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Leaves from Satan's Book

Leaves from Satan's Book
1920 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 121 min. / Blade af Satans Bog / Street Date April 12, 2005 / 24.99
Starring Helge Nissen, Halvard Hoff, Jacob Texiere, Hallander Helleman, Ebon Strandin, Johannes Meyer, Tenna Kraft, Emma Wiehe, Jeanne Tramcourt, Elith Pio, Clara Pontoppidan, Carlo Wieth, Karina Bell
Cinematography George Schnéevoigt
Production Designer Carl Theodor Dreyer, Axel Bruun, Jens G. Lind
Musical Setting by Philip Carli
Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Edgar Hoyer from the novel Satans Sorger by Marie Corelli
Produced by Nordisk Film
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Melodrama meets the bible meets basic barnstorming exploitation in Carl Theodor Dreyer's second feature film Leaves from Satan's Book. It's definitely a collector's item for Dreyer completists, as it has neither the stunning cinematic artistry of his later silent work, such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, nor the personal stamp of spiritual intensity he applied to his much later Day of Wrath and Ordet.


In four separate episodes, Satan (Helge Nissen) takes various forms to tempt mortals. For every human swayed to evil a hundred years are taken off his expulsion from heaven; but for every soul that stays true and resists him, a thousand years are added to his sentence. Satan appears as a Pharisee to incite the Jewish priests to arrest Jesus, and talks Judas into betraying him. During the inquisition, Satan is The Grand Inquisitor, and tortures a noble and his daughter to death for consulting an astrological map. During the French revolution, he's a political opportunist who maneuvers a young man into betraying some royals hiding from the guillotine, and a contemporary (1918) story shows Red agitators during the Russo-Finnish war framing an innocent telegrapher and his family as White agents. Each time Satan wins, God speaks from above to tell him to continue his evil work.

Leaves from Satan's Book is an interesting concept said to be inspired by D.W. Griffith's Intolerance; according to the package text, Griffith returned the gesture by doing his own version of the same Marie Correlli book, The Sorrows of Satan, a few years later. Dreyer is apparently just getting his cinema craft together and is more concerned with accurate historical reconstruction than with presenting the tale in anything more than standard closeup - wide tableau silent style. Some framings are dynamic (the priest whipping himself at the cross, Marie Antoinette appearing in her white dress for the executioner) but most of the visuals are content to show off the convincing sets and costumes for the four stories.

The story foundation is fairly flimsy, with some author's conceits added to known bible lore. Satan isn't just cast from heaven, he's been given a regular contract with his almighty father that includes specifics on souls lost and found, and how many years Satan can get off for good behavior if his victims resist him and stay faithful to their vows to God. As it encourages Satan to do a poor job, this is truly a strange bargain: The more souls that slip through Satan's claws, the sooner he'll be back by God's side. Frankly, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's devilish bargain in Bedazzled makes a lot more sense.

Satan appears in very specific human form to tempt very specific human targets, an arrangement that makes his job seem rather difficult, unless he can duplicate himself to simultaneously tempt millions of sinners around the world at the same time. Also, his personal involvement in the betrayal of Christ seemingly takes much of the guilt away from Judas and those scheming priests, unless we're to take this account as some kind of parable. At one point, Satan even identifies himself to one of his dupes, after the damage has been done.

Three out of four stories have restrained sex themes. A priest can be tempted because he's already compromised his faith by lusting after a Spanish beauty, and the film shows him flagellating himself and seeing a hallucination of the woman lying at the foot of a cross. The Grand Inquisitor (Satan) allows the priest to spend the night with her, as they're trying to save her soul and her body 'does not matter.' Not quite Ken Russell, but pretty wild stuff for 1920.

The French Revolution story shows an ex-servant citizen trying his best to save two fugitive royal women, only to be tricked repeatedly by the political agent (Satan again). In the contemporary story, the plight of the family is a pale imitation of Griffith. The wife is faithful to the White (non- Communist) cause because it presumably is on God's side, and stays faithful even though the Reds are going to execute her husband and children. Not realizing they're being saved, she kills herself, which is supposed to prove how virtuous she is. It's implied that she's also avoiding rape - a sex-crazed man has started all the trouble in this episode as well.

Forgive my ignorance, but it is my understanding that suicide is a mortal sin in every Christian sect. She has completely defied Satan's temptations, yet by killing herself, surrenders her soul to him.

A rather long film, Leaves from Satan's Book is difficult to assess from our position 85 years later. It impresses with its production values and overall seriousness but is not essential viewing; instead, we simply see a Carl Dreyer movie made before he developed his personal stamp.

Image/Blackhawk's DVD of Leaves from Satan's Book is a good transfer of an intact surviving element that is on the contrasty side, with some serious scratches and gate lift on splices. The tinting is nicely done. The show begins with an original Nordisk Films polar bear logo even though the rest of the titles are later replacements. Philip Carli's keyboard score is adequate to good, using La Marseilles during the French Revolution section, as cued by an intertitle. The intertitles also identify all the actors by name, making it easy for the IMDB to keep straight who played who!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Leaves from Satan's Book rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 9, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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