1920s, 1930s, Carl Th. Dreyer, History, Review

Leaves from Satan’s Book

Leaves From Satan's Book (1920) - IMDb

#10 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.

With a pair of films under his belt, including the well-received The Parson’s Widow, Carl Th. Dreyer set out to make a movie akin to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a huge series of interrelated stories in an anthology, spanning millennia. While Dreyer’s third film doesn’t reach the highs of Griffith’s masterpiece, ultimately being fairly uneven, there’s more than enough here to recommend it. This is a hugely ambitious work with often striking visuals and an interesting throughline that centers around an interesting recurring character.

The four stories are the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, a monk giving up his unrequited love to the Spanish Inquisition, a servant becoming a Revolutionary leader and betraying the aristocratic family he’s helped hide, and a Finnish woman being forced to choose between her family and her part in the fight against the Bolsheviks. Out of these four, the first is the best, the most beautiful visually, and the most consistently acted. The least of the four is the last, which introduces too many characters for too short of a story and ends up just kind of confused as to what its overall purpose is. The Spanish Inquisition section feels remarkably like Dreyer’s later The Passion of Joan of Arc, at least in storytelling focus, and is actually quite good. The third in the French Revolution is pretty good, bringing in Marie Antoinnette as a sympathetic figure who’s supposed to mirror the plight of the aristocratic family the Chambords.

Through all four of these stories is Satan himself, and Dreyer takes an interesting take. Inspired somewhat by the tale of Job, Satan is viewed as a tool of God, sent to Earth to tempt mankind away from God where each soul he successfully turns away from God adds 100 years to his punishment while every soul he fails to turn away removes 1,000 years from his sentence. Satan pursues his mission with grim dedication, moving through the centuries in different guises (a Pharisee, the Grand Inquisitor, a Revolutionary official, and a Bolshevik officer), accomplishing his mission without any joy in it. His every success takes him further into human history to corrupt, away from God’s Grace, while his only success is a tragedy of death.

However, as interesting as Satan’s part is in the story, one thing I wish could change about the film is the explicit nature of Satan himself. He’s played by the same actor in all four segments (Helge Nissen), but he wears so much makeup from one to the other that without the direct pointing out of him by intertitles his renewed presence would get lost on all but the most eagle-eyed viewers. I wish Dreyer had kept his appearance largely uniform across all the tales, and just shown this singular figure appearing in every tale, tempting humanity with maybe a reveal at the end that he was Satan, though I feel like the title of the film would have been evidence enough of whom he was.

The other problem I have to the film can be exemplified by the over-reliance on intertitles, especially in the final section. The Finnish part is about a husband and wife who manage a telegraph for the White Mensheviks. Their neighbor wants the wife for his own and turns to the Soviets in order to throw the husband in jail and allow him to have the wife. There’s also another woman who watched the Soviets murder her father and wants to join the White army with little sense of anything other than vengeance. The focus ends up being the wife in the end, but the man who betrays is a large focus for a large amount of time, and Satan’s part ends up feeling confused. There’s a lot going on here, and the film has to rely heavily on intertitles to explain who’s who and what’s what. Coming two hours into a nearly three hour film, my patience was running thin on the vast amounts of exposition necessary in intertitles just to get this story going, and the addition of the girl going to war, who ends up playing a part in the story’s finale that could have been largely interchangeable with any other background character, just adds to the frustration.

That being said, the section around Jesus is the best thing Dreyer had made up to that point, and the Spanish Inquisition section is a close second. The advantage these two sections have is that the first is one of the best known stories in the world so there’s little need for lots of intertitles dragging the film down explaining things, and the second is so straightforward that it can largely play on its own after a certain point without needing lots of explanation.

This is also where Dreyer is coming into his own as a visual stylist. There are compositions from beginning to end that feel so much more than just setting up a camera on a tripod and letting a scene play out. There’s a heavy use of irises to highlight subjects in frame, interesting compositions that highlight individual characters, and heavy uses of shadows that feel German inspired. He had also taken many lessons from Griffith, much more than just the idea of an anthology film through time. There’s a very strong use of intercutting action that helps create a genuine sense of excitement at time, as well as use in the third section that helps draw the comparisons between Antoinette and the Chambords.

This is an ambitious film from a young director that took him two years to make. It’s not a perfect film at all, ending far less well than it starts, but there’s a very strong sense of visual composition, thematic purpose, and clarity of narrative that it represents Dreyer overreaching his grasp, but only so much. There’s really compelling stuff in this film, and it represents the continued growth of the young Danish filmmaker.

Rating: 3/4

6 thoughts on “Leaves from Satan’s Book”

  1. I’ve always had a problem with any theology that casts Satan as ‘misunderstood’ or ‘an agent of God who just wants us to resist his temptation’. It’s the kind of PR spin I kind of expect from the Father of Lies, so I automatically reject it. Which doesn’t do most movies with that theme any favors. :-/

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    1. I get that. I do find it an interesting idea to explore in fiction, though. Making it less explicit that the guy was literally Satan could have helped mitigate some of that idea as well.

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  2. there’s no such thing as a white menshevik (white russians and menshevilks were opponents) the latter headed the assembly that lenin dissolved, yes this view of God
    is in lucifer and supernatural unfortunately,

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