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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
"I let the actors do what they liked - I was more interested in the composition of the image"
Carl Theodor Dreyer's second feature film is an ambitious study of evil through the ages, but the great Danish filmmaker is years away from his masterpieces of The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud. The inexperienced filmmaker was influenced by D.W. Griffith's 1916 Intolerance and aimed to map out the path of the Devil using Griffith's innovative filming style as a guide. He added on his realistic approach to the subject matter, as he believed realism to be the most essential part of any film.
Like its inspiration, Intolerance, Leaves from Satan's Book contains stories from four historical periods linked thematically. Unlike Griffith's film though, Dreyer chose not to cross cut between stories, which makes for a less confusing film.
Satan is the character who links the four stories. The film starts with his fall from grace, as told through inter-titles, and God's proclamation that he walk the Earth tempting humanity. For each soul that turns from God, 100 years will be added to Satan's sentence, but for every person who resists his temptations, 1000 years will be removed. Hoping to fail in his duties so that he may be admitted back into heaven, Satan tries to get men to betray what they hold most dear in four eras of history.
The first section of the film is the biblical story of Jesus' betrayal by Judas. The next story takes place during the Spanish Inquisition. The third section of the film takes place during the French Revolution. The final segment is set in the Finland during the Russo-Finnish war of 1918. As a film, this wasn't Dreyer's best, but it was fairly entertaining. This early Dreyer film shows his almost innate ability to compose attractive images within the limits of the frame.
Though this film isn't the grand spectacle he was hoping for, Dreyer did a wonderful job with it. His use of the film frame and style of story telling make this a movie interesting and attractive to watch.
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