Silent Films excerpted from Beautiful Films by Stephen Zelnick

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), director Carl Dreyer, makes most lists, even some top ten. It dramatizes Joan's treatment by the English, who captured, judged, and executed her. The charges included dressing like a man, blaspheming, carrying out her king’s orders, and causing the deaths of English soldiers. The film's interest is not in the charges but in Joan's fortitude withstanding torture and humiliation and the righteous glee of her tormentors.

Dreyer tells the story with the faces of the participants in stark, unadorned close-up, from the stern clerics and judges who learnedly harangue her, to the jolly jailers who mock her. Dreyer’s catalog of faces provides a Dantean journey through the inferno of ignorance and cruelty -- faces borrowed from iconographic images of the tormenting of Christ and from today’s news.

At the center is the face of Joan -- Renée Jeanne Falconetti, a stage actress Dreyer insisted upon. Joan is 19 years old, touched by God's hand, and innocent of the evil confronting her. Falconetti’s look is from a medieval tapestry and painfully modern. She is bewildered by the horror around her, yet earnest in trying to understand it. She passes through fear to despair and emerges resigned to God's will, as the flames at her burning roar around her, and the common people, in agony, go to their deaths in protest. No word needs be spoken.

Other silent gems: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, F. W. Murnau (1927); Metropolis, Fritz Lang (1927); Greed, von Stroheim (1924).

All Rights Reserved--2007-2024