Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921)

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  • directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
  • starring Helge Nissen, Halvard Hoff, Jacob Texiere, Hallander Helleman, Ebon Strandin, Viggo Wiehe, Emma Wiehe, Jeanna Tramcourt, Hugo Bruun, Clara Pontoppidan, Carlo Wieth
  • In order to return to heaven, Satan must perform acts of temptation upon humanity with the stipulation that for every soul who yields, 100 years will be added to his time on Earth. For every soul who resists, 1,000 years will be commuted from his judgement.

Leaves from Satan’s Book definitely doesn’t have the power or reputation of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s later works nor is it as engrossing as his previous film, The Parson’s Widow, but I still think there was a lot to like about this film. More than a lot of online reviewers and film historians give it credit for, at least. Yes, it was long, and more than once I fell uncomfortably into that silent film zone in which a film’s seemingly endless wandering puts a swarm of ants in my pants. I had to come back to the film two or three times before finishing, but after I did and now look back on it I admire the photography and the film’s multi-level storytelling, which kept even the long-slog scenes at least a little interesting.

The opening tells of Satan’s punishment at the hands of God, which sets him off as a Zelig of sorts, showing up in time for some of the world’s biggest conflicts over the centuries and instigating them past the breaking point. The four separate stories—Jesus’ crucifixion, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution, and the Finnish Civil War—were well designed and unique to their respective times and cultures. Dreyer assumedly went to great lengths, particularly in the first sequence which had a stunning recreation of the Last Supper, to not only arrange his compositions for their visual strength but also with a sense of historical accuracy in mind.

Where the visuals landed on the side of realism, the film’s story went far away in the opposite direction. Each of the four sequences treat the history itself very broadly while featuring a sullen Satan lurking around to choose his vulnerable subject and hope his evil influence gets ignored. The third dimension of these scenes is the personal journey of a character whose strong or weak will holds the key to God’s judgment. The technique of putting an individual human’s decision, usually a romantically influenced one, as the seed of enormous world-changing events I thought worked well, it speaks to just how delicate the course of our world is, but I could see it being bothersome to some for it to paint very real and tumultuous uprisings with such a melodramatic brush.

Needless to say, Dreyer would go on to settle into a very distinctive style of filmmaking and push many boundaries with his works. In Leaves from Satan’s Book, however, he seemed too hung up on how it already had been done. The film was firmly facing the past not just in subject matter but also in it being so influenced by the time-jumping, episodic structure of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. There already existed a handful of films by 1921 that featured cinematography and performances that were progressive and surprisingly quite close to modern. Henry King’s Tol’able David struck me as one, Ernst Lubitsch was getting there with some of his last German films, and, perhaps disappointingly, Dreyer himself had already advanced forward with 1920’s The Parson’s Widow, only then to revert back to the style and feel of films from the dawn of big, ambitious filmmaking less than a decade earlier.

The trademark Dreyer details were all present though; the passionate close-ups, heavy use of religious iconography, and striking compositions will always have an effect on me. Maybe it was his worst film, my quest through time will allow me to lob my unwanted hat into the ring on that judgment, but even a minor Dreyer film is one worth seeing, even if you have to take a few breaks to get to “The End.”

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

One Response to Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921)

  1. Pingback: The Phantom Carriage (1921) | classixquest

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