Carl Theodor Dreyer was born the illegitimate son of a Danish farmer father and a Swedish mother but following their death he was adopted by a Danish family in Copenhagen named Dreyer. As a journalist he wrote a series of articles on Danish film stars which introduced him to the cinema. Before directing films he wrote scripts, adapted novels to the screen, wrote intertitles and edited film. After 23 scripts CD directed his first film in 1919, The President. Other films include: Leaves from Satan's Book (1919), The Parson's Widow (1920) in Sweden, Love One Another (1921) in Berlin and wherever film companies would allow him artistic freedom to make the films he wanted to make. His success in finding such film companies probably prevented him from following many filmmakers' trek to Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s.
The French firm Société Générale des Films contracted him to make The Passion of Joan, the original script of which (based upon the biography by Joseph Delteil) was rejected in favour of the recently published trial transcripts. A concrete replica of Rouen castle was constructed for the shoot. The depression ruined the Danish film industry thus forcing CD to seek private funding for films such as his horror film Vampyr (1932). The Nazi invasion of Denmark closed the country off from foreign imports which temporarily revived the Danish film industry. CD made documentaries before making Day of Wrath (1943) about another woman wrongly burned (this time as a witch). Other film projects which occupied him were a film about Mary, Queen of Scots, Ordet (1954), Gertrud (1964), and a never finished film about Christ.
A film of the last few months of Joan of Arc's life. Less about the warrior Joan and more about the trial and its impact. The title hints at the "passion plays" of the life of Christ - another martyr.
The story of Joan has been filmed many times. First effort in 1898 by Georges Hatot. Natural topic for early film as story promoted in school textbooks, popularised in nationalist histories by Michelet. After the trial records were first published in 1920 and Joan canonised by the Pope, the image of Joan the military commander was replaced by the "persecuted Joan". Films by Bresson (Le Procès de Jeanne d'Arc (The Trial of Joan of Arc) (1962)) and Dreyer focused almost exclusively on trial after her defeat and capture. CD compresses the 18th month trial with the 29 intensive interrogations of Joan into one interrogation on the day before her execution (burning at the stake) on 30 May, 1431.
At a time when Abel Gance was making patriotic films (i.e. nationalistic and tinged with fascist sentiments) about French historical figures such as Napoleon, Carl Dreyer was employed by a French film company to make a film about an important French female historical figure (Marie Antoinette, Catherine de Medici, and the Maid of Orléans). The result is less a nationalistic film than a highly individualistic film (and hence anti-fascist) about a peasant girl who stood up to the authority of her time (viz, the Catholic Church). Robin Burns calls this a "Protestant Joan" (p. 99).
Regarded by many critics as one of the greatest films ever made.
Joan challenged all the conventions of her society by claiming, as a 16 year old girl, that she had been sent by God to join the French army in order to raise the siege by the English of the town of Orléans, to see the Dauphin crowned at Rheims, to free the Duke of Orléans, and see occupied Paris return to the side of the French resisters of the English invasion. She particpated in 7 military campaigns wearing men's armour, attacking a stronghold on horsback, scaling a wall on ladders, assaulting trenches on foot, being wounded in the neck and thigh by arrows, placing artillery with some expertise, and motivating French troops to fight above their capacities and English troops to cower in fear. After some startling initial successes, she was defeated and captured by the English, who used renowned ecclesiastic authorities at the University of Paris to interrogate and try her. The fact that she was a virgin (in spite of having had military service) who claimed to hear voices from God was both the source of her authority in a highly religious and superstitious society, and the source of her downfall. She rose to the rank of chief inspirer of the demoralised French forces, military advisor and leader, before being arrested, charged, tortured, probably raped by her English captors in prison, and burned at the stake as a schismatic and heretic (later to be be retried and rehabilitated 20 years later and eventually canonised by the pope in 1920). Although she recanted under threat of torture, she answered her interrogators cleverly and with courage.
Soon after her death she was claimed as a true heroine of France. As Anderson and Zinsser note;
Sixteenth-century France named her Jeanne d'Arc and made her a national heroine. The men of subsequent centuries took her story for their plays and poems, her image for their statues. She became the spirit of France, the maiden, the holy warrior, the Republican and Napoleonic symbol for opposition to the English and for those who would protect France from foreign domination. In the Second World War Charles de Gaulle used her standard, the Cross of Lorraine, as the symbol of Free France. (p. 160).
From the transcript of her trial and interrogation come examples of her fierce independence and unconventionality which so threatened the church- and male-dominated society of 15thC France:
You Englishmen, who have no right in this kingdom of France, the King of Heaven sends you word and warning, by me Jehanne the Maid, to abandon your forts and depart into your own country, or I will raise such a war-cry against you as shall be remembered forever. And this I write to you for the third and last time, nor shall I write further.
I should send you my letter more decently, but you detain my heralds. For you have kept my herald Guyenne. Send him to me, and I will send you some of your men who were taken at Saint-Loup, for not all were killed. (A Letter written May 5, 1429, "fastened to an arrow and shot into the English lines, Trask p. 40).
One of the severest charges levelled against her at the trial was that she wore men's clothing, to which she responded:
Interrogators: Did the voice bid you put on men's clothing?
Joan: Whatever I have done that was good, I have done at the bidding of my voices.
Interrogators: Did you think you were doing wrong to put on men's clothing?
Joan: No. And even now, if I were with the other side in this clothing of a man, I think it would be one of the best things for France for me to do as I was doing before my capture. (Afternoon of Monday March 12, 1431, in Trask).
Marina Warner has given us a picture of the changing image of the "warrior woman" in particular and of women's roles in general, as reflected in the mirror of Joan of Arc:
By showing that a historical figure like Joan emerges and to a certain extent disappears under the influence of other more prevalent and more charming images at different times, this book is intended as a plea. Joan was presented as an Amazon, or a knight of old, or a personification of virtue, because the history of individual women and of women's roles has been so thin. In the writing of female biography, it is easy to revert unconsciously to known stereotypes. Joan of Arc is a preeminent heroine because she belongs to the sphere of action, while so many feminine figures or models are assigned and confined to the sphere of contemplation. She is anomalous in our culture, a woman renowned for doing something on her own, not by birthright. She has extended the taxonomy of female types; she makes evident the dimensions of women's dynamism. It is urgent that this taxonomy be expanded further and that the multifarious duties that women have historically undertaken be recognised, researched and named. Like Eskimos, who enjoy a lexicon of many different words for snow, we must develop a richer vocabulary for female activity than we use at present, with our restrictions of wife, mother, mistress, muse. Joan of Arc, in all her brightness, illuminates the operation of our present classification system, its rigidity on the one hand, its potential on the other. (p. 9)
Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (London: Vintage, 1991).
Robin Buss, The French through their Films (London: B.T. Batsford, 1988).
Joan of Arc: Self Portrait, trans. Willard Trask (New York: Collier, 1961).
Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser, A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present (Penguin, 1988), vol. 1.
Natalie Zemon Davis, "'Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead': film and the challenge of authenticity," Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 1988, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 269-83.
I did not study the clothes of the times and things like that. The year of the event seems as inessential to me as its distance from the present. I wanted to interpret a hymn to the triumph of the soul over life. Everything human is expressed in the face, as the face is the mirror of the soul. (quoted in Natalie Zemon Davis, p. 273).