Leaves From Satan's Book (Blade Af Satans Bog) 1920

Director: Carl Dreyer

"And God judged Satan: Thou shalt continue thy evil doings against man. Go amongst men in fashion of a man and tempt them to do against My will."
As I write this, it's Easter at the Devil's Manor, and every year around this time our thoughts turn to matters spiritual. In keeping with the occasion, we turn to Carl Theodore Dreyer's heart-warming look at some of the sterling work our Dark Lord has accomplished across the centuries. 

Satan is condemned to walk the earth, tempting humanity into defying God's will. For each soul he claims, a century is added to his judgement; for each that resists, he is relieved a thousand years.

Judas: In Jerusalem, A.D. 30, Satan takes on the guise of a Pharisee to convince Caiaphas and his priests that the prophet Jesus is growing too powerful and should be silenced. He persuades Jesus' disciple Judas to betray his master and leads the Roman soldiers to Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, condemning his soul for thirty pieces of silver.

The Inquisition's torture chamber
The Spanish Inquisition: Seville, 16th century - a young priest, Don Fernandez, is in love with Isabella, the daughter of his patron Don Gomez de Castro. Satan enlists Fernandez to serve the Inquisition, and when Don Gomez is denounced as a heretic for dabbling in astrology, it falls to Fernandez to put him to trial. After Don Gomez dies under torture, Fernandez is ordered to extract a confession from Isabella...

The French Revolution: autumn 1793, and Marie Antoinette is imprisoned and the Army of the Revolution brings the guillotine to Castle Chambord. The Count de Chambord entrusts his servant Joseph to take his wife and daughter to safety in Paris. There he meets Satan in his latest guise as Erneste Durand, the Count's former footman, who introduces Joseph to his political inner circle. Later, disguised as a beggar, Satan forces Joseph to betray his former employers in order to save his own life and ultimately puts the fate of Marie Antoinette herself in Joseph's hands...

The Red Guard: Hirola, Finland, spring 1918. Siri and her husband Paavo operate a telegraph station during the Finnish civil war. Her family are captured by a gang of Red Army soldiers led by Satan posing as 'Ivan', a former monk now collaborating with the Bolshevik invaders. Siri is told she must help lure a group of Finnish soldiers, led by Corporal Matti, into an ambush, or her husband and child will be killed.

Judas (Jacob Texiere) breaks bread with Jesus
(Halvard Hoff)
Carl Dreyer's Leaves From Satan's Book is a grimly serious affair from start to finish. It depicts Satan as a tragic Miltonian figure, condemned by God to harvest the souls of sinners as punishment for his transgressions -- each soul he claims adds a century to his time on Earth, each one that resists lessens that time by a millennium. But humanity seldom proves a match for Satan's cunning and there's a deep vein of fatalism running through all four chapters. Even his failure to claim Finnish heroine Siri, who would sooner die than betray her country, is a hollow victory. The Adversary exits with God's command of "Continue thy evil doings!" still ringing in his ears.

It's Dreyer's ambition that shines out through all the gloom. Inspired by D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, which shares the four-episode structure of Satan's Book and its general theme of man's inhumanity to man, Dreyer's similarly expansive vision took in two millennia and two and a half hours of screen time. Even this was a compromise: during shooting, Dreyer attempted to persuade Nordisk to almost double his original budget of 120,000 kroner by threatening to take his production elsewhere. He eventually relented, and if Satan's Book (only his second film as director) is nowhere near as grandiose as Intolerance, it is at least bigger in scale than anything else to come out of Denmark that year.

Norwegian press ad, 1921
It's often mistakenly assumed that Marie Corelli's 1895 novel The Sorrows of Satan was the basis for Dreyer's film. In fact, Edgar Hoyer's screenplay (itself possibly inspired by Satanas, a 1912 Italian drama directed by Luigi Maggi) had been sitting around Nordisk's offices since 1913, where Dreyer would have read it in his former role as script editor. Coincidentally, it was Griffith who went on to film Corelli's novel for Paramount in 1926.

The six-month shoot for Satan's Book produced a film that unfolded at a stately pace. Dreyer populated his story with a sea of interesting faces, allowing his camera to linger on a wrinkled Pharisee scribe or a snarling Revolutionary commissar from his supporting cast along the way. He already knew the value of a strong close-up, an idea he took to its logical conclusion with The Passion of Joan of Arc in 1928, which was made up almost entirely of close and medium shots. Human faces and carefully-chosen architectural features alike are used to draw the viewer in to scenes which are often as delicately lit as a Vermeer painting. All of which suggests that the Devil is in the details, as they say.

Satan's Book has its flaws, and is not generally considered to be one of Dreyer's best, even though his reputation is based on a mere fourteen feature films made over a fifty year career. The film's Red Guard chapter seems a bit of an anticlimax, and for a director who was later to produce a film as visually evocative and dialogue-free as Vampyr (1932), there's a surprising over-reliance on title cards in the early chapters.

On its first release in Norway in November 1920, the film was generally well-received. The only groups who took a dislike to it were conservative Christians who objected to Dreyer's portrayal of Jesus and his disciples and left-wingers appalled that Satan was shown siding with revolutionaries and Communists. Dreyer himself reportedly later dismissed it as "a creepy collection of olietryks pictures [gaudy 19th-century lithographs]", but he'd return to themes and ideas explored here many times during his career.

For example, martyred women cropped up again and again in Dreyer's work: Marie Antoinette's incarceration prefigured The Passion of Joan of Arc, down to a scene where Marie has her hair cut off, and Isabella's treatment at the hands of the Inquisition was recalled by the witch-hunts in Day of Wrath (1944). Religious themes dominated the rest of his career, but none was more important to him than the life of Jesus, a subject he explored for the first and only time in Satan's Book. Dreyer had begun work on a screenplay for a film about Jesus as early as 1930, but never managed to get it off the ground. He was still pushing to get the project realised shortly before his death in 1968.

End Credits:
Helge Nissen (Satan), Halvard Hoff (Jesus), Jacob Texiere (Judas), Hallander Helleman (Don Gomez de Castro), Johannes Meyer (Don Fernandez Y Argote), Ebon Strandin (Isabella), Jose (Nalle Halden), Tenna Frederiksen Kraft (Marie Antoinette), Viggo Wiehe (Count de Chambord), Emma Wiehe (Countess de Chambord), Jeanne Tramcourt (Lady Genevieve), Emil Helsengreen (People's Commisar), Elith Pio (Joseph), Sven Scholander (Michonnet),Viggo Lindstrom (Old Pitou), Hugo Brun (Count Manuel), Carlo Wieth (Paavo), Clara Pontoppidan (Siri), Carl Hildebrandt (Rautamiemi), Christian Nielsen (Corporal Matti), Karina Bell (Naima).
Screenplay: Edgar Hoyer (with Carl Dreyer), Cinematography: George Schneevoigt, Production Design: Axel Bruun and Jens G. Lind.
Nordisk, Denmark
Running time 122 mins.

The version reviewed here was the 121-minute print from Image Entertainment. For completists, a full, 157-minute cut is available from the Danish Film Institute.

Some information in this post was taken from the DFI's official Carl Th. Dreyer website, which contains extensive reference materials for all of Dreyer's films.

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