The Passion of Joan of Arc is a remarkable classic of the silent era by the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, depicting the trial and execution of Joan of Arc at the hands of the English. The film is frequently listed today as one of the greatest ever made, but has suffered numerous spates of bad luck in its lifetime and come perilously close to the dustbin of history.
Dreyer's version was the eighth attempt to film the story of Joan of Arc, but was far from a simple retread of the well-known story. Dreyer believed that the key to a film depicting the dreadful fate of Joan of Arc was to be found in humanising the deified through realism, immersive dimensionality in composition and an honest conveyance of emotion. As Dreyer himself explains:
“All of these pictures express the character of the person they show and the spirit of that time. In order to give the truth, I dispensed with ‘beautification’. My actors were not allowed to touch make-up and powder puffs and, from the first to the last scene, everything was shot in the right order.”
“For Falconetti, the performance was an ordeal. Legends from the set tell of Dreyer forcing her to kneel painfully on stone and then wipe all expression from her face--so that the viewer would read suppressed or inner pain. He filmed the same shots again and again, hoping that in the editing room he could find exactly the right nuance in her facial expression.”
A generous budget of 7 million francs was allocated for the film by French producers, which meant period clothing for the whole cast and a large and complicated three-dimensional set. The expectation was that Dreyer would produce a commercially viable epic, but he had more radical plans. Dreyer shot almost entirely in close ups and medium shots in order to focus on personalities and emotion, which rendered the expensive set largely obscured on screen; he mostly wanted the authentic replica of a 15th century town to get the actors in the right frame of mind. Furthermore, he ditched the approved script in favour of the actual transcripts of the trial, condensed to fit the film, and subsequent to completion demanded that the film be projected without any accompanying music.
"Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios. There was no thought of ever saving these films. They simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house."