A Brief Look Into the 1920s With ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928)
It seems that even decades into the past the medium of cinema was still confronted with drastically variant perceptions of a single film. The Passion of Joan of Arc is no exception, even though its status in today’s society is sealed as a classic masterpiece, the same was not always widely agreed upon within its original release date of 1928. However, the curious detail which brings a bit of puzzlement to this survey is found within the mixed reviews themselves. Curiously enough, all of the journals and magazines researched to bring upon this bibliography either regard this film as a contemporary “masterpiece” (The Bioscope) or a motion picture which “isn’t worth a dollar”(Variety); however, they hold radically deviated opinions while sharing the same reason for either their distaste or satisfaction of the film. These dissimilar perspectives are all found within the extreme emotions expressed through The Passion of Joan of Arc’s technically-mastered use of the close-up.
Though it is difficult to judge whether or not these extremely opposite opinions were formulated through a bias of the personal subject of religion Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film comments on, the audiences and readers from the 1920s and 30s had only these scarce sources to decipher their reasons for either viewing the masterpiece or ignoring the worthless and time-wasting picture. Reviews found in The Bioscope hint at the film’s future in regarding it as “one of the greatest films of the age”, admiring the realism of the picture through the successful use of the close-up in achieving emotional expression and power. However, essays from volumes 2 and 5 of Close-Up were absolutely disgusted at experiencing this very same use of emotion while only appreciating its procedural or mechanical glory as opposed to anything theological. Feeling arrested and tormented by the film one critic questions “why must my very hands feel that they are numb and raw and bleeding…as if beating at those very impregnable medieval church doors” (Hilda Doolittle 1928). For some, the emotional expression of the picture was a blessing, for others, a torture.
For example, a critic from Variety, already tiresome of a soundless picture a year after the first “talkie” was released, only finds photographic merit and technical achievement in the film, viewing the motion picture as hard to sale to audiences and mostly made for French colonies appreciative of the historical aspect the film portrays. Yet, Experimental Cinema saw this work of art as a milestone in its technical mastery of capturing human expression within a single frame and linking it to other movements in the scene just as Theatre Arts proclaims the picture to be “a gallery stirred to life and given flow and beauty by movement” (John Hutchens 1929) in ways that transports the audiences back in time to a historically significant time in France’s past with which audiences of the current era would surely be “torn between [feeling] foreboding, indignation, passionate sympathy and an equally deep sense of futility” (Hutchens 1929) for the protagonist, Joan.
Lastly, the audiences of the time were left to see a haunting and altogether shockingly dramatic poster of Joan within the flames of hell, being judged by four almost God-like faces amidst her very own trial. This depiction of the film surely raised bias and speculation to those audience members already aware of the story and the content matter for which The Passion of Joan of Arc is famously known by.
Thank you for reading,
Omar Antonio Iturriaga
1- Doolittle, Hilda. “Joan of Arc.” Rev. of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Close-up v.3 n.3 September 1928. Journal.
2- “Passion of Joan of Arc.” Rev. of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Variety 10 April 1929
3- Potamkin, Harry A. “The French Cinema.” Close-up v.5 n.2 August 1929. Journal.
4- Hutchens, John. “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Rev. of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Theatre Arts 13 May 1929. Journal.
5- “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” Rev. of The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Bioscope 09 April 1930. Journal.
6- Klingler, Werner. Rev. of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Experimental Cinema v.1 n.1 February 1930. Journal.
7- Artist unknown. The Passion of Joan of Arc original poster.New York : Eloquent Press, N. Morgillo: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archivo:Passion_of_Joan_of_Arc_movie_poster.jpg