The Passion of Joan of Arc is based on the records of the 1431 trial that led to Joan of Arc being convicted of heresy and burned at the stake. In the film, the month-long process is condensed into a much shorter time frame. Alone, Jeanne must face a large assembly of priests and monks who bombard her with questions to pressure her into admitting that her visions were not sent by God, but even under threat of torture she stands fast. She is so ill that the judges dare not torture her, but under threat of burning at the stake they make her sign a statement that her visions were false. She soon retracts, however, and she is burned alive. Her death impresses the onlookers as martyrdom and the crowd rises up in rebellion against their oppressors.
The representation of Joan of Arc in Dreyer’s masterpiece is radically different from the image of her as a national warrior heroine in shining armour that was found in every French schoolbook, and the director almost completely leaves out the historical events of the Hundred Years’ War. The sets were big and costly but severely stylised, almost abstract looking in their sparseness. Dreyer places his camera in positions that rarely afford the observer an overview of the space in which the action is taking place. In consequence, all attention is concentrated on the spiritual and psychological confrontation between Joan and her judges, which is underscored by the dynamic, fast cutting and, not least, by the gigantic close-ups that lay bare every nuance of the characters’ reactions.
Before it even began shooting, the film was controversial in nationalist and ecclesiastical circles, because Dreyer wasn’t French and because his Joan of Arc wasn’t heroic enough. The film was marketed as an artistic epic, but, even though it did elicit admiration from many critics, it was never a commercial success. While the initial reaction to the film’s uncompromising formal vocabulary and raw intensity was one of reserve, the film since the 1950s has occupied a place among the most respected masterpieces in film history.