The Passion of Joan of Arc

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent film that was created by Carl Th. Dreyer. The movie was shot in France in 1927, and then destroyed by a fire, not to be found again until 1981. At the time of its initial release, it was presented with various piece of music performed live. The current version of the movie is in French with English subtitles, and uses Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light as the background music to enhance the overall viewing experience.

Joan of Arc was born in on January 6, around the year 1412, in a small village in France. When she was twelve years old, she began to have visions of Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, who were Christian Martyrs. She also had visions of Saint Michael, who according to the Bible led the armies of Heaven against the devil (Williamson 1). During this time, the tensions between England and France were very high, and war was imminent. Joan of Arc led the French army in the battle against England. She was soon captured and sold to the English, where she was eventually burned at the stake.

The Passion of Joan of Arc begins with her trial. She enters the court room looking very scared. Slow music with low dynamics begins playing as she walks in the door, adding to the dramatic effect of the scene. The background music seems to be Gregorian chant that has been superimposed over newer material. The music continues to add to the emotional effect of the scene as Joan of Arc’s eyes tear up and she begins to cry. Then, a drum baseline is added that sounds like footsteps. This creates a sense of suspense as the focus of the movie switches back and forth between Joan and all of the people in the court. As the audience watches people in the court room whispering to one another, string instruments are played in a repetitive sequence. The additional of the high pitched string chords peaks the suspense of the movie as the next scene begins.

The next scene begins with Joan of Arc being escorted into a jail cell. The string instruments from the last scene play pizzicato, which helps begins to heighten the suspense again, just as the baseline drum from earlier. The guards toy with Joan of Arc as she sits patiently, trying not to move or flinch. At this point, the music begins to increase in tempo as the priests and the judge enter the jail cell and once again question Joan of Arc. The increase in the tempo of the music develops a sense of urgency that feels very real to the audience.

Once again, the music decreases in tempo. Directly after that change, people that sound like angels begin to sing. The music is monophonic, but has multiple voices. The priests and judge begin to ask difficult questions that, depending on Joan of Arc’s answers, could lead to her death. I feel that the music in this scene portrays that Joan of Arc will be saved by God if she answers with the truth. If she remains steadfast in her mission and keeps her faith, she will live on.

The music in the next scene increases in dynamics, and changes to include a larger group of people singing in unison. The heightened dynamics, combined with the addition of more singers, make the music scary. If the audience listens to the music in this scene, it seems to be building up, as if it is foreshadowing some major event in the very near future. Then, Joan of Arc is brought into the torture chamber, where she faints at the sight of the primeval torture devices.

The final scene begins as Joan of Arc walks outside to be burned at the stake. The music is slow and sounds very sad. The crowd is enormous; everyone has gathered to see Joan of Arc’s execution. The tempo of the music is slow, and the dynamics of the strings instruments being played are very low, causing the audience to feel sad. The music fits the scene perfectly, sounding like someone is about to die, as Joan of Arc is set to flames. The music stops, and a group of men recite words, most likely prayers as Joan of Arc burns. Some high string chords are played, which run parallel to the movie as the flames grow bigger. The movie becomes silent as Joan dies. Suddenly, the music returns with a fast tempo, as the crowd revolts at the death of who many consider to be a saint.

Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light truly fits The Passion of Joan of Arc perfectly. Throughout the movie, the music adds to the emotional effect and drama of each scene, helping to boost the overall viewing experience.