There are few directors, artists, and filmmakers in the relatively young history of cinema that can rival the stature and respect accorded to the Danish auteur Carl Theodor Dreyer. Born in Copenhagen in February 1889, Dreyer was initially a journalist who ventured into the realm of cinema as a writer of screenplays for the blossoming Danish film industry. His reputation and enduring as one of the greatest film directors in the history of the medium hinges primarily in the fourteen feature films he made between 1918 and 1964 (Monty 7). Ib Monty observes that “[i]n Denmark he was always considered a solitary personality without any connection to the film milieu”. “He had no forerunners, no equals, and no successors. His kind of cinema was unique in a Danish as well as international context” (Monty 7). Dreyer’s first film, The Passion of Joan of Arc was heralded as a critical success and a masterpiece in the nascent cinema when it was released on April 21, 1928, despite it being a commercial failure. In tune with Dreyer’s professed individualism, The Passion of Joan the Arc utilizes a distinctly minimalist depiction of the Middle Ages in conjunction with unconventional camera techniques, such as the close-up and extreme camera angles, to depict the inner psychology of a woman living through the experience of persecution. Viewed from a modern perspective, Dreyer’s depiction of Joan of Arc’s struggle suggests the central theme of the triumph of the soul over the body. The film itself never delves on spectacle or escapism, as other Joan of Arc films have so fallen prey to. Instead, Dreyer explores the psychological, philosophical, and political dilemmas that concern Joan of Arc throughout her ordeal. In the pursuit of this goal, he utilizes distinct cinematographic techniques and purposeful manipulations of the mise en scene to create a continual sense of fracture and disorientation that parallels the discordant, fraudulent nature of Joan of Arc’s trial.
At the heart of The Passion of Joan of Arc is Renee Jeanne Falconetti, who portrays the Catholic saint in what is now considered one of the finest performances in the history of cinema. From a historical standpoint, Joan of Arc is a historical and religious figure that is hailed a heroine during the Hundred Years’ War. She was instrumental in French resistance against English occupation, with several victories under her name. The English captured her in 1430, and was put on trial for heresy by claiming that she was sent by God to take charge of the French army and lead it to victory. On May 30, 1431, she was tied to a pillar in the town square of Rouen, France, and was burned to death. The film follows Joan of Arc’s trial, where she suffers humiliations, shame, and psychological torture from her accusers.
Joan’s ordeal is emphasized through Carl Theodor Dreyer’s unconventional visual style, designed to unsettle spectators and provide relentless, almost suffocating use of close-ups and medium shots – many of them decentered compositionally as to almost fall off the edges of the frame (Pipolo 21). To be sure, not everyone is impressed or endeared by Dreyer’s techniques. Writing for Close Up in 1928, the poet H.D. writes on her distaste – and fascination – for such cinematic devices:
“Do we have to have the last twenty four hours’ agony of Jeanne stressed and stressed and stressed, in just this way, not only by the camera but by every conceivable method of dramatic and scenic technique? Bare walls, the four scenes of the trial, the torture room, the cell and the outdoors about the pyre, are all calculated to drive in the pitiable truth like the very nails on the spread hands of Christ” (H.D. 41).
But, ultimately, it is effective. Dreyer’s unconventional cinematography contributes to the final imagery of fracture and disfigurement. First and foremost, he dismantles the filmic articulation of depth and flatness. This is not to say that the space of The Passion of Joan of Arc is deprived of death, but depth cues are scarce and almost always absent. In Dreyer’s many close-ups of Falconetti’s face, there is an almost lingering question of how far she is from the background. The foreground that is Joan’s face seems to blend into a two-dimensional picture of her experience, rather than the spectacular “window” that may be seen in films wherein depth is emphasized. This is true not only in Falconetti’s famous close-ups, but also in medium and long shots, where the film also refuses to define multiple planes by utilizing, say, background features, lighting, or linear perspective (Bordwell 67).
Here the mise en scene is also instructive, as the very settings of each scene is important in the creation of an eccentric space within the filmic frame. Film critic and scholar David Bordwell narrates that:
“The blank settings – either as pure white walls or as empty sky – push all figures to the same plane, making almost everything foreground against neutral background. Since the décor is scraped clean of reference points, objects and figures often float suspended in a luminous vacuum. Similarly, although the lighting of facial contours and textures creates attached shadows, there are seldom any cast shadows to confirm depth” (67).
Aside from the usage of mise en scene to sabotage the film’s sense of depth, Dreyer also distort traditional linear perspective within the filmic narrative. Windows, doors, recesses and other elements within the mise en scene that may be referenced when one looks to find a sense of perspective within the frame are consistently skewed and rendered ambiguous. In one shot of Cauchon and his colleagues, they have two windows to their back, but they are rendered in contradiction to the traditional and familiar rules of linear perspective. According to the optical recession of planes, the right one should seem further back and the left one should be more distant, but Dreyer dismantles this completely when he distorts the windows’ placement within the background so that the viewer is left completely clueless as to his original intention. Similarly, scenes shot within Joan’s cell illustrates the same distortions that characterize other scene. In the cell, there is a recessed area which, shot by Dreyer, contains several inconsistent cues. Firstly, the crosspiece of the window is intentionally rendered skewed and crooked. The window frame itself is confused in its location within the filmic scene. Finally, the exaggerated leftward slant of the diminishing arch also skews and distorts the linear perspective within the scene.
The eccentric space emphasized throughout The Passion of Joan of Arc is, moreover, aided by the sense of figures hovering in gravity-less space. In this regard, the camera angles aid Dreyer’s manipulations. When the camera does not shoot a particular scene straight on, it is almost always low, looking up at the figures. This low angle shears off the characters at the waist or chest, so that the judges, clothed in ecclesiastical drapery, seem to glide across the frame rather than walk. Dreyer frequently tilts his camera either to the right or the left, to the point that, in one shot, the viewer finds that one character is canted while another is not (!). At one point, Dreyer actually inverts the bodies in order to deform the classical norm’s assumption that the gravitational field of narrative must pull the camera into an orderly orbit (Bordwell 68). Deprived of a firm angular grounding, characters and figures move about the frame in a perpetual struggle through the titled frame, jarring the viewer in each of its cuts and creates a heightened tension that echoes the trial’s skewed perspective.
Composition also violates tradition in The Passion of Joan of Arc. The principal action will not necessarily coincide with the center of the frame, as conventional compositional techniques elucidate. This was the case in D.W. Griffith’s equally-influential Birth of a Nation, which established the conventions of the classical Hollywood narrative cinema. Rather than follow Griffith’s techniques, Dreyer decenters the frame to create a sense of imbalance. When judges file out of Joan’s cell, for instance, they shuffle in the lower left of the frame. In the very first shot of Joan, she is situated along the bottom frame edge, flanked by soldiers’ spears. This compositional imbalance contributes to the final feeling of distortion and disruption, akin, perhaps, to Joan’s own feelings of loneliness and psychological abuse.
As Bordwell points out, the movement of the camera would logically contribute to a stabilization and rationalization of the filmic space:
“[B]y perceptual rights the moving camera should orient us more firmly to the dramatic space than static shots do. For one thing, camera movement strongly cues depth through what psychologists call the “kinetic depth effect”. Foreground and background planes get picked out by moving at different rates with respect to the camera lens. For another thing, camera movements supplement the sense of a ground, a balanced gravitational field within which the camera can confidently maneuver. Finally, the tracking shot can be used to stitch together the represented space so that respective positions of elements remain consistent” (Bordwell 19-26).
Contrary to Bordwell’s claim, however, Dreyer further disrupts the filmic space through camera movement. Dreyer’s camera motions in The Passion of Joan of Arc not only forgo Bordwell’s “kinetic depth effect” and undermine the gravitational stability of a ground, but also fails to stitch together the film’s narrative space in a coherent manner. The movements are hardly subordinate to story action; instead, Dreyer calls the viewer’s attention to them. For one, they are gratuitous by the standards of the era. Another point is that Dreyer’s camera movements are often interrupted by static shots. There is no attempt to soften the cut by smoothly melting tow moving shots together. Rather, Dreyer intercuts a static shot of Joan cut abruptly to an already moving tracking shot of the chain-clad book. In the torture chamber interrogation, short tracking shots of the spiked wheel abruptly alternate with equally short shots of Joan’s static face. High velocity whip pans are intercut with static close-ups of Joan. In the climactic immolation scene, confusion is fostered by the many lateral pans and tracks which are juxtaposed to static shots. Rather than concretize relationships, Dreyer’s camera movements split the dramatic space apart. In one pan shot of the judges sitting in a row facing the seated Joan, the camera pans left to right down them. One could expect that there is spatial continuity within the frame, but Dreyer utilizes camera movement to do everything but this. At the beginning of the movement the judge is looking off left at Joan; at the end of the movement, other judges are looking off right at her. This, simply, is impossible. Since the camera swivels across the judges, they cannot all be looking at the same point, but the narrative context insists that they are. The pan shot asserts that that Joan is in two places at once. “Camera movement here”, Bordwell notes, “freely cleaves open scenographic space” (77).
Monty, Ib. “Touching the Heart: An Introduction to the Cinema of Carl Th. Dreyer” . MoMA 50 (Winter, 1989): 7. Print.
Bordwell, David. “Camera Movement and Cinematic Space” Cine-Tracts 1 (Summer 1977): 19-26. Print.
Bordwell, David. The Films of Carl Theodor Dreyer. Calif.: University of California Press, 1981. Print.
H.D. in Lopate, American Movie Critics: American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents until Now. New York: Library Classics of America, 2006. Print.
Pipolo, Tony. “Joan of Arc: The Cinema’s Immortal Maid”. Cineaste 25.4 (2000): 16-21. Print.