A landmark of silent cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) focuses on the trial and martyrdom of the Maid of Orléans. Ninety years on, the film still feels bold and invigorating, thanks in no small part to Dreyer’s striking and unconventional use of film grammar.

Like all forms of communication, cinema utilises certain conventions to make it intelligible. In film, these conventions are used to create a coherent sense of space, and to clarify spatial relations within the scene – in other words, to make it clear who (or what) is located where. But, in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer constantly frustrates these rules. In fact, he does so to such an extent that, based on conventional wisdom, the film should be near unintelligible.

Get the latest from the BFI

Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.

Here, on its 90th anniversary, we take a look at how, and why, he broke four key rules.

1. Up close and personal – A lack of clear master shots

The most common way that filmmakers establish the spatial positions of their characters is through a master shot – a wide shot that clearly shows all of the players within a single frame. Famously, though, The Passion of Joan of Arc is comprised mostly of close-ups, thereby circumventing the clear establishment of space.

Making matters more complicated is the fact that when Dreyer does use wide shots, they rarely serve to establish the space in a coherent way, and the placement of the characters is often inconsistent with what we see in the close-ups. For example, in the wide shot of Joan receiving communion, the officiating priest can barely be glimpsed – only his arm is visible, holding up the sacramental bread on Joan’s right (in shot A).

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

When Joan receives the wafer in close-up (shot B), it enters from Joan’s left, implying that the priest is standing to that side of her.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

2. What’s in a look? – A lack of consistent eyelines

For dialogue scenes comprised of close-ups, traditional film grammar relies on the angle of the characters’ gaze to clarify their spatial position: if two people are talking, one of them looks left while the other looks right, thereby creating the impression that they are looking at one another.

In The Passion of Joan of Arc, Dreyer makes inconsistent use of this convention, thereby further obscuring the film’s spatial relations – simply put, we can’t trust the direction of the actors’ gaze to establish their positions, even if Dreyer’s lip service to convention means that we understand who is looking at whom. For instance, when Joan asks the jailer to fetch the judges, the eyelines don’t quite match (shots C and D), and the sequence’s final shot (shot E) switches direction, further confusing the characters’ spatial relationship.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

3. Each shot is an island – A lack of continuous movement

In contrast to the standard system of continuity editing, where action continues from shot-to-shot, The Passion of Joan of Arc’s shots are – more often than not – individual entities that present Joan separately from her judges, thereby refusing to establish space through continuous movement.

In his landmark study The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer, scholar David Bordwell summarised this statistically: “Of the film’s over fifteen hundred cuts, fewer than thirty carry a figure or object over from one shot to another; and fewer than fifteen cuts constitute genuine matches on action.”

4. In relief – A lack of spatial depth

Exacerbating the spatial problem of The Passion of Joan of Arc is Dreyer’s consistent decision to frame his figures against plain white backgrounds while eliminating any elements that would allow for depth perception: the result not only obscures the space, but virtually eliminates it altogether, with the image flattened into the cinematic equivalent of a medieval relief.

Furthermore, in the sequence where Dreyer cuts between Joan in her cell (shot F) and the judges scheming in their chapel (shot G), the plain backgrounds make it hard to distinguish between the two locations, thus bringing the characters together even when apart (though alone, Joan still cannot escape her tormentors).

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The cumulative effect

In breaking these four rules, Dreyer reduces the spatial coherence of The Passion of Joan of Arc – and yet, despite what conventional grammar would have us believe, the film remains intelligible.

Why? Because every technique has been single-mindedly deployed to keep our concentration focused on Joan’s interior state: the plain white walls force attention onto her, while the continuous back-and-forth of individual close-ups reflects, in Dreyer’s words, the “close quarter combat between Joan and her judges”.

In short, the film’s emotional coherence overcomes this spatial disparity, and the cumulative effect moves the drama from the physical to the metaphysical. Dreyer once said that “the face is the mirror of the soul”, and The Passion of Joan of Arc’s close-ups take us as near as cinema has ever come to rendering an inner life on screen.

A happy accident, or deliberate choice?

When The Passion of Joan of Arc was made, at the tail-end of the silent era, the grammar of filmmaking was not as clearly defined as it would later become – so how aware was Dreyer of the radical nature of his work? Very, as this quote demonstrates:

“I know that this use of the close-up was in open conflict with the theoretical principles which were the basis for filmmaking, but for me the close-ups were absolutely necessary. I don’t know how I could have possibly told the story of Joan’s trial and death if I had not had the help of the close-ups in getting the viewers completely inside of both Joan’s and the judges’ hearts and souls. But it is quite true that my idea of telling the story of Joan’s agony in close-ups hardly followed the rules of a “proper” dramatic film at that time.”

Dreyer would also go on to use similar techniques in his unnerving chiller Vampyr (1932), proving that, as in all languages, there are poets of the cinema who can break the rules – with masterful results.