Cinema has many synonyms; Film from the mode of capture, movies from the magic of motion, Flicks from projector inefficiency, and Pictures. The maxim ‘Show don’t tell’, integral today, was imperative in the silent cinematic age. Filmmakers sought communication outside of explanative title cards, discovering narrative capabilities of mise-en-scene, camerawork and, most directly, actor expression.
Maria Flaconetti’s face is perhaps the most infamous of the epoch. Through Carl Theo Dryer’s lens, Falconetti portrays Joan, a simple country maid turned war hero inspired by celestial voices to liberate the French from British occupation in a bloody victory at Orleans in 1429. However, Joan was captured and endured a trial for heresy until her martyrdom in 1431.
Director Theo Dryer settled on the story of Joan of Arc after the Roman Catholic canonisation in the early 1920s. Many directors tackling a biopic would unveil Joan’s life in entirety; from humble origin, to divine intervention, bloody war and presenting the damning trial as a climatic act. But for Dryer, this is where the real drama arises.
With the diligence of one preparing for a thesis, Dryer studied transcripts of Joan’s trial, compressing 29 brutal cross examinations and several sessions of torture and ultimate immolation into a single day. This compression does not weaken Joan’s suffering, but intensifies it and continues to oppressively increase through narrative, time, cinematography and setting.
Set designer Hermann Warm, infamous for his work on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, drew inspiration from medieval miniatures to create one of the most expensive sets in silent cinematic history. The walls were strong enough to support cast, crew and equipment and the surrounding town was a functioning microcosm. The construction exhibited expressionistic idiosyncrasies such as odd angles and claustrophobic proximities, but much of this was jettisoned in favour of exquisite medium and close up compositions created by Dryer and Rudolph Mate.
Dryer remained intimately locked with the characters over the course of the horror, utilising the broader spectrum of the new panchromatic black and white film stock to free actors from even a dab of makeup. Every crevasse and imperfection of the Judge’s looming faces is photographed in stark black and white, whereas the youthful purity of Joan is rendered in softer greys. Imagine how unusual this experience would be for audiences accustomed to stage like mies-en-scene.
The cinematography is one of the most striking and memorable strengths on the picture, but not merely in artistic composition. In David Bordwell’s break down, he states ‘of the film’s over 1,500 cuts, fewer than 30 carry a figure or object over from one shot to another; and fewer than 15 constitute genuine matches on action’.
This technique destabilises any possibility of a singular point of view, and though empathy for Joan’s plight is never lost, she never becomes an otherworldly idol. Dryer enforces an objectivity by disregarding the 180 degree rule and using emotional, rather than logical, angles. Throughout the court’s probing questions testing the malleability of Joan’s faith, and becomes infinitely more harrowing because we are able to see Joan as the judges fail to – a 19 year old girl.
Dryer at all times removes a comfortable footing to view this nightmare. Emotional angles engage us in dizzying proximity and space is further distorted by a complete jettisoning of establishing shots. Instead, the Auteur employs a technique Sergio Leone would use decades later; substituting the human face as landscape. Expressions are not reserved merely for reaction, they are atmosphere and emotion, as uplifting as a sun set, or as desolate as a war scene, but infinitely permutable. And few faces have been as devastating as Mara Falconetti’s.
Discovered in a light comedy in Paris, Dryer instantly recognised a quality in the actress stating that ‘behind the heavy makeup [was] a suffering woman’. Her face is a marvel, both beautiful and tragic, youthful and twisted by horrific experiences. Ebert best described her as ‘eyes that will never leave you’.
If eyes are windows to the soul, Falconetti’s are mirrors tenaciously gripping our humanity. Dryer remarks ‘The important thing is not only to seize the words they say, but also the thoughts behind those words’. In one scene, Joan is asked who taught her the Hail Mary, pain crosses her face as a tear descends from those brilliant eyes, she laconically replies ‘my mother’. Less is infinitely more. Without exploration of her origin, these words mean whatever affects us deepest.
Dryer once wrote, ‘Abstraction allows the director to get outside the fence with which naturalism has surrounded his medium, it allows his films not to be merely visual but spiritual’. If this is true, then by reducing sets to white washed simplicity, costumes to muted designs, and actors to rawness, Dryer has crafted a film so intricate with its subject matter, that it is a film not of religion, but religion itself.
But it should not be forgotten that it is absolutely rooted in humanity and its failings. The film exhibits a collision of faith, the proverbial unmovable object vs an unstoppable force. Without hope of empirical evidence to disregard Joan’s visions, only physical and mental torture can be relied on to break Joan. It is a traumatic experience because ultimately nobody is right or wrong, the judges believe their views as implicitly as Joan. And who is to say this situation would not occur in a French court?
Not all Judges are presented as villainous, compassion sways one monk to bow at her feet and others warn Joan of trickery, but this compassion extrapolates the cruelty in the disguise of religion. In one scene, the jailers gleefully torment Joan by dressing her as a saint, a monk waves them away, dries her tears and leads her to torture. It is a conflict of human compassion and total devotion to something outside of human hands.
The Passion of Joan of Arc was thought lost to flames that swarm the climax, simultaneously losing a masterpiece and Maria Falconetti as she never made another film. Thankfully, a resurrection occurred in 1984 after a complete print was discovered in a Danish insane asylum. After collecting dust silently for more than half a century, The Passion of Joan of Arc once again demonstrated the power of a unique vision. A masterpiece, not only of the silent period, but forever untouched and unmatched by progression.
Dryer once wrote – ‘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 the inside, and turning into poetry’. Maria Falconetti is a complexion of the most profound, sublime and poignant poetry in a spiritual tale of humanity.
Joan sits in a jail. Her life signed away to permanent incarceration after crumbling at a sight of mortality, a worm infested skull. Then, as her hair is removed, she regains her faith and condemns herself to immolation. She takes to the pyre, grasping the cross one last time and awaits the rising flames. In one of the few instances of mercy, no close up is delivered. On lookers of guards and citizens shed tears, not for a saint, but for a young girl lost in madness.