Monday, 11 February 2013

Dreyer's Devil… Leaves Out of the Book of Satan (1920)

Helge Nissen
“Satanas who must tempt mankind, in obedience to the Divine doom.”

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..."
Influenced by DW Griffith’s sprawling Intolerance, the Dane set out to make a similarly multi-stranded morality play but with a more linear structure than the former’s inter-linked, time-shifting narrative. I don’t know enough about Dreyer’s spirituality to gauge his motives in making this epic fable but it is a theologically interesting film and political too with the last two sections reflecting the post-war concern with the right to rule.

Helge Nissen
Helge Nissen plays Satan/Satanas in all four stories and is excellent throughout: a mixture of regret and rigour informing his endless evil doing… no one gets let off the hook easily and all are tested to the ultimate degree.

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?
There’s an interesting and subtle take on Judas (Jacob Texière): not an evil schemer as such but a man of principle, who wants the cause to succeed… His doubts lead him to betray Jesus (Halvard Hoff) or is it pride? Either way he is helped on his way by Satanas who poses as a pharisee.

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.

Halvard Hoff
The main divergence from classicism is a modernistic portrayal of Judas’ horrendous guilt… how much simpler to cast his as a man of pure selfishness and evil: here he looks to throw his thirty pieces of silver away…

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)
His daughter Isabel (Ebon Strandin) is taught by Don Fernandez (Johannes Meyer) a priest, who has developed a most un-holy obsession with the girl.

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
Dreyer covers the sexual undertones uncomfortably well – self flagellation followed by gratification but Satanas ensures there are consequences… How sordid the mix of spirituality and sensuality.

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
Against this back-drop a smaller story plays out featuring the family of the Count de Chambord (Viggo Wiehe). He charges his loyal servant Joseph (Elith Pio) with protecting The Countess (Emma Wiehe) and their daughter Genevive (Jeanne Tramcourt).

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...
Marie Antoinette’s situation nears the end and Dreyer quotes from her tear-stained final letter… Joseph appears to be her way out but his quick temper and her regal poise damn them both. This segment is the busiest and you wonder why the royal story had to run alongside the noble one?

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…

Elith Pio
4th section: Finish Civil War 1918

The final sequence is based in the Finish Civil War and here the film finally finds a hero.

Clara Pontoppidan
Satanas plays Ivan, a Rasputin type character leading the socialist Reds in the battle against the conservative Whites… This is an odd conflation of recent Russian history – Rasputin may have inadvertently helped discredit the Tsarist regime but he was no Bolshevik.

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
Siri refuses to bend as Ivan orders her husband to be shot and then threatens to do the same to her children… her loyalty to God and country comes first.

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
Like many a “double album”, Leaves Out of the Book of Satan occasionally creaks in terms of continuity and concept: there are more than enough good ideas to make a single superb feature film but maybe not one with four “sides”.

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.

Ordinary men...
As for the moral force of the production… it seems that Old Nick is not the one performing the evil deeds, he is simply the catalyst for choices made and not the instigator of human desire, a challenge to restraint that so many fail. For this subtle positioning of evil, Dreyer deserves credit for not preaching and for issuing this slow, drawn out challenge to his viewers…

“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.

No rest...
I watched the Danish Film Institute’s superb restoration which looks astonishingly clear and has a sympathetic new score from Ronen Thalmay who must have had very tired hands by the finish. It also comes with a short biography of the director and an alternative ending to the Siri sequence.

It’s available direct from DFI whilst I got mine from the BFI Shop.

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