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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
This pretentious historical drama of Satan's part in the treason of Jesus and the horrors of the Spanish inquisition, the French revolution and the Finnish civil war is stylistically a curious move backwards for Dreyer and the Danish film industry. After the technical innovations by director Benjamin Christensen, already in Det hemmelighedsfulde X (1914), as well as in Dreyers own first feature, Præsidenten (1919), which pioneered the use of both natural lightning and chiaroscuro effects that looked forwards to German expressionism, Blade af Satans bog returns to the all too brightly lit costume drama which dominated much of the early cinema. This means that even windowless rooms with only a few candles burning is lit up like it was broad daylight all over, eventually killing any sense of sinister atmosphere that the plots here surely calls for. Outside night scenes are likewise often shot in daylight, probably awaiting blue tinting. What could be genuinely scary with more imaginative lightning and a more cinematic style, remain lifeless tableaux. There are a few scenes that uses shadows to great effect, but in a film that is 157 minutes long the overall impact is rather dull, despite the excellent new, but untinted print provided on the DVD by the Danish Film Institute from a duplicate negative.
Despite these shortcomings, there are many interesting touches for fans of Dreyer's more acclaimed work. For instance the torture scenes in Spain that anticipates the ones in Jeanne d 'Arc, and the many carefully arranged portrait pans of elders that is used again (more sophistically) in Ordet. In the Finnish episode we also get some very dramatic scenes that combines fast action with small details in close ups, expertly framed and imaginatively put together by cross cutting. After all the static of the previous episodes, the swiftness in Finland comes as a blessing and a fitting climax bringing the history lesson up to date. That is, if you don't mind the white propaganda - proves you don't have to be a bolshie to see red. Thematically, there is also the interesting touch that Dreyer shows his obsession with how personal love affairs often dominate the course of historical events. If someone is tortured or executed, you bet it is because she failed to satisfy her jealous lover, who then turns out to make faith work fatally against her. The white girl loaded with hand grenades that captures two reds just when they were about to execute a brave white fighter, is of course also on a personal revenge trip, even if it is all for Finland, of course. There are enough of such situations here for more than a few topical theses, but I'll leave it at that. Anyone interested in Dreyer should see this anyway.
Oh, I forgot to mention Intolerance? But then it turns out, according to Casper Tybjerg, that the manuscript for Blade af Satans bog was written in 1913 (Oh yeah? I hear you say, but the Finnish episode is set in 1918? Go figure), and probably inspired by the Italian film Satanas by Luigi Maggi (1912), which (also probably?) inspired Intolerance. But Dreyer has confirmed that the close up of Siri's face in the Finnish suicide scene was directly inspired by the close up of Lilian Gish in Griffith's court scene. So there.
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