actress with a bouquet of flowers after that heart wrenching scene). Falconetti, understandably, never made another film. It is a haunting, harrowing performance.
Falconetti and Dreyer relentlessly violate the viewers’ personal space, so much so, that one feels tortured, right along with Joan. The British censors were certainly affected; they banned the film upon its release. In the film, Joan’s English accusers provoke varied, intense emotions, although they are not depicted as two-dimensional personifications of evil.
Despite overwhelming empathy for Falconetti’s Joan, Dreyer directs with admirably objectivity. At times, Joan does indeed seem on the fringed edge of sanity, so ethereal, so spaced out, that we can, at least, have some understanding of the nervous fear she she inspires in the medieval mindset of her judges. But, Dreyer’s theme of a saintly woman would also be repeated prominently in both Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1955), and one suspects a heated obsession behind Dreyer’s cool-toned facade.
Passion, like all of Dreyer’s films, has a Rembrandt-like quality in every frame (Day of Wrath took this quality to an exquisite extreme). Rudolph Mate’s expressionistic cinematography cannot be underestimated and volumes of books could probably be written about every single shot.
Passion may be one of the ugliest films ever made, but it is necessarily ugly, a bit like the necessity of Picasso’s hideous “Guernica.” Crusty fingernails, nose hairs, sweat, bushy eyebrows, and oily pores abound in the penetrating, dirty close-ups. The only “pretty” face in the film belongs, ironically, to the legendary avant bad boy Antonin Artaud. Artaud, as the sympathetic monk, Massieu, is so young, so beautifully sensuous, that memories of the later, greasy Artaud, fresh from the asylum, madly roaming Paris streets, eaten with rectal cancer, and raving “Having done with the judgement of God” are all temporarily banished from the mind’s eye.
Despite all she is subjected to, Joan is not of a Protestant (or Pre-Protestant) mindset. The greatest torture she receives is when she is refused the Eucharist and it is this that temporarily breaks her, so intense is her devotion. But, Joan’s final answer is, ‘This is my church, not yours. You are the devils who have invaded my church and the faith. It is not the other way around.”
Joan’s conviction is so complete, so inspiring that her martyrdom leads to further slaughter of the sympathetic crowd. The British authorities sensed, in advance, the level of veneration that would be accorded Joan of Arc. They repeatedly and thoroughly burned her body as to prevent the collection of her relics. That type of fear, combined with inspired awe, was only captured once, in 1928, despite all the later films made on the subject.