After seeing D. W. Griffith's epic Intolerance, Denmark's greatest director, Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr), was inspired to make his own four-episode historical ... See full summary »
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Carl Theodor Dreyer is a young journalist in Copenhagen when he gets involved in the early Danish film industry. He writes scripts and inter-titles, and for some years he is the main editor... See full summary »
Torben Skjødt Jensen
After seeing D. W. Griffith's epic Intolerance, Denmark's greatest director, Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr), was inspired to make his own four-episode historical epic with each story told end to end, anthology-style, linked by theme to the others. The unifying character, Satan, attempts to win God's favor but is doomed to cheerless participation in dark episodes of human history: the temptation of Jesus, the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution and the Russo-Finnish war of 1918. Few directors resisted compromise and convention the way Dreyer did; fortunately, the Nordisk Film Company was artistically progressive by Hollywood standards and agreed that this should be a prestige film made to the highest standards. More than two years in production, Dreyer not only directed but also controlled every facet of this ambitious production. Written by
A mediocre and heavily biased early silent film from the great Carl Theodore Dreyer
Carl Theodore Dreyer is one of the great silent filmmakers in the history of the medium. "Leaves Out of the Book of Satan", however, is a disappointing effort in his otherwise impressive body of work. This is my opinion mostly because of the film's obtrusive political bias, something I'd never seen Dreyer descend to before. Of course, it's an early work for him, so inasmuch as the great Danish master needs a pass from the likes of this humble viewer, he will receive one.
"Leaves Out of the Book of Satan" is a 1920 Danish film, which I've read from multiple accounts is Dreyer's second effort. IMDb lists it as his third. The Danish film "The President" (1919) an impressive spiritual melodrama was his debut. He also made a Swedish film called "The Parson's Widow" in 1920, the same year as this film. It was more of a romantic comedy melodrama, and was decent, if not especially impressive.
Somewhere around this time comes "Leaves Out of the Book of Satan". Dreyer, so they say, had seen D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic "Intolerance", and was inspired by it to make this film. The influence is conspicuous, to say the least. Like Griffith's film, Dreyer's film is a four-part anthology, in which each segment is connected not narratively (apart from the character of Satan), but rather thematically. "Intolerance" wasn't Griffith's only film of this sort. "Home Sweet Home" (1914) was very much the same structure. In that film, like in this film by Dreyer, the first segment is the catalyst which paves the way for the remaining three stories. In the case of Dreyer's film, each segment is about Satan's temptation of an individual in the midst of a moral crisis. As a result, the first segment the original temptation, so to speak is a short story of the Passion of Christ. One might expect Dreyer to have opted for the truly primordial story of temptation and original sin: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but for whatever reason, he did not do so. Perhaps it was too mythical, and he wanted something that could be more effectively based in realism.
There is a tapestry woven through each of the four segments, and it is in this tapestry that Dreyer forays into political territory that I'd never seen him approach before. In all four segments, the common theme is not only temptation, but more specifically, the temptation to inform on a friend. In the segment about the Passion, it is Judas who is tempted by Satan to inform against Christ to the Sanhedrin. Likewise, in every segment, there is an organization that holds the power of life and death, and uses it, quite recklessly, for their own aims. In the second segment, it is the Inquisition. The third segment is set during the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and this is where Dreyer's political bias really stars to rear its ugly head. His attempts to portray the revolutionaries as relentlessly evil and the poor aristocratic victims as unfailingly innocent were nothing less than ridiculous. And it's not about whether he's right or wrong -- whether I agree with him or not -- it's simply that I strongly dislike bias in cinema. An effort to see both sides of the equation should be instinctive for a great filmmaker like Dreyer. Here, it is certainly not.
The fourth segment is set in then-modern day Finland, during the country's civil war, and Dreyer's sympathies once again lie with the aristocracy. He celebrates the heroism of the Whites, who can do no wrong, and his anti-communist sentiments against the Reds, composed mostly of the working class, left nothing wanting, even by McCarthy's standards. Truly, this film can be seen as right-wing propaganda. Dreyer is clearly in full support of social inequality, and while I try to make a point not to let my personal opinions effect my viewing experiences with films, I do, as I said before, have a strong aversion to this kind of bias, even in instances in which my opinions and the filmmaker's coincide. Really, the moral certainty here is legitimately disturbing.
Setting aside the politics, and looking at the film from a strictly cinematic angle, it still fails to stand out as high quality cinema. The narrative lacks depth, and the dialogue is often very poor (the last line of the film is honestly one of the most cringeworthy I've ever heard -- or read, in this case -- in the history of cinema). Griffith's influence is noticeable, although Dreyer brings to the film some of his own technique, which he was still in the process of honing at this point in his career. He utilizes color tinting, which I think the film would have been better off without.
With all that criticism out of the way, though, one can certainly find commendable qualities in "Leaves Out of the Book of Satan". I think it's the weakest of the Dreyer films I've seen, but it's entertaining enough to justify a viewing, and possesses the beginnings of the unique element of spirituality that Dreyer would refine and perfect in the years to come. One of the film's strongest assets for me was the portrayal of Satan as a sympathetic character. God has condemned him to tempt us, but his countenance is one of remorse, not evil, and he laments every soul that capitulates to his temptation.
I've always wondered how much influence these Scandanavian directors like Dreyer and Victor Sjöström may have had on the filmmakers of the coming decade (the '20s), particularly the German expressionists. It's possible there's some value here in that regard, but overall, I think "Leaves Out of the Book of Satan" is of most interest to serious silent film enthusiasts or Dreyer completists. It is not, by any means, essential silent cinema.
RATING: 5.00 out of 10 stars
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