I reviewed this film a long time back, being one of my favorite movies, but watching it now within the context of Dreyer’s entire filmography, which I was almost entirely unfamiliar with beforehand, I have some extra thoughts.
What’s most interesting from a filmmaking point of view is how out of character this film is considering what came before. Up until this point, Carl Theodor Dreyer was a gifted but rather conventional silent filmmaker. He had a strong sense of storytelling forms and structures, but he hadn’t really pushed actors towards a naturalistic direction for his first few films. His framing was generally pretty standard stuff, using his camera to highlight the large sets he had built for his productions while using mixtures of wide, medium, and close up shots to tell a story in a rather conventional way.
The Passion of Joan of Arc is not like that at all. Told almost entirely in closeup, you get mere glimpses of the seven million franc set of a castle Dreyer had built. There are virtually no master shots, the film obviously being pieced together from thousands of individual setups, much like how Eistenstein made Strike and Battleship Potemkin. Why go through the whole set construction if so little of it is going to end up used in the film? Dreyer would later go on to say that the large set allowed his actors to more fully lose themselves into their roles, allowing for greater performances, but I think that’s rationalization.
I would imagine that he had set out to make his film in line with everything else he had made, but as he got further into production he decided to make the film more consciously subjective from Joan’s point of view. It wasn’t planned from the beginning, but it made sense once he started doing it. The film was apparently shot in order. The early scenes are dominated by the courtroom-like questioning between Joan and her judges, told through closeups between interrogators and interviewee. As filming became dominated by this back and forth for the first week or so, he probably got the idea of highlighting her mental state more fully with the camera. When she’s first seen, Joan occupies a small corner of the frame, almost lost among the soldiers that flank the doorway, in contrast to the looming figures of the judges who dominate their frames.
I’ve also seen a couple of his later films, and they’re also nothing like this either. Both Vampyr and Day of Wrath and much more traditionally composed films that move slower and steadier. The Passion of Joan of Arc is just so wildly different from everything else he made. There’s one moment I can point to in Michael that feels like how the entirety of Joan of Arc feels, the moment the titular Michael paints the countess’s eyes. It almost feels like Dreyer’s seminal work, the work he primarily known for, was made by someone else. It just stands apart from his body of work that much.
That’s not to denigrate the rest of his work, but it’s just interesting to note.