Starting in 1337, the Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts between the English and French monarchs, each claiming right to the French crown. In 1415, the English monarch Henry V defeated the French armies in the Battle of Agincourt, turning the tide of the war. The Treaty of Troyes was signed five years later, and under its terms Henry V would inherit the throne of France upon the death of King Charles VI of France. As part of the deal, Henry married King Charles’s daughter Catherine of Valois, seemingly ushering in a new era when England and France had one monarch — the English one.
Naturally, this ticked off Charles VI’ son, Charles VII of France, who was now disinherited from the throne. But something happened to undue all of Henry’s work: he died at age 36, just two years later, on August 31, 1422, before he could officially succeed to the throne of France. In a twist of fate that must have driven the English nobility mad at the time, Henry died less than two months before the French king, who perished on October 21, 1422. Henry’s heir was the infant Henry VI, so he couldn’t do much to stake his claim at the time and would, in his adulthood, be enmeshed in the civil War of the Roses. Charles’s heir was the nineteen-year-old who declared himself king of France on the day his father died. Naturally this was not just accepted by the English royalty, who were watching out for their young king’s rightful place over the French.
Not that securing the throne again was going to be easy. The English occupied northern France, giving the new, disputed, and as-yet-uncrowned King Charles VII little breathing room. Indeed, his situation was desperate, when along came Joan of Arc, a young woman of only sixteen or seventeen years. She had a vision that the English would be pushed out of France and that Charles VII would be crowned at Reims Cathedral. Her success in making this all a reality seems a fairy tale, and yet her vision came true, and she played a crucial part. After relieving several French cities of the occupation forces in early 1429, she saw the Charles VII coronated King of France at Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429. She was the beginning of the end for the English in France. The English would soon be gone, fighting against themselves in the War of the Roses, and would never again return to occupy France.
Joan of Arc, though, was not to see the fruits of her labors. She was captured on May 23, 1430, and handed over to the English. A trial was held by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, and she was found guilty and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431. It’s this latter part that director Carl Theodor Dreyer chose to focus on in his magisterial 1928 silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s one of my all-time favorite films, and this week The Criterion Collection is releasing a home video version of a beautiful restoration.
I watched it four times over the last week. Even just last night I went to my office intending only to get some screen captures for this review . . . but I had to watch the whole thing again! I cannot quite explain it, but the film approaches cinematic perfection. It is seemingly simple — much of it is composed of close-ups of faces, particularly that of its star, Jeanne Falconetti — and yet the subtle acting and direction convey an emotional film that just seems to work on me every time. It’s truly transporting.
The film is structured in three parts: the trial, the confession, and the execution.
The trial is taken primarily from the original transcript. Here we see the men, religious and secular, goading their prisoner, asking her how she knew, for example, that the angel who visited her was St. Michael. Was he nude? We have not moved far away from this style of crass condescension.
They pretend to be concerned with her soul. They pretend to be attempting to save her life. They pretend to be the reasonable ones. What are her charges? Heresy. Why? Well, if they can get a guilty verdict or a confession that she was listening to the devil, it is easier to claim that the miracles she performed that culminated in the coronation of Charles VII were of the devil. Meaning Charles VII is on the throne not by God’s will but by the actions of Satan. Joan will, then, either confess or be found guilty and burned.
One of the most frightening characters is the priest, Nicolas Loyseleur, played by Maurice Schutz. Schutz has soft eyes that are deceiving. But, as with all of the characters, Dreyer captured so much nuance that subverts both words and appearance. He’s a snake!
Joan knows this, of course. Her answers to the myriad questions are carefully composed to cooperate while also avoiding the traps set all around. What really gets to her in Dreyer’s version, though, is taking her to see her fate. The court takes Joan outside and she watches while a gravedigger works, revealing a skull.
As she watches this, the life is sucked out of her. Her appearance is that of a sick person, hardly able to stomach that this will be her shortly, and then: utter resignation.
Joan looks to her right, though:
And there she sees an image opposite to the skull: a line of flowers, life.
It’s her choice. Become a skull, give up this existence, and with such a strong reminder that whatever resurrection she may believe in is, at the very least, a long ways away. Or she can confess and they will, they say, let her live.
While we all know what happened, the film dramatizes the agony beautifully. By this time, the pure humanity we’ve seen through so many close-ups of her face has made us completely involved. It only gets more agonizing.
There is one kindly man, the Dean of Rouen, played by Antonin Artaud. The strength and care he offers is genuine. In her moment of supreme pain, he stands in front of her, raising a crucifix for her to focus on.
Like us, though, he can hardly believe what he’s seeing.
Naturally, Dreyer is casting Joan of Arc in the similitude of Jesus Christ. This is her passion, after all, and this is her unfair trial at the feet of unjust men and her execution. Dreyer shows a line of witnesses, many of them women, who recognize they are watching something truly unholy.
The film can be watched entirely in silence. I know many who say this is the ideal way to watch it, and I have done so a few times. It doesn’t need sound to convey its power, Dreyer is so masterful at his image and movement. However, this edition comes with a few soundtrack options, including my favorite, Richard Einhorn’s 1994 oratorio Voices of Light. It’s a powerful work of art in its own right. Einhorn’s sources were primarily medieval female mystics. The Criterion edition has a copy of the libretto as well as a supplement on the disc where Einhorn talks about the composition as well as his personal research into the life of Joan of Arc.
The original version of the film was thought lost for decades after a fire destroyed the original negatives. In 1981, though, an original print (or close to it) was found in, of all places, a mental institution in Oslo, Norway. The Criterion edition also has a supplement that compares the original cut that was found with alternate cuts Dreyer was forced to use when the original was lost. It’s a great look at Dreyer’s choices as well as a glimpse at the minor miracle of discovering a work of art thought forever lost.
Fortunately, we have it, and now in the best version of it I’ve ever seen.