Criterion Files #62: The Passion of Joan of Arc

By  · Published on July 28th, 2010

The inevitable day eventually comes in film school in which one learns the famed and much-debated Kuleshov Effect. It basically goes like this: In the 1910s and 20s, Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of experiments in which he used a shot of a person’s expressionless face and juxtaposed it with a series of other images, going back to the same expression on the same face, then to another image. A bowl of soup. A little girl. A child-size coffin. Each of these were juxtaposed with the same footage of the same blank face, yet each time the expression on the face appears different by the act of juxtaposition alone: when the face was juxtaposed with the bowl of soup, audiences concluded that the person was hungry, and when the face was juxtaposed with the coffin, audiences got the impression that the face was sad or in mourning. But the face was, in fact, the same throughout. The impression of difference was audience inference based on the juxtaposition, a projection predicated upon what the subjectivity of the audience member carries with them. The same face. Different images following it. Different meanings derived from each juxtaposition. The conclusion of the experiment was that juxtaposition creates meaning that doesn’t exist in either image alone. A face is a face. A bowl is a bowl. But together, they represent an emotion or an idea.

I can’t help but think of the experiment when watching Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). With a narrative centered exclusively on her heresy trial and subsequent execution in 1431, The Passion of Joan of Arc uses the dialogue between Joan and her judges to manifest a profound passion play of meaning and emotion, one anchored not only by Dreyer’s diligent filmmaking but by Maria Falconetti’s revelatory performance as well, a performance that sustains its undeniable power more than eighty years after its release.

In terms of place and time, the Kuleshov Effect has no direct correlation with The Passion of Joan of Arc, but the idea behind it does, for Joan ultimately comes across as a collision of all of cinema’s unique properties operating in unison towards a deeply affecting work of art that realizes the incomparable potential of moving image meaning-making – all without hearing a single character utter a word. This isn’t solely because of the film’s landmark editing strategy, or Dreyer’s innovative compositions and camerawork, or Falconetti’s masterful performance, or the compelling nature of the very subject matter of the film, but because these factors work perfectly in unison. It is the juxtaposition of these utilities, not their existence alone, that gives this film its still-resonant effect.

I’m not saying anything new here. These things can be said about any great film. But what makes The Passion of Joan of Arc so significant in regards to a parcel-to-the-whole Kuleshov montage reading of it are the sources of evidence within the film’s dense and fascinating history of how meaning in the film could have been (and in fact were) articulated differently, thus enabling a very different film despite containing all the same elements. According to a special feature on its Criterion DVD release, when Joan of Arc was first projected throughout Europe, it was often done so at the wrong speed, thus creating a far slower film than the one we see. Thus, it has been in the film’s restoration, not its initial release, that it’s been widely seen in its intended, authoritative standard. It is not juxtaposition itself that is important, but the speed in which the juxtaposed images move between themselves as well. Taken at a slower speed, the quick intercutting of Joan’s face with the devices of torture she will endure would take on a drastically different effect in terms of the sense of urgency derived from the editing strategies viewed in its definitive late-twentieth century release.

Secondly, the score that accompanies the film on the Criterion release (Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light, not composed in concurrence with the film’s initial 1928 release) provides yet another avenue in which meaning is added upon the films cacophony of stimuli via yet another juxtaposition, the aural with the visual. While the film is powerful enough as it is as a true “silent,” Einhorn’s score provides yet more power and authority to the already incredible story-told-through-images we are witnessing. (It must be noted here that silent films were rarely silent in exhibition, instead often accompanied by a live score and sound effects. However, the choice of music was often at that of the exhibitor, not the filmmaker, so “official” scores to certain silents were rare, and any most such scores were not preserved, so it has been par for the course for after-the-fact-scores like Einhorn’s to exist.) Einhorn’s music provides yet another layer of iconography that didn’t exist during the film’s original release, but this layer brings additional meaning for contemporary viewers, thus evidencing that many films – silents especially – hardly ever remain static in one form or another, but rather gain additional meaning as they are juxtaposed with added material and retrofitted for contemporary methods of viewing.

One interesting factor of the Kuleshov experiment is the inferred necessity of a blank face in order for it to work. The expressionless face provides a blank slate of sorts that allows whatever image that follows it to take on a great deal of weight in terms of gaining meaning through juxtaposition – the experiment, in other words, implies through the blankness of the face and the privileging of juxtaposition that more significant meaning exists within the juxtaposition than the face alone. But, by contrast, Falconetti’s face – an intimate, intense, pantheon close-up so dominant throughout the film – is far from expressionless. Sure, the look of terror or sorrow on her face wouldn’t contain quite the same resonance had it not been juxtaposed with the testing of a torture device or the mockery of her judges, yet Falconetti’s evocative eyes still speak volumes on their own. Falconetti’s performance is evidence of the very power of silence within silent filmmaking: that is, the ability to express in images that which is impossible to express in words. From her face on the screen to our eyes watching her, Falconetti’s performance is purely and powerfully emotive. It’s purely cinematic, as the expressionism and detail of Falconetti’s face produces a close-up performance impossible in any other medium. It’s an early example of what great acting for the big screen is and what it can be.

With films like D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) or Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), the previous decade of silent filmmaking reveled in the medium’s ability to recreate the spectacle of history, so it is not without great significance that The Passion of Joan of Arc remains with us something of a historical counterpoint a decade later: a shift in focus not on history as an epic, but history as an intimate, interpretive annal of incredible emotion and a profound collection of meanings applicable to the crises of the present. With The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer and Falconetti made the case that in any type of cinema, historical recreation or otherwise, stories of intimacy and subtlety can be expressed in an as or more visually compelling form than epics, that people and faces and emotions and reaction shots can be engrossingly cinematic and engage the viewer using every possible tool available to the form. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a brilliant and vastly important piece of filmmaking, and a rare type of film that not only retains its power, but has arguably increased that power with age.

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