Academic Abominations (Or: Poor Papers from College) #4: “The Face of Joan”

The Face of Joan: Balázs’s Theory in La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc


Born in Hungary in 1884, Béla Balázs became one of the first filmmakers to delve into film theory, publishing works such as Visible Man, or Film Culture, The Spirit of Film, and Theory of Film. His work dissected the unique qualities of film, or “form-language,” through analysis of the screen, the camera, editing, and the development of sound in cinema. Balázs’s theoretical writings pay particular attention to the close-up and its role in building a relationship characters and the audience through “identification,” and through “the physiognomy of things” where objects are anthropomorphized through the close-up. This early psychological analysis can be understood through an exploration of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 film La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), a film that Balázs references in his own work. Through an analysis of Joan of Arc we can better understand the principles at work in Balázs’s Theory of Film as well as Balázs’s appreciation for film as a force for “aesthetic, subjective, and social transformation.”[1]

Balázs’s claims are built around one fundamental understanding of film: what is seen on screen is an image of actual events that took place: “what we see on the screen… was not on the screen as a painting is created on the canvas but was already previously existent and visible in reality.”[2] To Balázs, the artistry of film comes from “all events before the camera in space and before the shooting in time… the changing distance, the detail taken out of the whole, the close-up, the changing angle, the cutting, and what is the most important: a new psychological effect achieved through the devices just mentioned. This new psychological effect is identification.”[3]

The camera placement, the editing, the rhythm of the film’s shots – all of these elements serve to draw the viewer into the film. “In the cinema the camera carries the spectator into the film picture itself. We are seeing everything from the inside as it were and are surrounded by the characters of the film.”[4] In Joan of Arc most of the film takes place during Joan’s trial, with Joan surrounded by her captors. While almost all of the shots in this sequence are close-ups, Joan nonetheless becomes the center of the action, unmoving. The viewer must see what the camera shows them, they are simultaneously confronted by the grotesque judges and in awe at the stoicism of Joan in the face of her captors. “Our eyes are in the camera and become identical with the gaze of the characters. They see with our eyes. Herein lies the psychological act of ‘identification.’”[5]

To better understand the process of psychological identification in film, we must also look at its relation to continuity and the close-up. “The basis of the new form-language,” he argues, “is the moving cinematographic camera with its constantly changing viewpoint… to show a living, moving scene or landscape as a synthesis of sectional pictures, which merge in our consciousness into a total scene although they are not the parts of an existent immutable mosaic and could never be made into a total picture.”[6] The shots in – or “sectional pictures” as Balázs calls them – in Joan of Arc cannot be assembled into one, single picture; the images do not exist in one cohesive space, except for the scene that we assemble by editing them: “the sectional picture (or “shot”) must be correctly ordered and composed… this is done by including in every shot a movement, a gesture, a form, a something which refers the eye to the preceding and following shots, something that protrudes into the next.”[7]

At the beginning of the film the camera pans through a long shot of all the judges sitting with their backs to the viewer, the space of the scene is established – we know where the judges sit, and we know where Joan will stand. The next series of shots: a judge reading from a scroll, Joan entering the room, Joan’s feet in chains, her taking the floor, the Judges looking down at her – all these individual images are connected in the established space to build a scene. Joan’s movement from the doorway to the floor is given direction by the shot of her feet moving from the right of the screen to left. The faces of Joan and her judges establish special relation through mirroring and line of sight, with Joan looking up at her captors from multiple directions and them looking back down at her – establishing her as the center of the room. In creating such a scene, the viewer feels situated in the world of the film, they feel “the continuity of the scene, its unity in time and space even if [the director] has never once shown him a total picture of the whole scene.”[8] With the scene established the viewer can begin to view the film from the inside, seeing through the character’s eyes and giving way to the direction of the camera.

With the viewer situated in the scene their gaze is at the mercy of the camera. When we normally see the world we view it in generalities, looking at the whole rather than at the details of the world – “we skim over the teeming substance of life.”[9] With the camera we can see the particulars of a scene unhindered: “The camera showed us not only hitherto unknown objects and events … By means of the close-up the camera in the days of silent film revealed also the hidden mainsprings of a life which we had thought we already knew so well.”[10] The close-up offers new perspectives to the viewer, it not only reveals the subtleties of the image on screen, but also transforms the way the viewer sees life.

To Balázs the close-up functions, not just to show the detail of an object, but to uncover humanity itself: “when the film close-up strips the veil of our imperceptiveness and insensitivity from the hidden little things and shows us the face of objects, it still shows us man, for what makes objects expressive are the human expressions projected onto them.”[11] The objects in Joan of Arc – a wicker crown, a cross, a skull – when subject to close-ups no longer remain simple objects, but a reflection of the human experience, embodying faith, fear, and courage. However, the expressiveness of the object is nothing compared to the expression of the human face: “facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man, more subjective even than speech…the play of features, as has already been said, is a manifestation not governed by objective canons… this most subjective and individual of human manifestations is rendered objective in the close-up.”[12]

The face, having its own methods of expression without needing to reference the world outside of itself, exists in its own time and space, a space of the physiognomy. The face becomes an manifestation of the internal world of the mind: “we see, not a figure of flesh and bone, but an expression… we see emotions, moods, intentions and thoughts, things which although our eyes cannot see them, are not in space.”[13] In the close-up we can see the thoughts of a person laid bare. Balázs compares this “silent soliloquy” to the monologues of the stage, “on the stage a character can speak a monologue only when there is no one else there, even though a character might feel a thousand times more lonely if alone among a large crowd … Only the film can offer the possibility of such expression, for the close-up can lift a character out of the heart of the greatest crowd and show how solitary it is in reality and what it feels in this crowded solitude.”[14] In a silent close-up, the character’s innermost thoughts and feelings are expressed, subconsciously, to the audience.

At first glance Maria Falconetti’s performance may seem simplistic, but only because the performance relies solely on the subtleties of the face to speak. The expressions of Joan in her close-ups are not just representations of fear, or courage, or faith, but something that cannot be explained in words – it connects with the viewer through the soul. “In the silent film facial expression, isolated from its surroundings, seemed to penetrate to a strange new dimension of the soul. It revealed to us a new world – the world of microphysiognomy which could not otherwise be seen with the naked eye or in everyday life.”[15] The subtleties in the expressions of Joan and her captors relay a conversation of the human spirit. Balázs himself notes, “We neither see nor feel the space in which the scene is in reality enacted. Here no riders gallop, no boxers exchange blows. Fierce passions, thoughts, emotions, convictions battle here… we can follow every attack and riposte of these duels on the faces of the combatants.”[16] In this battle of the mind and soul the viewer finds themselves fighting alongside Joan in her defiance of her judges. In her we see the purity of human virtue alone against those that would suppress it. Even when she stumbles under the fear of torture and death we stand by her side, we experience her anguish and guilt, and when she is martyred at the stake we, like the crowd that is brought to tears at her death, feel as if we should reach out and save her.

It is in these mute dialogues and silent soliloquies that the power of identification is at its strongest. The human face, when displayed in silence, displays something more genuine than any dialogue could convey. Though the days of the silent films seem to have passed us by, the silent close-up, with its subjectivity and subtleties, still gives “an interesting, moving, new experience for the audience.”[17] The depth of facial expression, being something that words cannot express, will always hold something original and new inside it. In this way the viewer is inspired in a way that neither the written word nor the stage can produce, thus, film – with its power of identification and its original presentation of human spirit – becomes a force for change. The Passion of Joan of Arc was censored before its release in 1928, a testament to the film’s power to inspire and transform its viewers.

In La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc all the principles of Balázs theory are laid bare. The film’s usage of the silent close-up masterfully displays the expressive power in the details of the microphysiognomy, using the power of the face to build identification between the viewer and the film. The film’s inspirational power is a testament to Balázs work, and to the power of film as an original medium. La Passion De Jeanne D’Arc has “brought an attempt to present a drama of the spirit closer to realization,”[18] standing as a demonstration of film’s transformative power.





Bálazs, Béla. “The Creative Camera.” In Critical Visions in Film Theory, edited by

Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, 126-127. Boston: Bedford’s/St. Martin’s 2011.

Bálazs, Béla. “The Close-Up.” In Critical Visions in Film Theory, edited by

Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, 127-130. Boston: Bedford’s/St. Martin’s 2011.

Bálazs, Béla. “The Face of Man.” In Critical Visions in Film Theory, edited by

Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj, 130-135. Boston: Bedford’s/St. Martin’s 2011.


[1] “Béla Balázs,” Critical Visions in Film Theory, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2011),125.

[2] Béla Bálazs, “The Creative Camera,” Critical Visions in Film Theory, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2011),126.

[3] Bálazs, “The Creative Camera,” 126.

[4] Bálazs, “The Creative Camera,” 127.

[5] Bálazs, “The Creative Camera,” 127.

[6] Béla Bálazs, “The Close-Up,” Critical Visions in Film Theory, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2011), 127-128.

[7] Bálazs, “The Close-Up,” 128.

[8] Bálazs, “The Close-Up,” 128.

[9] Bálazs, “The Close-Up,” 129.

[10] Bálazs, “The Close-Up,” 129.

[11] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” Critical Visions in Film Theory, ed. Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s 2011), 130.

[12] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” 130.

[13] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” 131.

[14] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” 132.

[15] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” 133.

[16] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” 135.

[17] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” 133.

[18] Bálazs, “The Face of Man,” 135.


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