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Leaves From Satan's Book

Leaves From Satan's Book(1919)


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As a consequence of World War I, the flow of American films to Denmark was choked off for several years. After the war, a flood of films commenced and Nordic filmmakers feasted on the features they had been denied. Because the film's reputation had preceded it, the Nordisk Films Compagni held a special screening of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) at a theatre in Copenhagen, attended by its most promising filmmakers. Due to the length of the film, the screening did not end until 4:00 am, but one viewer was especially energized: Carl Theodor Dreyer.

He was more fascinated by the intimacy Griffith conveyed in the tales rather than the spectacular form in which they were presented. Dreyer proposed an Intolerance of his own, comprised of four historical dramas: the betrayal of Jesus (Halvard Hoff), the Spanish Inquisition, the French Revolution and the "modern" story of Finland's 1918 revolution. Entitled Leaves from Satan's Book (1921), each "chapter" would depict a particularly dark moment in the history of humanity. Rather than interweaving the stories the way Griffith had, Dreyer would assemble them end-to-end as an anthology.

Presiding over each of these episodes is Satan himself (Helge Nissen), who oversees these moments of epic cruelty with grim remorse. In a curious variation on the typical depictions of evil, Satan is disheartened by the tragedies he witnesses. Rather than trying to undermine God's authority, Dreyer's Satan is attempting to regain God's favor by performing his assigned duties, doomed to spend eternity corrupting the innocent and watching their fall from grace.

Few directors resisted compromise and convention the way Carl Theodor Dreyer did. Leaves from Satan's Book was just his second film but already he was rigidly defiant against anyone who might tamper with the purity of his vision. Nordisk was artistically progressive by Hollywood standards and planned that Leaves would be a prestige film that privileged art over commercial appeal.

The film was approved for production in the spring of 1918 at a budget of 120,000 kroner, but the Leaves turned slowly. At this point in film history a director tended to make two to three (or more) films a year. But Dreyer was not the typical filmmaker. He personally visited libraries and archives andcollected illustrative material to be used as visual references. Nordisk assigned the prestigious playwright Edgar Hoyer to collaborate on the script but the two men essentially wrote two different screenplays. Once the official script was completed, Dreyer continued to revise the text for an additional three months, much to Hoyer's chagrin (the Finnish sequence is entirely Dreyer's creation). The film grew moreambitious in scale and elaborate in design. The start of production was delayed until summer of 1919.

"It is my conviction that Leaves from Satan's Book is the best script that Nordisk has yet had in its hands," Dreyer proudly informed the producers, crusading for more money for the project, "I daresay I can argue that never has such preparatory work been done in this country, and probably never before has a director been as prepared for directing as I am now... the black pigs, the guinea fowl, and the monkeys which I shall use sometime in July had already been reserved in January...I have scoured the town to find original Southern Europeans as extras in my Spanish story and I have gotten everybody moving to find Finns formy Finnish story...I have been sitting in the library for months seeking out every detail of my sets... I have left nothing to others, I have taken care of everything myself...Nordisk Films Kompagni wants to make a 'film-product' (which in my eyes is the same as a bad film) while my goal is the film which sets standards."He asked for 240,000 kroner. Nordisk, not entirely pleased with Dreyer's attitude, counter-offered 150,000. Dreyer grudgingly accepted, adding, "I solemnly deny any responsibility for the finished film." Nordisk responded with the announcement that Dreyer would be released from his contract. Realizing he had overplayed his hand, Dreyer dismissed his disclaimer as a misunderstanding and agreed to the studio's terms.

The crew traveled to locations selected by Dreyer, including the Frederiksborg Castle of northern Zealand for the French Revolution sequence. Much of the Finland sequence was shot in the snowy forests near Kagerup forty miles north of Copenhagen.

Dreyer's epic finally premiered in Oslo on November 17, 1920 and did not play in Denmark until January of 1921, almost three years after it was initially approved for production. It ran a full two hours in length, making it the longest film ever made in Denmark at that time. When Leaves played in Oslo, animpatient projectionist accelerated the speed of the projector in order to shorten the running time of the film. "Jesus hopped across the screen like a grasshopper," Dreyer angrily complained.

The film won positive reviews and marked Dreyer as a director clearly capable of greatness. He and Nordisk parted company, partly due to hurt feelings over the budgetary squabble, but also the clear realization that the Danish film industry was not large enough to finance and support risk-taking films of such a scale. He moved to Norway and began working for a major Swedish company: Svensk Filmindustri.

Even at this early stage in his career, Dreyer's gift for expressive closeups andformally composed images was evident. The program at the film's premiere proclaimedhim "the man who strings pearls, stringing shot after shot in the knowledgethat even if the string should break a thousand details would remain as small masterpiecesby themselves. Carl Th. Dreyer is the first Danish director for whom the methodis the natural one."

One sequence that particularly interested Dreyer was that depicting the life anddeath of Christ, lengthening this portion in relation to the others. As decadespassed, he continued to be drawn to the story. He was brought to America, circa1950, to write a screenplay on the life of Christ, and in 1951 published the essay"Who Crucified Jesus?" He devoted the last four years of his life to reviving the project, but died before it could reach production.

Director: Carl Theodor DreyerScreenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer and Edgar Hoyer, based on the novel Sorrowsof Satan by Marie Corelli
Cinematography: George Schneevoigt
Production Design: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Axel Bruun, Jens G. Lind
Cast: Helge Nissen (Satan), Halvard Hoff (Jesus), Tenna Kraft (Marie Antoinette),Hallander Helleman (Don Gomez de Castro), Viggo Wiehe (Count de Chambord), JacobTexiere (Judas).

by Bret Wood

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