Out of the Ashes: The Passion of Joan of Arc

The strange and mysterious history of the classic silent film about the Maid of Orleans.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431. She was canonized in 1920. Eight years later, and almost 600 years after her death, she was immortalized on screen in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Soon after its completion, however, the original film “disappeared” on account of fire. Painstakingly, the director recreated it again from outtakes, but shortly afterwards, that negative too was obliterated in yet another fire. Only a few years after its release, it seemed as if the film was lost forever, and just at a time when the now-Saint Joan was being re-introduced to the world. That was not the end of the matter, though. The flickering images were to return mysteriously from the flames, like the saint herself, and in circumstances no one could have imagined.

The canonization of St. Joan of Arc in 1920 was followed a year later by the publication of the transcripts of her trial. At the same time, one of the most promising young directors in Europe, Carl Dreyer, was invited to France to make a film. It was to be on any subject of his choosing. The Danish director said that, at the time, he was considering as subject matter the lives of three French women. He devised a way of choosing which of these women’s lives to turn into a film. Ironically, it was from the drawing of matches that the Maid of Orleans emerged as his subject. Needless to say, the director’s imagination was immediately ignited and for the next 18 months he set about researching all he could find on the life of the peasant girl from Domrémy. He could not have known then just how much, both artistically and personally, this film would cost him.

Crucial to the film was the casting of Joan. It is said that Dreyer looked at many actresses for the role but failed to find the quality he sought. He walked the Paris streets and came upon a theatre where a light-hearted comedy was playing. He entered. As usual, he studied the actresses on stage. One caught his eye. She was beautiful, if heavily made-up, playing with comedic charm. Still, there was something that drew him to her. He returned the next day. After that performance, he went backstage. He found the actress; Renée Jeanne Falconetti was her name. He talked to her and, as he did so, he noticed something remarkable beneath the powder and paint. He asked her to do a screen-test the next day. She did so, and when she arrived was told to remove all her make-up. While the cameras rolled, Dreyer watched as before his eyes “Joan” he had been searching for came into focus.

He would later write of Falconetti:

There was something in her which could be brought out; something she could give, something…I could take. For behind the make-up, behind the pose and that ravishing modern appearance, there was…a soul behind that façade…but also a woman of suffering.

Thus was born one of the greatest cinematic pairings in history. Even today the performance that the director was to elicit from the actress still draws gasps of admiration and wonder. This is all the more striking given the fact that it was Falconetti’s first major screen role. Dreyer’s camera captured the transformation of this 20th-century woman into a 15th-century mystic.

The film itself is a record of the intensity of what took place on the set. Whether this intensity was as a result of the ruthless determination of Dreyer or something else, something closer to the 600-year-old source material—the actual transcripts of the saint’s trial—will never be fully clear. Certain facts, however, are well evidenced: the shoot was a grueling experience for Falconetti. Too grueling, some contend, with a tyrannical director extracting a performance like no other from an all-too-fragile actress. When it came for her head to be shaved, as the saint’s was just before her burning, Falconetti suffered some sort of breakdown.

It remains a strange film, with its own particular magnetism from its first frames. The much-lauded editing with its claustrophobic close-ups add to the intensity, propelling the audience ever closer into a world unseen—the inner life, present in a way that few had achieved before on film or, indeed, would again. The fact that the movie’s subject is a 19-year-old saint and that it is based solely on the testimony of history lend it an almost documentary feel. Even when seen today, it looks as if it could have been filmed yesterday, or at any time in the last 100 years, or, if it had been possible, in the 1430s. Few if any films have a similar impact.

The actress at its center, Falconetti, was never to make another film. And yet, her 1928 screen performance now ranks as one of the greatest ever—appearing again and again on critics’ lists decade after decade. Maybe it was the film’s initial controversy that closed the possibility of other film work for its star. Thereafter, as the film drifted off into obscurity, she drifted too. A decade or so later, as the Nazis marched into Paris, she fled France, ending up in South America. It was to prove no refuge. By 1946, impoverished and in ill health, she had made it as far as Buenos Aires. It was there, in still unexplained circumstances, her life was to end.

Like the saint, the cinematic Joan was rejected when the film was first exhibited in 1928. A new set of inquisitors demanded that it be consigned to the flames. Censored and shunned, the flames that soon followed seem to have acted out the wishes of these new “persecutors” as the negative of one of the greatest pieces of cinematic hagiography went up in smoke. Dreyer’s attempt to salvage what he had created with a second version patched together from outtakes proved, in the end, not to last. It too fell victim to fire. Thereafter, botched and butchered prints emerged from time to time; none were the original. A French version of the “second cut” surfaced in the 1950s and was promptly and angrily dismissed and disowned by Dreyer.

Nevertheless, over the decades The Passion of Joan of Arc was still talked of in hushed tones by the cognoscenti. Gradually its reputation grew even if this was based on stills and the screenings of truncated versions. These were all there were; it appeared these would be all there ever could be. When Dreyer died in 1968, one of his greatest masterpieces remained lost, and, now, one of the few who knew exactly what it looked like was gone too. But, just as the flames at Rouen could not destroy the 19-year-old mystic, so too the fires that destroyed the original movie could not prevent its subsequent reappearance, if in an unexpected way and in an unforeseen place.

In 1981 a janitor was cleaning out a closet in a mental institution in Oslo when he discovered three film canisters. They were passed to the Norwegian Film Institute, where they lay unexamined for another three years. Finally, they were opened and found to contain an almost pristine, certified print of Dreyer’s original 1928 cut of The Passion of Joan of Arc. To this day no one knows why or how these prints ended up at the hospital—the film was never released in Norway. On account of the fact that her original accusers had branded Joan and her “voices” madness, the place of this discovery appeared all the more ironic.

Whereas the original 1928 release was raged against, from the 1980s onwards, the restored version of The Passion of Joan of Arc has received wide acclaim throughout the film world, as from the ashes a “celluloid saint” had arisen once more to claim her place in cinema history and our collective memory. 

About K. V. Turley 44 Articles
K.V. Turley writes from London.