Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968) made eight quality but unspectacular features between 1919 and 1926. In the ensuing four decades, he made only six more films—one of which he disowned. Yet he is always near the top of any informed list of the greatest film artists.
Dreyer spent much of his life as a journalist, film critic, and manager of a cinema in Denmark. He was not psychologically adept at raising funds for his projects or lending them a commercial appeal; he appears to have been as somber and uncompromising as his characters. (I once upset one of my curatorial colleagues by even suggesting that there might be a tiny bit of tongue-in-cheek humor in his 1932 horror film, Vampyr.) La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (1928) has been acclaimed for over eighty years, but it was a financial flop, and even I recognize that it is entirely humorless.
First, an apologia. Formal religion is not one of my stronger suits. While I consider myself spiritually inclined, my inclination is more toward some vague form of pantheism or Romanticism. Frankly, the idea of hearing voices “from God” seems to me some sort of wacky delusion. To look to this deity as a kind of military adviser, as Joan does, seems no more sensible than following the strategic advice of Groucho Marx as Rufus T. Firefly in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933).
Yet whatever my reservations and prejudices, Dreyer’s film is intensely moving and powerful. The reliance on close-ups, its most dominant stylistic feature, makes Dreyer’s Joan unique and ineffable. The Corsican stage actress Maria Falconetti, in her only film appearance, had few rivals in the complexity and depth of her performance. I can think of only Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, both of whom had many years to hone their craft. So we must credit Dreyer (and maybe the Big Guy upstairs) for her inspiration. Truly, this is the kind of magic of which cinema alone, of all the arts, is capable. No painting, no statue, no stage performance can generate the pulsating intensity of what Falconetti achieves. Her eyes, as Dreyer suggests, do mirror a soul that can make an unbeliever quiver and quaver. We seem to be left with no choice but to believe.
Dreyer subsequently went on to examine vampires and witches before his ultimate miracle of bringing the dead back to life onscreen in Ordet (The Word) (1954). These were all remarkable films, as was his last, Gertrud (1964). However, Jeanne possessed a special breed of enchantment (or “realized mysticism,” as Dreyer once called it) that could not be replicated in sound films. Be it simplicity or innocence, something was irrevocably lost in the audio revolution of the late 1920s.