There are a handful of movies I consider absolute classics and this is one of them. Though this is a silent movie, filmed in 1927, it has ground-breaking camera work, a legendary acting performance, and a mystery behind the production. How could you not consider this a classic? The thing about this movie is that it comes across as not having been made in the 20’s but more like last year.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is directed by Carl Theodr Dryer. The story behind its journey to fame is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes. The original print for the movie was destroyed (in some irony) by fire. Dryer and his team used outtakes and footage that survived to make a new print which shortly later was also destroyed. After that, copies of the movie floated around, cut together from random scenes, almost what we might term ‘bootleg’ copies today, until years later a print, very close to the original was found in the closet of a Danish mental hospital of all places. This is the version shown today.
The camera work employed by Dryer clearly influenced the likes of Spielberg and Orson Welles. In fact, there is a element at play here that Welles totally used later on. At first you don’t really realize what it is, you just sense something is a little off, and then it begins to dawn on you what is creating that feeling. Every frame shot in this movie has an element that is diagonal. It may be that when two actors are together, one has his head tilted. My favorite is that everything is straight except you notice that in the background, a cross on the wall is hanging a little crooked. Even the movie posters pick up on this theme. Clearly, Welles had this in the back of his mind when doing The Third Man.
Dryer broke tradition and didn’t allow his actors to use make-up. This only enhanced their facial expressions on the close-ups which he brought to a whole new level. He also threw in special effects way ahead of the day. The scene where Joan is burned at the stake is better than anything you’ll see in a tv movie today and there is a reflection shot, where you see the soldiers and town folk running in an upside down shot. Brilliant foresight.
Joan is played by Maria Falconetti. Now in film circles, this performance is considered the best performance of all-time by an actress – either in a silent movie or a talkie. Sorry, Meryl Streep. Her range of emotion is so great in this film that by the time she is burned at the stake, you’re going to feel like your sister was just executed. This is the only major screen role she ever did and boy, did she make it count.
If the movie had mystery to its backstory, so does Falconetti. I did a couple quick searches to see what became of her after this movie was released. There seems to be some dispute about her life after this movie. She fled France when the Nazis invaded during WWII and went to South America. There things get a little murky. I saw conflicting reports that either she died of an illness, suffering from both mental and physical issues, or she committed suicide out of despair. Either way, she never did another movie and never made it back to Europe.
Even silent movies have scripts. This was originally intended to be based on a popular book at the time but Dryer – again, being ahead of his day – opted instead to use the actual transcripts from Joan of Arc’s trial. He got the archives to open them up to him and incorporated them into the movie. What an eye-opener it is for those who don’t know the full story.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the music in this one. When the original film was destroyed so was the score. In watching this via TCM & Ben Mankiewicz, they explained that music now used is Voices of Light by Richard Einhorn. It is an opera actually inspired by this movie and it fits so well that you’d think it was written at the time of production.
This movie has everything. A compelling story, legendary performances, top-level film technique. If you are in the creative side of life, this is a must. You’ll be inspired and learn from it. But as a movie fan, don’t let the silent aspect of this deter you for when you watch The Passion of Joan of Arc, you are going to be shaken to the core by its power. How many movies can you say that about?