Colossus of Rhode Island

1928-The Passion of Joan of Arc | August 26, 2010

Joan of Arc from

Joan of Arc from

Directed by a master in Carl Theodor Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc features one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema (and that is not something that I say lightly).  I’ve seen the lead credited as Maria Falconetti and Renee Falconetti, I don’t know which is her actual name (ah, the beauty of the silent era, when you could just make up your name, place of origin and background.  It was kind of like professional wrestling but with fewer chair smashes over the head).  This was only her second film, although before and after the movie she was an accomplished stage actress.  This was also her last film.  The process of making the movie was so draining that she never made another movie ever again.  Dreyer achieved as much emotional resonance as possible by using long close-ups of the actors’ faces and not using any makeup.  This approach works, as Falconetti is heartbreaking as Joan, giving one of the most moving performances captured on film.  Dreyer also manages to get very good performances from the rest of the cast as well.

I don’t know much about material culture during that era, so I cannot speak to how realistic the costuming is, but I can say that it avoids some of the obvious ludicrousness often associated with period pieces.  A stickler for verisimilitude, Dreyer based his script on the actual court documents of the trial, but the audience is meant to identify with the beleaguered Joan and not the English who would put her to death (who says that the winners always write history?).  It is presented as a passion play, which isn’t altogether surprising considering the title.  The movie focuses on Joan’s trial, her tortures, and her ultimate martyrdom, and one feels for her throughout the film.

I can understand why it was tough on the actors.  In a field that traditionally coddles the on-film talent, Dreyer was apparently a rather punishing director and even the process of watching the movie can be a little tiring, but in a good way.  This was a particularly difficult year for me, because Charlie Chaplin is my favorite actor and The Circus is my favorite of his movies.  I have heard the argument that he has had better films, but for my money, this is his funniest movie.  Steamboat Bill, Jr. is my favorite Buster Keaton movie and he is another one of my favorite comedic actors.  I am as happy-go-lucky as anyone I know and am tempted to recommend one of these great comedies, but the emotional resonance of The Passion of Joan of Arc really cannot denied is just crying out to be viewed and loved by more people and I encourage you to go out and rent it.  It is a difficult film, but it is well worth the effort.

Why this was a hard decision (other movies from 1928 worth seeing):

As I said in the description above, I think that The Circus is the funniest Charlie Chaplin movie.  It features the Tramp finding his way into a circus, causing mayhem by accident, and falling for the ringmaster’s daughter.  It’s a wonderful film.  Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. is well worth a watch and features one of his most dangerous and mind-numbingly awesome stunts (and all he had to do was stand still).  This year saw one of the earliest appearances of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, which also featured synchronized sound.  Conrad Veidt is tragic and moving in The Man Who Laughs. Lon Chaney gives a characteristically amazing (and kind of creepy, since he’s in love with his adopted daughter) performance in Laugh, Clown, Laugh opposite a very young Loretta Young.  He runs the emotional gamut in the movie from happiness to despair and it speaks to his talents that it doesn’t seem all that creepy while you’re watching it.  I don’t normally make a habit of highlighting movies I’ve never seen, but King Vidor’s The Crowd is, apparently, an amazing movie that has never been released on DVD and I would love to see it.

Did you know?  (1928 Trivial knowledge)

  • Conrad Veidt’s appearance in The Man Who Laughs was one of the visual inspirations for Batman’s nemesis, the Joker.
  • Steamboat Willie was partially inspired by Steamboat Bill, Jr.
  • Most blog writers would probably write something about the fact that Loretta Young starring in Laugh, Clown, Laugh when she was young is ironic.  It isn’t ironic.  I don’t really understand irony most of the time, but that’s why I don’t say that things are ironic.
  • The Circus was made during Chaplin’s costly, embarrassing, and highly public divorce from his second wife.  There was also a fire on the set that required everything to be rebuilt from scratch halfway through shooting.  All in all, it was such a terrible experience that he only mentioned it in one or two sentences in his autobiography and his hair turned white during the ordeal.
  • Do you know the story where a man walks in to speak to a doctor about how awful he feels and the doctor says that he should go see the famous clown who is currently performing and that will make him feel better?  Then the patient says, “but Dr., I am that clown!”  And then we understand the tragedy of clowns.  That happens in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. I’m not sure if it is the earliest appearance of that story or not, but I was upset to know how that story would end.
  • Much like my previous post, Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc was once considered a lost film until a negative of the entire movie was found in the early 1980s.
  • Walt Disney did the voices of both Minnie and Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie.

Favorite Quote:

“Laugh, clown, laugh, even though your heart is breaking.”  Flok (the clown) speaking to Flik (the other clown) in Laugh, Clown, Laugh when he realizes his adopted daughter doesn’t want to marry him.

Which Version did I watch?

The Criterion Collection edition


Posted in Uncategorized


  1. Sigh, this is such a great movie. We should watch it again together when we move into our new place.

    Comment by Kelley Anne — August 26, 2010 @ 2:22 am

  2. Ahh…date night to watch Joan of Arc on trial. Sounds like the best plan ever.

    Comment by KittyCason — August 27, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

  3. one of the greatest films of all time, and it moves me to tears every time i see it.
    falconetti gives one of the few truly perfect performances.
    also, i love ‘the man who laughs’ and try to watch it every year around halloween.

    Comment by s.j.b. — September 15, 2010 @ 3:55 am

  4. I agree Bagley. In a way I’m glad that she didn’t make any more movies after this. I’d love to see more of her work, but I also like that she just blazed across the screen for one film and then she kind of disappears.

    Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — September 15, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  5. Among the cinema stars, Renee Maria Falconetti’s performance is a super nova, six stars out of five, light years beyond our earthbound scale of 10, her Joan soars, rara avis, ionosphere-existent outside the box, Saint Sebastian-like impervious to critics’ arrows, and oblivious to our scoring systems. She moves and breathes like a Michelanglean Pieta of Pathos Mary, expressing profound sorrow through facial-intimate innuendos, immersing us in its consummate aesthetic, never needing to tell, but show, as if dialogue itself would be an intrusive distraction upon our entranced gaze. Here, less becomes more, and more becomes more. Her Joan holds you spellbound. I’m not a fan of silent films. And yet, now, ninety years after the films debut, and after a lifetime of watching thousands of movies, I find myself completely enthralled by her performance. Her character is a cinematic poem without equal. Simply the best acting ever filmed, hands down. For me, it’s all in the eyes, and her eyes have it, unquestionably and inexplicably.

    Comment by DLW Pesavento — December 18, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    • I agree. Falconetti gives one of, if not the, greatest performances in cinema history. I was talking to a friend about it and mentioned that I’m actually fairly glad that she didn’t make more films after this. It’s like having a perfect occurrence in cinema history that exists in just one movie and will not be replicated.

      Comment by colossusofrhodeisland — January 2, 2011 @ 3:23 am

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About author

I write things...this thing that I'm writing and you're reading is a series of posts, starting with 1920 and focusing on a movie from each year that I think you should see.







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