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[ BIOGRAPHY ON WIKIPEDIA --- FILMOGRAPHY ON IMDB.COM ]
More on Carl Theodor Dreyer [01] [02] [03] [04]

Carl Theodor Dreyer - The Passion of Jean d'Arc
by André Bazin

Those who have the opportunity of seeing Carl Dreyer's masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc are actually seeing a print made from the original negatives. They were thought to have been destroyed but were miraculously discovered among the out takes of sound film at Gaumont Studios. There is perhaps no other film in which the actual quality of the photography is more important.

The Passion of Joan of Arc was filmed in France in 1928 by the Danish director Carl Dreyer, using French writers and a French crew. Based on a script by Joseph Delteil, the film is in fact inspired by the actual minutes of the trial. But the action here is condensed into one day, conforming to a dramatic requirement that is in no way a distortion.

Dreyer's Joan of Arc will remain memorable in film annals for its bold photography. With the exception of a few shots, the film is almost entirely composed of close-ups, principally of faces. This technique satisfies two apparently contradictory purposes: mysticism and realism. The story of Joan, as Dreyer presents it, is stripped of any anecdotal references. It becomes a pure combat of souls. But this exclusively spiritual tragedy, in which all action comes from within, is fully expressed by the face, a privileged area of communication.


I must explain this further. The actor normally uses his face to express his feelings. Dreyer, however, demanded something more of his actors—more than acting. Seen from very close up, the actor's mask cracks. As the Hungarian critic Béla Balasz wrote, "The camera penetrates every layer of the physiognomy. In addition to the expression one wears, the camera reveals one's true face. Seen from so close up, the human face becomes the document." Herein lies the rich paradox and inexhaustible lesson of this film: that the extreme spiritual purification is freed through the scrupulous realism of the camera as microscope. Dreyer forbade all makeup. The monks' heads are literally shaved. With the film crew in tears, the executioner actually cut Falconetti's hair before leading her to the stake. But this was not an example of real tyranny. We are indebted to Dreyer for his irrefutable translation direct from the soul. Silvain's wart (Cauchon), Jean d'Yd's freckles, and Maurice Schutz's wrinkles are of the same substance as their souls. These things signify more than their acting does. Some twenty years later Bresson resubstantiated this in Diary of a Country Priest (1950).

But there is still so much more to say about this film, one of the truest masterpieces of the cinema. I would like to enumerate two more points. First, Dreyer is perhaps, along with Eisenstein, the only filmmaker whose works equal the dignity, nobility, and powerful elegance found in masterpieces of painting. This is not only because he was inspired by them but essentially because he rediscovered the secret of comparable aesthetic depths. There is no reason to harbor false modesty with respect to films. A Dreyer is the equal of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance or Flemish school. My second observation is that all this film lacks is words. The only thing that has aged is the intrusion of subtitles. Dreyer so regretted not being able to use the still frail sound available in 1928. For those who still think that the cinema lowered itself when it began to have sound, we need only counter with this masterpiece of silent film that is already virtually speaking.

(Radio-Cinéma—1952)