Credit: Criterion

Joseph Owen

The church courtyard is filled with acrobats, contortionists and sword-eaters. A dog sits on its hind legs. One man balances a big wheel on his brow. Peasants revel beneath them. These illustrations of folklife show the forces of levity trumping those of wickedness. They occur just before the hour mark in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), interspersed with close-ups of Joan, in tears and locks shorn, reneging on her confession. With this fatal decision, the carnival is rendered anew. It is now the ironic spectacle that precedes the execution. The crowd believe she is saved. Soldiers, jurors and clerics interrupt the happy mob. Joan is bound to the stake. “Jesus!” she screams. “Jesus!”

Joan, played by the infinite Renée Jeanne Falconetti, is lamenting Christ, her spiritual forebear. Dreyer’s silent film depicts her Passion and sacrifice, during which she undergoes a procedural game of ensnarement and deception. As the opening card puts it, she is subject to a virulent “band of blind theologians and skilled jurists.” In efforts to appease their English masters, this overeducated set demand that Joan admits her heresy against the Church. Dreyer lights the actors without make-up, so their faces appear stark and unflattering. Aging men grandstand and postulate, nose hair flaring, chins doubling and redoubling, heads dotted with warts and pious scalps. They constitute the true carnival of grotesques. Their interrogations form Joan’s suffering and endurance until death. 

In the chapel, where much of Joan’s preliminary trial takes place, false logic is the enemy of the defendant. As used by the clerics, deductive reasoning functions as conniving wordplay. Tools of endless discussion intend to debilitate. Tactics of staccato deliberation seek to deceive. Prosecutorial feints conflate theology with law, and law with politics. The captors’ civilised pretensions mask the ever-present threat: to spit, shout down, admonish. To their devious challenges, Joan is the exception. She stands outside the accumulation of precedents, rules and norms. Her innocent responses—paragons of pure articulation—touch upon the sublime. This is surely what fascinated the Weimar thinker and subsequent Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who watched the film, on its release, more than ten times in six months. Across Europe, from Berlin to Rome, he took to the cinema friends, lovers and sex workers alike.

In his diaries, Schmitt is deeply impressed by this work of “cinematic art.” His obsession was probably multifaceted. Circumstantially, the film reflected his difficult divorce, which the Catholic Church had initially refused him. Ideologically, the film had at its centre a figure of liberation who embodied many of his core political principles: an agent of sovereign exception able to transcend the vague, meaningless gestures of parliamentary performance. For him, the capacity to decide one’s fate supplants the ability to chat about it. He also identified in St Joan, canonised in 1920, the archetype of an effective national myth:

St Joan led her people out of a desperate military situation. Almost any sentence from the mouth of this saint is an answer that any nation may give itself. When this saint answered the question of whether she wanted to claim that God hated the English, saying that she did not know whether that was the case, but she knew that the English had to leave France, she thereby gave an answer that every people must give their oppressors and exploiters.

Schmitt characterises Joan through both Dreyer’s disjunctive presentation of the trial process, itself based on the 1431 court transcripts, and Falconetti’s dramatic interpretation, which artfully combines expressions of bemusement and unanticipated clarity. Not only does Joan outwit the snare of state affiliation, complicated by the traitorous clerics’ subservience to English crown, she additionally reveals the pompous prurience of her adversaries.

The grand inquisitor is Bishop Cauchon, the ugliest of all the learned scholars. He asks Joan about one of her alleged revelations. “What was Saint Michael wearing?” Her silence is met with further provocation. “Why are you wearing men’s clothes?” Her refusal to be in dress exposes the thwarted lasciviousness of those who wish to break her. The emphasis on clothing is one of worldly futility. Minor symbols pale in the wake of an overwhelming, mythic subject. Joan’s wide eyes, matched to Dreyer’s unconventional use of sightlines, pierce the perverse geometries of the castle. Her pursuit of martyrdom holds some vital and visual human element, more intoxicating than the merely abstract states of grace and mercy. 

Joan functions as Schmitt’s secularised God, as a potent avatar for political mythmaking. Filmmakers from Robert Bresson to Bruno Dumont have likewise adapted the story of Joan of Arc, craving its foundational value while mining for its tragic and ecstatic qualities. H.D., the modernist poet and contemporary critic, was sceptical of Dreyer’s stylistic excesses. Yet, the director’s rendition clearly affected Schmitt, who may have interpreted its commitment to subjective experience as that which most closely evokes the Passion. For him, the miracle in theology corresponds to the exception in politics. In art, the miracle was likely reproduced in Dreyer and Falconetti’s experiential vision. Schmitt took ten attempts, at least, to bear its witness. For what? Three years on, he had devoted himself to an altogether different myth, one of National Socialism and moral ruin.

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