Of my nominees for best picture of 1928-29, I've had three of them—Steamboat Bill, Jr.; The Wind; and my eventual choice, The Passion of Joan of Arc—penciled in for the award at one time or another, trying each on for size. Any one of them would have been a good choice and I'll bet if you looked at enough Alternate Oscar-type lists, you'd find all three of these as somebody's choice for the top prize.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. was 1928's best comedy and one of the best features Buster Keaton ever made. The Wind was the capstone of Lillian Gish's long and justly-celebrated silent film career. But it was something Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert said the other day in his blog that tipped the balance in favor of Carl Dreyer's film of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc.
Ebert was writing about how he tries to keep an open mind when approaching a new movie and had this to say about Pauline Kael's own philosophy of watching movies: "Take everything you are, and all the films you've seen, into the theater. See the film, and decide if anything has changed." That's what I find I have done with my first three best picture winners, The General (best of the silent era), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927-28) and now The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928-29): each has changed the way I feel about some aspect of movies and, on a good day, of life itself.
The General, aside from being a great comedy, probably did more to inspire this sudden mad interest in silent movies I've been riding for three months now than any other movie. For Katie-Bar-The-Door, too. Our trip down to the Kennedy Center to see The General presented with a live orchestra did more to make her an enthusiastic champion of this blog than did even the irresistible clarity of my sparkling prose. And Sunrise, a touching story of marital discord and reconciliation, showed me that my pre-conceived notions about film history—that Orson Welles singlehandedly invented modern movies—were flat out wrong.
The Passion of Joan of Arc, with its tightly-framed close-ups and unadorned emotions, is quite frankly something I'd never seen before in a silent movie—or any other movie, for that matter—an impossible, anachronistic artifact that proves once again that our forefathers were much more modern that we currently dream of being.
More importantly, though, the movie reminded me that telling a story in such a simple and straightforward manner, letting the chips fall where they may, can uncover truths about human nature so eternal that even an eighty year old film based on a nearly six hundred year old historical event can be as relevant and timely as this morning's news. That, I think, is one of the hallmarks of true art, an ability to speak across generations in a unique and unforgettable way.
Or leaving all that aside, it's just a great, very watchable movie.
Writer-director Carl Dreyer was all set to film a conventional telling of Joan of Arc's story when he ran across the transcripts of her trial in an archive in Paris . Reading the transcript prompted Dreyer to throw out his first screenplay and focus strictly on the trial and subsequent execution.
Now I've read a lot of trial tran- scripts in my time, first as a judicial clerk for a here- unnamed state's Court of Criminal Appeals then later as an appellate litigator for the federal government, and I can tell you, that while it's often difficult to discover justice in the cold written record of a trial, it's almost impossible not to discern the caliber of the trial's participants—their prejudices, their passions, their (very) occasional brilliance, their (much) more common incompetence. What I'm sure came across in startling clarity to Dreyer as he read the transcripts of Joan's trial was that her judges were motivated not by a search for the truth but by, first, cold calculations of national interest (Joan was the leader of France's military rebellion against an English occupation), and then, more interestingly, by the unsettling fear that Joan might be exactly what she purported to be, a saint working at the behest of God.
Dreyer dispenses with the usual exposition, stories of Charles VII, Henry VI and the last decade of the Hundred Years' War, and begins instead with the prisoner being led in chains through a makeshift courtroom into the witness dock. After the swearing in and some preliminary verbal fencing, the judges get down to it: "You claim to be sent by God?" a notion that elicits their scorn and amusement.
The nineteen year old peasant girl is seemingly no match for a roomful of learned scholars, but as the inquisition fails to trap Joan into a fatal misstatement or contradiction, the judges' derision gradually turns to frustration, anger, and eventually fury. They hammer at her relentlessly on the issue of whether she expects some sort of reward from God for her sacrifice—a sacrifice, Dreyer implies, the judges themselves would not have dreamed of making without assurances of more earthly rewards.
But this all for show. The presence of heavily-armed soldiers makes clear, both to the audience and to the judges, that the verdict is pre-ordained. As the troop's commander puts it, "Not for anything in the world do I want her to die a natural death."
Unless you skipped your high school history altogether, you know how this is going to end.
Finally, to move the proceedings along, the unyielding Joan is led to the torture chamber and given the option of renouncing her claim to being "a daughter of God" or suffering the excruciating consequences.
If Dreyer had filmed this sequence in 2008, I would say it was a fairly obvious commentary on Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding, military tribunals and the like. But he filmed it in 1928 based on the transcripts of a fifteenth century trial, and it serves as a simple statement of fact, that torture is designed not to find the truth but to extract compliance, conformity and an affirmation of a narrative the torturer already has convinced himself of. I doubt it even occurred to Dreyer that anyone in the civilized world had a different opinion of the matter.
As a general rule, I'm quite tolerant of a filmmaker's point of view (political and otherwise) regardless of what it is—unless we're talking about, say, Leni Riefenstahl's pro-Nazi propaganda—as long as (1) said filmmaker is as hard on his own beliefs as the beliefs he's attacking and (2) the politics are well-integrated into the story. Sometimes it works, more often it doesn't. For example, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I were in D.C. this weekend watching a production of King Lear at the Shakespeare Theater—Stacy Keach as Lear—and the director managed to shoe-horn in some action that was clearly a comment on our current wars in the Middle East. Quite frankly, it felt about as organic to Lear as a coconut does to a bowl of chili and we both left after the final curtain more than a little annoyed. But here, Dreyer let the action speak for itself without seeing any need to gild the lily, and the truths emerge on their own quite effectively.
When you sit down to watch this movie (if you sit down to watch this movie), how you choose to watch it may affect your reaction to it. At the time the original film was discovered in 1981, Richard Einhorn wrote a choral and orchestral accompaniment that gives the film an elegiac feel, spiritual, meditative, like praying in a cathedral as the shadows lengthen on a late-autumn day.
Dreyer himself though preferred the movie to be shown completely silent; and watching it that way, the feel is much more like the intense white light of an operating theater, with everything on the line and nowhere to hide. Without the accompanying choral score, the film is no longer a prayerful meditation on saintly virtue but an uncompromising look at the naked exercise of power and the ability of the state to pervert justice and destroy an individual for its own ends.
The DVD from the Criterion Collection gives you the option of watching it either with the score or without, and I've watched it both ways. Dreyer's choice may not be as pleasant but it's a lot closer to the truth.