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Carl Theodor Dreyer's piercing genius

Renee Falconetti as Joan of Arc

Renee Falconetti as Joan of Arc

The great cinema critic, Roger Ebert once wrote, “You cannot know the history of silent film unless you know the face of Renee Maria Falconetti”.

Falconetti (as she is always called) only made one movie. "It may be the finest performance ever recorded on film,” wrote fellow critic Pauline Kael. Falconetti was an actress in Paris when she was seen on the stage of a boulevard theater by Director Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968). He recalled, that there was something in her face that struck him: "There was a soul behind that facade.” He did screen tests without makeup, and found what he sought, a woman who embodied simplicity, character and suffering.

Dreyer and his gifted cinematographer Rudolph Mate created an intensely claustrophobic viewing experience, that mirrors the emotions of the main character, by having trenches dug on the film set so the camera was able to look up at the main characters which powerfully engaged the viewer.

‘Dreyer cuts the film into a series of startling images. The prison guards and the ecclesiastics on the court are seen in high contrast, often from a low angle, and although there are often sharp architectural angles behind them, we are not sure exactly what the scale is (are the windows and walls near or far?). All of the faces of the inquisitors are shot in bright light, without makeup, so that the crevices and flaws of the skin seem to reflect a diseased inner life.

Falconetti, by contrast, is shot in softer grays, rather than blacks and whites. Also without makeup, she seems solemn and consumed by inner conviction.

Why did Dreyer fragment his space, disorient the visual sense and shoot in closeup? I think he wanted to avoid the picturesque temptations of a historical drama. There is no scenery here, aside from walls and arches. Nothing was put in to look pretty. Dreyer strips the church court of its ritual and righteousness and betrays its members as fleshy hypocrites in the pay of the British; their narrow eyes and mean mouths assault Joan's sanctity.’ Roger Ebert

If you want to grasp the power of the Close Up shot, watch this clip.

Kevin Redpath