While the formal element that has come to distinguish Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is the close-up, its function within the film is largely defined by its relationship to other elements of mise-en-scène, most significantly by the tracking shot. By using extensive camera movement in contrast to close-ups of Joan, Dreyer highlights the violence in Joan’s accusers as well as Joan’s saintly otherness. It is by closely examining the tracking shots and their function throughout the film, in conjunction with the relationship they share with the editing, that a deeper understanding of Dreyer’s characterizations can be grasped.
The first real shot of the film*, after the somewhat obligatory shots of the records of Joan’s trial, is a tracking shot that travels screen right showing the room where Joan’s trial takes place. Within this shot there are two distinct groups of characters, the judges/priests and the soldiers, which are respectively set in the foreground and background. While this could certainly function as an establishing shot, Dreyer seems less concerned with establishing spatial coordinates than he is with establishing a unity between the two groups. The movement of the tracking shot joins the various individual characters on screen into a collective whole, suggesting everyone within the frame is on the same side – the priests, judges, soldiers, and even the scribe. The tracking shot also initially disallows any emotional connections to be made with the various characters since they occupy the frame for such a short time and share it with so many others, forming a rather faceless mass.
This mass is almost immediately contrasted to the entrance of Joan, who is given the film’s first close-up. Joan’s close-ups throughout the film are marked by their purity: the frame is usually filled with nothing but Joan’s face with the background completely bare. This technique not only emphasizes the beauty and distinction of Joan’s face in contrast to nearly everyone else’s, but it also brings attention to the stasis of the frame, which clashes with the movement and underlines Joan’s moral and spiritual stability. Though some judges are given close-ups, these are done in a sporadic fashion, making it easy to confuse one ugly judge with another – some appearing and then disappearing forever (like Michel Simon’s close-up), while others are interrupted by the appearance of another face within the frame suddenly. The opposition created between mass identity and sole identity as well as movement and stasis through the juxtaposition of these two techniques causes a certain friction to be created. This friction is further punctuated by the various tracking shots of Joan’s accusers as they become less patient and their questions become more hostile.
*(3:20) **(7:04) ***(8:26)
There is an underlying violence at the root of the Dreyer’s use of camera movement. This violence is first experienced in a backward tracking shot of a thin priest standing up to yell at Joan after she answers that she was sent by God**. The combination of a quick backward tracking shot with the priest simultaneously standing up creates a very forceful motion, much like a small explosion, which is accentuated by the way it is quickly and unexpectedly edited between two close-ups.
As Joan’s trial progresses, the unpredictable nature of the editing further emphasizes the violent nature of the court. By not being able to anticipate the next image on screen, Dreyer creates a sense of chaos among the judges, priests, and soldiers. Take, for example, the shots following Joan’s statement regarding the English being chased out of France or dying there***: a young British soldier is given a tight close-up, shot with a quick tracking movement forward; cut to a close-up of Joan; cut back to the same shot of the young soldier; cut to a close-up of an old priest who then moves towards the camera; cut to a tracking shot that travels screen right to show the reactions of other priests, some of which start to stand; cut to a medium-long of the old priest coming between Joan and the soldiers, looking down at her.
In this sequence Dreyer emphasizes the agitation and latent violence of the court through camera movement and editing. The quick, pendulum-like tracking movement of the young soldier makes the soldier’s face seem like a punching fist. This is followed up with the old priest physically moving out of the frame, suggesting a certain power to overstep not only spatial boundaries, but, given his position and subsequent actions, moral and legal ones as well. The tracking shot of the reacting priests in this sequence again works towards a certain mass unity in opposition to Joan, but paired with its accelerated speed and sudden appearance through editing carries over the violence first suggested by the young soldier. The final shot of this sequence, of the old priest coming between the soldiers and Joan, suggests that he prevented some great violence from the soldiers while at the same time gives off a menacing tone in the way the priest is postured over Joan like some robed vulture. This sequence expresses a swelling of hostility and violence that reaches a breaking point through certain camera movements and editing patterns.
Another violent swell and climax occurs during the torture room sequence****, which explicitly links movement with violence through Eisensteinian editing. After Joan exclaims “Alone with God!” there is a cut to a still shot of a thick chain which slowly travels upward. This is cut against a slow tracking shot of the heads of different judges. Dreyer then cuts back to the chain, which reveals a giant hook on the end. By cutting these images against each other Dreyer likens the links in the chain to the unified row of judges’ heads. The cut back to the giant hook, a torture device, makes clear that the unified purpose of the judges and priests, who are visually united through the tracking shot, is one of violent intentions towards Joan. Dreyer emphasizes this comparison by shooting several sets of torture devices – spiked logs, funnels, saws – in the same type of tracking shot that he shoots the rows of judges. The visual assault of the giant spiked wheel spinning cut against sporadic close-ups of yelling judges, again linked together through montage, swells to a point of intensity and increased speed in editing and onscreen movement until it climaxes with Joan fainting. While this final sequence does not have any tracking shots, it does display an incredible amount of movement from objects and characters on screen, allowing the connection between movement and violence to remain.
The last significant sequence featuring tracking shots occurs while Joan gets her hair cut until she burns at the stake. Dreyer introduces a new set of characters to the film – villagers and freakshow performers – who are shot in a tracking shot that moves camera left. These tracking shots are cut between close-ups of Joan getting her haircut and weeping. While it would seem odd for Dreyer to shoot these characters in the same way he shot the judges and torture devices, the point is not so much to villainize the villagers or performers but to highlight the mounting violence within the film. The performances are mostly violent in nature – sword swallowers, contortionists – and the villagers seem to be united by their appreciation of these violent performances. Even so, Dreyer is careful to make the villagers sympathetic characters as they weep for Joan when she burns on the stake. They are shot in tracking shots, cut between tracking shots of the wood burning. In this case, the tracking shots again serve to unify various individual characters into a mass whole, this time in opposition to the other unified mass, which are the soldiers. Thus, the tracking shots of the villagers are also underscored by violence – the burning of the wood matches the burning of their anger about Joan’s innocent death. This anger swells through the editing back and forth between the images, heightened by a particular pendulum-like tracking shot (which resembles the previous pendulum-like shot of the young soldier) in which weapons are thrown from the castle window down to the soldiers. The violence erupts with the proclamation made by a villager that the judges have burned a saint, causing a series of rapidly edited shots featuring motion that resembles the final shots of the torture chamber sequences.
In some ways it seems that the final sequence serves to ultimately show how a crowd of villagers have taken up Joan’s spirit and resisted the English soldiers, giving significance to her death. On the other hand, the final sequence seems more like a slaughter than a fight, with defenseless villagers (many of which are old women) being bludgeoned by giant spiked balls within a second of protestation. In this case, I would suggest that Dreyer wants to insist on Joan’s saintliness as a distinction which sets her apart from everyone else – soldiers, priests, judges, and villagers – making the final violent scenes a foil to her divinity. Throughout the film this distinction is visually made through Joan’s constant close-ups, which are unique in their framing, repetition, and duration. Also, Joan never once appears in a tracking shot, simultaneously suggesting that she is unique and that she is absent of hostile violence. Though Joan is a soldier and has fought in battles, the motivating factor for such violence has nothing to do with the resentment and anger that fuel the violence of the judges, soldiers, or even the villagers – Joan’s actions are divinely inspired by God. Ultimately, Joan is alone with God, and everything Dreyer does throughout the film in terms of technique is used to convey that.