Carl Theodor Dreyer once dismissed this early work as "a dreadful collection of oil prints", but there’s enough here to show his cinematographic flair and sheer ambition.
Leaves Out of the Book of Satan (1920) (Blade af Satans bog) is a portmanteau film made up of four tales, each of which shows the impact of Satan’s evil on Man’s choices. Satan is painted as the fallen angel who desperately wants to return to Heaven yet his God is unforgiving and sets him the task of testing mankind… for every failure Satan gains an extra 100 years’ torment but every success will knock a millennia from his sentence… it’s a tough job but someone has to do it.
|One of the "dreadful collection of oil prints..."|
1st section: Christ's betrayal
This section shows the days leading up to Jesus’ arrest, and contains many faithful quotations from the scriptures, Dreyer revealing his trademark fondness of original source material.
|All the best tunes?|
This section features some lavish tableaux and looks like an 18th Century religious painting with the scenes around the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane are acted out to the letter of the scriptures.
2nd section:17th Century Spain
Dreyer focuses on the well-to-do family of Don Gomez de Castro (Hallander Helleman) a man of learning who is takes a scientific interest in new discoveries including those concerning the movement of the planets and their influence on our earthly lives.
|Hallander Helleman (left) Ebon Strandin (right)|
Don Fernandez is strong enough to remove himself from temptation but falls under the thrall of The Spanish Inquisition’s Head Inquisitor (Satanas) who makes him responsible for the de Castro’s when they are bought in for questioning. The father is tortured but Satanas encourages the priest to do far worse to Isabel…
|Johannes Meyer and Ebon Strandin|
3rd section: The last days of Marie Antoinette
The longest section, deals with the French Revolution, the temptation to take advantage of the chaos and the nobility of the ancien regime… Dreyer paints Marie Antoinette (Tenna Frederiksen Kraft) as a tragic figure and given the revolutionary chaos on Denmark’s doorstep at this time, perhaps sympathy with crowned heads is not too hard to understand.
|Tenna Frederiksen Kraft|
Another of the Count’s former servants (Satanas again) leads him into joining the revolutionary movement and Joseph must chose between his love for La Republic and for Genevive…Yet, as he proposes, Dreyer cuts to a group of children playing at guillotining a cat… and even as Genevive declines we can sense that she is sealing her fate, even though the cat leaps free…
|The haves and the have-nots...|
It does however, look superb and, in particular, there are stunning close-ups of Satanas, Genevive and Joseph at the inquisitor’s trial … as the latter is finally forced to betray his aristo friends…
The final sequence is based in the Finish Civil War and here the film finally finds a hero.
Ivan’s motley band of revolutionaries captures a White communication post run by Paavo (Carlo Wieth) and his wife Siri (Clara Pontoppidan). They try to force the couple to send misleading messages to entrap the White forces but they refuse.
The scenes with Siri and Paavo are very moving and Dreyer lingers for a very long time on Pontoppidan’s gentle, naturalistic acting – she’s great and, along with Nissen is the stand-out performer in the film.
|Paavo looks on as Siri stays strong|
Satanas looks heavenward, he’s finally found some relief in his eternal quest to find the good in Man… but he must continue to fight the bad fight...
|Satanas and his book|
Throughout Dreyer frames his shots beautifully. like the oil paintings he invokes and he moves his cameras around to good effect – on dollys smoothing around corners or following characters down stairs. Light and shadow are used to focus the narrative – as when Joseph proposes in the third sequence. Dreyer blocks the light and closes it round each character as they interact… and it is the same with Judas and Jesus in first sequence.
There are, as you’d expect… extensive close ups and there are also plenty of ordinary faces… the “ordinary” was important to Dreyer as, in spite of the high concepts, he wanted his history kept real.
“Anew is heard the voice from above: Continue thy evil doings!” Satanas is damned to test mankind’s will for eternity – only by resistance to his influence will he be saved.
It’s available direct from DFI whilst I got mine from the BFI Shop.