In 1431 Joan of Arc was tried and condemned as a heretic in the castle tower of a château in Rouen, France, the then seat of the English occupying government. The Danish director Carl Dreyer’s silent-movie classic, The passion of Joan of Arc, which deals with Joan’s trial and execution, was recently screened as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival and the Parade Tower in Kilkenny’s medieval castle seemed an appropriate venue to see it. The ensemble 3epkano added to the occasion with a performance of their own specially written score.

Some sense of trepidation accompanied us to the screening. The film had inspired an awesome reputation, but I’d never met anyone who’d seen it. The hype wasn’t the kind that came with a large PR budget and popular-media saturation. It was that more persuasive kind, the kind that consisted of glimpses and echoes through time. There were intimations of greatness, and these subtle hints, I knew, could be cruelly exposed in the light of fixed attention. Our usher for the evening reassured us, “It’ll be great craic," he said, as we took our seats; a sentiment somewhat at odds with the prevailing mood – the plot, after all, seemed to indicate that the next ninety minutes or so would be short on laughs.

The legend of Joan has inspired and been added to by some of our greatest dramatists and composers. From Shakespeare to Brecht, from Giuseppe Verdi to Leonard Cohen, writers have re-presented her to us as an enduringly fascinating figure. There have been many films too, with portrayals by actresses including Ingrid Bergman and Jean Seberg. Robert Bresson’s 1962 film, The trial of Joan of Arc, like Dreyer’s film, is based directly on transcripts from the original trial and it is interesting to compare these two great directors making very different films from the same historical material. Despite this abundance, however, many people continue to regard Dreyer’s film as providing the most vivid and moving portrait of all.

Joan of Arc grew up during the time of the ‘Hundred Years War’. She was born in the village of Domremy in 1412, in an area loyal to the Armagnacs. France at that time was split by a factional rivalry between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, which allowed the English make easy gains. Joan received visions from Saint Michael telling her to drive out the English and to bring Charles, the dauphin (crown prince) to Reims for his coronation. After convincing Charles of her divine providence (or at least of her tactical usefulness) she was put, while still only seventeen, at the head of an army whose most famous victory was the lifting of the siege of Orléans (a ‘sign’ she predicted which would confirm her legitimacy as a visionary). After a year-long campaign she was eventually captured by Burgundian forces outside the town of Compiègne. She was delivered to the English, who, in an attempt to undermine her ‘holy’ authority, selected clergymen to find her guilty of heresy.

Everything about Dreyer’s film invites hyperbole. The story itself has a Christ-like trajectory and unassailable position as the blueprint for a nation’s sense of nobility and courage. The film was released in 1928 ( The jazz singer was released in 1927 and the first fully sound film, Steamboat Willie, in 1928), and helped provide an added sense of terminal poignancy to a silent era which had, just a few years earlier, flowered into greatness. The uncanny story of the print itself, its destruction, loss, and eventual rediscovery, adds another layer to the drama. Perhaps most significantly, the film contains a central performance that has passed into legend by an actress appearing in only her second feature and who was never to appear on screen again.

Beginning with the first films of the Lumière brothers in 1895, cinema gained an increasing hold on the popular imagination. As the technical means for making and showing films advanced it also established itself as an important new artistic medium. The silent-movie era, which lasted until the end of the 1920s, reached a zenith of artistic achievement in the work of film makers like Dreyer, D.W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein, and F.W. Murnau. The first decades of the twentieth century saw a steady arc of technical and artistic advancement in the cinema and for some observers the din of the ‘talkies’ would destroy the purity of this brave new world forever.

Carl Dreyer: The passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, film still, image held here

The original negative of The passion of Joan of Arc was lost to fire in 1928 only months after the film was completed. Dreyer assembled a new cut from alternative takes but that too was soon destroyed. Existing only as fragments and in poor quality prints, the film developed the aura of a lost masterpiece, until 1981 when, remarkably, an almost-perfect-quality print of Dreyer’s original version was discovered at the bottom of a closet in a Norwegian mental institution.

Throughout the 1920s, filmmakers harnessed the expressive power of the close-up to increasingly telling effect. Directors like Griffith, Eisenstein and Murnau knew its effectiveness in transmitting feeling, especially when used to magnify the expressive mystery of the human face. An exchange of glances can transmit meanings too subtle to be conveyed by words, and when projected onto the cinema screen facial expressions become dramatic events. Bela Balasz writes how, “In the silent (movie) facial expression, isolated from its surroundings, seemed to penetrate to a strange new dimension of the soul." Dreyer’s film is dominated by close-ups; Joan and her accusers appear to us as a series of close-ups of heads and faces; we move, in Balasz’s phrase, “…in the spiritual dimension of facial expression alone."

In Robert Bresson’s film, The trial of Joan of Arc, Joan, as played by Florence Delay, is portrayed with an emphasis on her fortitude and intelligence. Intellectually she is more than a match for her inquisitors and we sense in her composure the guiding light of a divine presence. Dreyer gives us a different Joan. In casting the stage actress Renée Maria Falconetti, he set the scene for one of the most memorable performances in cinema history. The extensive use of close-ups allows us an almost microscopic examination of the actress’s feelings and Falconetti, bringing an astonishing intensity to the role, presents us with a harrowing image of mental and emotional desolation. André Bazin describes the film as, “…a documentary of faces," and writes how, “…the whole of nature palpitates beneath every pore." Falconetti expresses confusion and the anguish of doubt. Joan’s inner turmoil is palpable as she struggles, not just with her accusers, but also with her own conscience, as she tries to understand and come to terms with her spiritual destiny. Her saintliness is not a given but rather a process in which the dichotomy of her physical and transcendent self seeks its agonising resolution.

Carl Dreyer: The passion of Joan of Arc, 1928, film still, image held here

Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais: “Do you believe you are in God’s grace?"

Joan of Arc: “If I am I hope I stay there and if I’m not I hope he puts me there."

Dreyer’s concentration on the trial process alone, coupled with the use of close-ups and unusual camera angles, destroys any sense of space and helps create an intensely oppressive atmosphere. Joan’s jailers make her a grass crown and mock her by having her pose in the attitude of a saint. We are made constantly aware of Joan’s inescapable fate. She will burn and everyone knows it, everyone that is except Joan herself who, despite her heavenly visions, remains concentrated on life. Under great pressure, Joan confesses and wins a reprieve. She is led back to her cell where her eyes fall upon the grass crown lying forgotten on the floor. It’s here that Falconetti’s performance achieves its greatest refinement of expression; Joan retracts her confession and in doing so condemns herself to death. In these few moments – as Joan turns to accept her fate, turns away from life and towards a paradise only she can see – we bear witness to one of cinema’s most searing images. Isambert, a Dominican priest charged with watching over Joan, asks in perplexity, “…and the great victory?" “It will be my martyrdom." “And the deliverance?" “Death". What Falconetti does, what makes her immortal, is her perfect embodiment of exquisite ends. Her face trembles with a delicious foretelling. In it we witness a terrible fear and a desperate longing, together entwined in a relentless drive towards ecstasy.

In the absence of narrative suspense, we await the end with a mixture of impatience and dread. Dreyer knows we are in agony, he has led us there, but he has the grace, in the midst of the awful dénouement, to provide an opening into a space beyond the traumatic scene of the burning, an opening that leads us, by anticipation, into its tumultuous aftermath. Suddenly, from the acrid, eye-stinging air, a sequence of cutaways to the tower window appears. We watch as maces are dropped, one by one, to a waiting arm below. The crowd is restless and the authorities are making ready. We are surprised by the graceful choreography of the scene and thankful too for the respite it affords us. We watch the rising flames, Joan’s terrible end, but we watch and understand too that it is the conclusion of her suffering – the threshold of her deliverance.

The riot of the peasants that ensues acts like a valve releasing an enormous pressure. The riot, the film’s final scene, leads us out of the inexorable agony and back to the reassuring chaos of the ordinary world. A flock of tiny birds, their black bodies flung swiftly across the incendiary sky, make good the film’s final symbolic exigency.

John Graham is an artist and is currently doing an MA in Fine Art Media at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.