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The Passion of Joan of Arc
Stasis Inaction (Part 3 of 4: An Intro to Transcendental Style in Film)
Carl Theodor Dreyer was born in Copenhagen in 1889, right around the time moving images were being developed worldwide by various inventors. (Why the chronophotographic gun never took off remains a mystery.) In 1928, having had little luck in Denmark’s burgeoning film industry and having moved to France, Dreyer directed the first of his films to impact the history of the medium: La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928). For those keeping score at home, this film is tied for 21st place on Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time list.
Dreyer is the third director Paul Schrader focuses on in his treatise on transcendental style, so we follow as we have throughout the month. It’s almost an odd choice. Schrader plainly states that Dreyer’s films often lack a commitment to the transcendental:
Dreyer never totally yielded to the transcendental style; he respected it, pioneered many of its techniques, gradually came to use it more and more, but was never willing to completely forsake the expressive, psychological techniques at which he was also an expert.
As is often the case, exceptions that prove the rules can be the best places to look for insight into the “rules” themselves. The Passion of Joan of Arc is not the best example of transcendental style in film. (Schrader contends that Ordet (1955) is Dreyer’s most transcendental work.) However, we can look at the stylistic deviations that prevent the film from achieving transcendence and, in doing so, creep ever closer to understanding transcendental style.
The opening frames of The Passion of Joan of Arc show men milling about a courtroom (shot very closely) that has yet to come to life. Two guards escort a short-haired woman into the court proceedings. The woman’s face is writ with disbelief. Her large eyes survey the surroundings frantically. Joan is truly alone. The tone of the film seems set.
The first thing that might strike you about this absolute museum piece of a movie (I mean this in the best possible way) is the Kammerpiele. Obviously. Few movies are filmed in this style today. By style, I don’t mean transcendental, black and white, or silent. I’m referring to the constant close-up that Dreyer uses to show us every precise expression and gesture made by the actors. Joan’s tears. Various judges’ warts, moles, and scowls. Onlookers’ shock and surprise. It feels intensely personal. It’s effective at transporting us into another time and place, even though we’re watching an absolute museum piece of a movie. I’ve never seen anything like it. It feels like a story meant to be told in this format. It feels almost like we’re watching long-lost footage of the trial itself.
Two opposing styles at work in Dreyer’s early films conflict with the transcendental style: Kammerspielfilm and expressionism. Kammerspiel (literally meaning chamber play) in film attempts to bring the small and intimate theater feeling to a movie through extreme close-ups, small gestures, and precise staging. The intent is to push us toward understanding the character’s intense psychological state. Expressionism in film, as defined by Schrader:
The intent and techniques of expressionism are in direct opposition to Kammerspiel. It is the reverse side of man’s psychological nature. Expressionism externalizes Kammerspiel’s delicate interior drama, overtly exposes its tortured underpinnings, and transforms its calm facade and measured symbolism into grotesque graphics and mythic imagery. Kammerspiel utilizes realism and understatement; expressionism utilizes exaggeration and overstatement; but both are dependent upon psychology, often of a complicated nature.
It’s important to note these two styles for two reasons. One, you’ll see them at work often in Passion, and recognizing stylistic choices is fun. Two, they undermine transcendental style and, in so doing, give us better insight. Take, for example, the scenes of Joan’s trial described above; close-ups of judges making accusations and Joan receiving them. We see the slightest expressions of fear and panic on her face. The judges sneer and furrow their brows. This ‘kammerspiel,’ in conjunction with expressionism (sinister framing and set composition), leaves little doubt about how we should feel as an audience. We cannot transcend the film since the clear intent of the action firmly grips us as it is presented to us. Rather than showing us the mundane ‘everyday’ (though there are hints of the ‘everyday’ in this film) or disparity (the “camera” doesn’t care about Joan’s feelings, but she has feelings nevertheless), we are shown a precise viewpoint on what is happening: Joan is being abused at her trial, and that’s bad.
One of the final essential elements of the transcendental style: stasis. From Schrader:
Stasis is the quiescent, frozen, or hieratic scene which succeeds the decisive action and closes the film. It is a still re-view of the external world intended to suggest the oneness of all things.
The lack of stasis is a prime example of Passion’s lack of transcendental style. Stasis can manifest in many different ways in the closing frames of a film. The example often on my mind is the closing shot of The New World (Malick, 2005), a match shot of the opening, in which we look up at the trees and the sky and hear the sounds of the forest. Passion’s final scenes are riveting in their action but make a solid moral argument, depriving the audience of the ability to “transcend” and meditate on the oneness to which all things return, or stasis.
You can rarely watch a film that, at the same time, possesses hallmarks of transcendental style, effectively takes you back in time, and is also historically significant in its own right. The Passion of Joan of Arc is all of this. It may not achieve stasis, but failing to do so gives us a stirring counter-example of the transcendent.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer and Joseph Deltail; Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
Beyond the film itself, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a fascinating piece of history. It was banned upon release. (Which should be a selling point for any art.) The original negative was thought to be lost in a fire and wasn’t recovered for decades. A janitor found duplicate negatives in Norway in 1981. I eagerly await the filmed version of Passion finding its way out of the wilderness.
A note on watching an old silent film: The restoration of the print is perfect. The picture is shockingly crisp. Also, it’s not actually silent! Silent films were often scored and re-scored, and this film is no different. If you watch the movie on the Criterion Channel, you’ll hear Richard Einhorn’s score, which is fantastic. Emotional beats are perfectly matched. Lastly, Maria Falconetti only made one film, and this is it. Her performance is astounding. Roger Ebert states in the opening sentence of his review: “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti.”
If you decide to fire up the internet and give this a watch, take a moment to consider the extreme fortune that allows you to do so.