In writing about the 10 films I personally would have selected for the 2012 edition of Sight & Sound’s critics’ poll, I speculated that my first chronological slot would’ve been given to Thomas Edison’s brief, blunt, and brutal Electrocuting an Elephant. “One of the earliest examples of a medium being established capable of cataloging mankind’s abject and carnivalesque sense of cruelty,” my reasoning went. I won’t walk back on that argument now, but there’s something finer and more important still to appreciate about how the advent of moving pictures advanced human understanding. And it resonates within every raw frame of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Cinema, beyond providing unwashed masses a chance to behold unvarnished reality, also gives art its most powerful channel for engendering empathy for those who suffer. Powerful enough to be exploited by charlatans and beatified by masters, of which Dreyer was without peer.
Novels can tell audiences sad stories, music can suggest the warmth of compassion, theater can outline redemptive scenarios, but only cinema truly puts audiences in a position to see their own internal experience reflected back at them on a scale impossible to ignore. Not for nothing did Jean-Luc Godard, maybe an even finer scholar of cinema than he was a practitioner, stage one of his most memorable sequences (from 1962’s Vivre Sa Vie) by seating his muse, Anna Karina, at a movie theater for a screening of Dreyer’s film, absorbing the magnificence of Maria Falconetti’s performance as Joan of Arc. Godard was primarily interested in expanding the vocabulary of cinema, but even he could recognize the mesmeric emotional connection viewers experience in the presence of powerful filmmaking.
The Passion of Joan of Arc eschews as many things as it incorporates. It rejects all stages of young Joan’s life leading up to her trial for heresy: her provincial background, her spiritual episodes, her preternatural knowledge of the art of war, and arguably even the veracity of her sainthood. Instead, it distills her grueling inquisition and eventual death at the stake into 80 heightened minutes of sustained sensation. While an expensive production compared to similar contemporary movies thanks to its abstract, asymmetrical set construction, the film rarely opts for scope, frequently downplaying the production design to instead locate the entire universe within close-ups of the company players. (A new form of polychromatic gray-scale film stock allowed Dreyer to shoot his actors without distracting stage makeup, adding another layer of primal truth to his film.) And yet, for as disciplined as its focus on the performances is, The Passion of Joan of Arc packs over 1,400 shots into its brief running time—not exactly Sergei Eisenstein-level numbers but still clearly indicating an awareness of montage theory. But whereas Eisenstein and his Russian contemporaries’ groundbreaking edits stressed the cerebral potential of cinema, Dreyer never deviated from the importance of conveying his narrative momentum. Rather than dissociating manner from matter, Dreyer’s construction of this film forms a perfect crescendo. Speed, direction, movement, expression, spatiality, and perspective are in balance.
And it would never have worked without the trust Dreyer put in Falconetti. (Arguably, The Passion of Joan of Arc is an easier sell on modern audiences than most other silent features specifically because its central performance is given so much room to breathe.) Frequently cited as the greatest performance in silent movies, if not throughout the entire history of the art form, Falconetti conveys the endlessly abused Joan’s panic and pain as though exuding them from her very visible pores. She cries tears in 287 different ways. Her every reaction shot is a master class in what acting can accomplish when it doesn’t have to try to play to the back row. The tiny but gut-wrenching gesture Joan makes when she’s about to be tied to the stake and her executioner drops the rope, weakly reaching down to hand it back to him, is something torture-mongers stretching from Alfred Hitchcock through to Lars von Trier spent their entire careers breaking actresses’ spirits trying to achieve.
Dreyer’s career leading up to the film was prolific, if spotty, with genre triumphs and forward-thinking melodramas. His career following it stretched, much like Stanley Kubrick’s after him, like taffy, with lengthier fugues and ever-more-clarified assertions of his blessedly insular talent. The Passion of Joan of Arc remains the moment that he guided his medium to new heights, and also crafted a work that would endure outside of any specific context.
Maybe no other title from the Criterion Collection’s first 100 DVD spines has been more anxiously awaited for a restorative upgrade. The original 1999 DVD was already a milestone for Phoenix-from-ashes home-video resurrections, so it would be an understatement to say expectations were high. And with only one specific caveat, they have been fully achieved, and cinephiles everywhere can accept this disc like Joan receiving her final communal wafer.
Gaumont’s 2K restoration conveys just how immediate Carl Theodor Dreyer’s monochromatic images must have felt to audiences in 1928. Every eyelash, every housefly, every speck of dirt in Joan’s fingernails is rendered in flawless clarity. The balance of contrast and delineation of shadow are straight fire. The final sequence of Joan burning amid witness rioting feels as though it might melt your screen into a puddle right before your very eyes.
The one aforementioned caveat that bears mentioning, and may only matter in the sense that it breaks up one of cinema’s most seamless experiences ever, is that the restoration does appear to have utilized multiple sources for single, individual shots. In cleaning up the resources available, occasionally frames will appear to undergo a slight but still perceptible morphing effect. Anyone with knowledge of The Passion of Joan of Arc’s archival history won’t lose any sleep over it, but it’s still worth the mention.
The sound, such that it is, consists of three separate musical scores, the most prominent of which is, of course, Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, which was included in the prior Criterion release and which has more or less become the film’s commonly accepted accompaniment. Einhorn’s work gets the full 5.1 treatment, and it remains a stunning piece of music. However, Criterion’s other two options—one from Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory and Portishead’s Adrian Utley, the other from pianist Mie Yanashita—offer amusing counterpoint.
First off, kudos to Criterion for retaining scholar Caspar Tybjerg’s audio commentary from their 1999 release. Tybjerg’s track is sheer professionalism; he clearly outlined what he intended to say, did his research, never slacked in sharing his knowledge, and conveyed it in a ASMR-friendly accent. Listening to his track feels like sitting in a particularly invigorating session with your favorite film professor, one in which you don’t need to take notes because every word is branding itself on your brain. Not too many of the other bonus features from the 1999 release made it over, but that’s all right because so many of the extras that replaced them are so much more enlightening. Tybjerg makes another appearance here, explaining the reasons Criterion decided to offer the film in both 24 frames per second and 20 fps, and why neither can truly be considered officially "correct." Critic Mark Le Fanu offers up a text essay for the accompanying booklet, which also includes Carl Theodor Dreyer’s director’s statement on the film along with Einhorn’s libretto for Voices of Light. Einhorn also appears to explain what circumstances led him to tackle his massive undertaking, and also share a chat with the daughter of Maria Falconetti. Finally, there’s a comprehensive explanation of the film’s various histories. Nearly perfect marks for Tybjerg’s contributions alone.
Words fail with a masterpiece as hermetically sealed and seamless as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, so it’s fortunate that Criterion’s new reissue for the film will leave you speechless.