The Passion of Joan of Arc: Alienation and Games of Perception

Professor of Scandinavian studies Chip Oscarson discussed the unique perspective of filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer and his production of The Passion of Joan of Arc (La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc) at an International Cinema lecture.

PROVO, Utah (Mar. 3, 2015)—What business does a professor of Scandinavian studies have talking about the French film, The Passion of Joan of Arc?  As perplexing as it sounds, in 1928 the national memory of this French heroine was entrusted to a Dane.

At an International Cinema lecture, Scandinavian professor Chip Oscarson discussed the distinctive style of Danish film director Carl Theodor Dreyer and his role in bringing a national symbol of France to life through silent film.

Dreyer was a Danish filmmaker and director who was invited to make the 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc based on a reputation he had gained in Denmark and Sweden, Oscarson said.  

“When we talk about nationalism in film it’s always a trick question. What is it that determines the nationality of a film?” Oscarson asked.

Factors may include where the money comes from, which in the case of this film was France, Oscarson explained. Another criterion could be where the actors and actresses come from, which would again give the film French origins.

The controversy of this film, however, was that Dreyer was not French but Danish, a factor that was upsetting to audiences in France.

“Joan of Arc embodies the symbol of France,” said Oscarson. “There’s a huge reaction against the film because he’s not sufficiently French. There was something scandalous about entrusting this national memory to a Dane.”

Dreyer came to France after WWI in the ’20s to work on film based on a reputation that he garnered with Nordisk Film as an art film director, Oscarson said. Art films are meant to reach broader audiences, looking past the sideshow attraction of film and attempting to become something with cultural legitimacy.

“What does film have to do to become art?” Oscarson asked.  “One of the things it needs is an artist – a creative genius behind the work that people can look to.”

Dreyer came in as one such creative genius to fill this difficult role, Oscarson said, charged with the responsibility of creating not just any film, but one about Joan of Arc – a French national heroine and symbol of France.

Oscarson explained that what Dreyer produced, however, was not the French national epic. “What you get is a very challenging film in that it’s avant-garde. What I mean by that is that it didn’t adhere to the acceptable film techniques of today. It did things with the formal elements of the medium that drew attention to itself as film.”

Joan of ArcOscarson continued that The Passion of Joan of Arc is filled with constant reminders that one is watching a film. “It’s the alienation affect. You’re watching and then suddenly you’re pushed out of the work of art. You’re reminded that this is only a work of art,” he said.

Dreyer was also interested in creating the right milieu to exert pressure on the actors’ and actresses’ performances in order to produce a strong sense of reality. Oscarson explained that when Dreyer set out to make the film he requested that the producers give him funding to reconstruct the medieval city of Rouen where Joan of Arc was tried. When the first rounds of the film were released the producers were horrified to find that the rebuilt city was not featured in the film. Dreyer explained that the city was not for the film, but rather for the actors so that they could experience the milieu of the old city for themselves.

After this, it became difficult for Dreyer to make other films, Oscarson said. Dreyer was notorious for his attention to detail. To a fault, even, said Oscarson.

“He was meniacal and incredibly difficult to work with,” Oscarson said. “The kind of torture that he put Falconetti through, (the actress who played Joan of Arc) was not altogether unlike the torture that poor Joan goes through in this film. They really do cut her hair, and he wouldn’t let her wear any makeup.”

Oscarson explained that many of Dreyer’s lead actors and actresses would never work for him again because it was too harrowing. Even though Falconetti’s performance was nothing short of stunning, she would never perform in a film again.

There are many hallmarks of Dreyer’s films that should be noted today. He was known for his interest in intense close-ups, a prevalent feature throughout the film. “He talks about the face being a landscape that he never tires of exploring,” Oscarson said.

“I mentioned this idea of the alienation effect that’s in play in this film,” Oscarson continued.  “There’s a very deliberate attempt to frustrate your expectations of what’s coming. One of the ways this happens most regularly is that Dreyer has absolutely no regard for continuity editing.”

Oscarson explained that continuity editing is the style of editing that was developed by D.W. Griffith and other teams in Hollywood. If the camera is looking at something, and then the next shot is of something, it is coded as point of view.

“Dreyer throws those rules out the window; he doesn’t want to conform to that kind of aesthetic,” Oscarson said. “Instead, he frustrates you. She looks one way and then the next shot is in a different direction. There’s this deliberate attempt to confuse you, to remind you that you’re watching film.”

Oscarson said that Dreyer makes the act of perception a violent act that implicates the audience in the torturing of Joan. It is also reminiscent of the lack of medieval depth cues, an aesthetic Dreyer adopted to challenge the contemporary depth cues the audience had become accustomed to.

“There’s an estrangement of vision that invites us to see differently,” Oscarson said. “The extreme close-ups are so tight that the human face itself becomes an abstract kind of form through this whole film.”

He concluded, “This constant estrangement and contortion of the body that Dreyer presents us through his innovative style, liberates the story of Joan of Arc from its historical particulars and creates a transcendent and even spiritual experience.”  

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)