Friday, March 4, 2011

Hell is Other Movies: Leaves from Satan's Book

We've never played, as part of Metro Classics, a film by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, though we came close to running Day of Wrath last spring and have considered both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Vampyr a few times.  Dreyer was a notoriously non-prolific director, managing to complete only five features over the 35 years after Passion, his breakthrough hit, one of which he disowned.  His reputation as one of the great directors of film history rests almost entirely on five films: Passion, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud.  Leaves from Satan's Book was his third feature, made in 1921, and it's the earliest of his films that I've seen.

Loosely adapted from the bestselling 1895 novel The Sorrows of Satan by Dreyer and Edgar Høyer, the film owes a tremendous debt to DW Griffith, a director I'd never really connected to Dreyer (as opposed to this series' Night of the Hunter, which foregrounds its influences in the casting of Lillian Gish, Griffith's greatest star) but probably should have.  Like Griffth's masterpiece Intolerance, released in the US in 1916, but probably not in Dreyer's native Denmark until 1919 (after the war), Leaves tells four stories from different periods in history organized around a central theme.  Instead of Griffith's story of "Love's Struggle Through the Ages", Leaves presents Satan as a tragic figure.  For his sin of pride he has been not only thrown out of heaven, but condemned to walk the Earth tempting humanity to evil.  The devious twist in the punishment is that for every person Satan succeeds in tempting, another 100 years is added to his punishment, while for every person who resists him, 1000 years are knocked off his sentence.  Satan is constantly disappointed by humanity: he feels their failures more deeply than they could ever know, but is always commanded by God to "continue thy evil ways."

Unlike Intolerance, the stories are not intercut, but instead told one at a time, in sequence.  Interestingly, though, the filmmaking evolves as the stories progress in time, becoming increasingly more modern.  The opening section, a Passion focusing on Judas, the style is that of mid-10s silent films the world over: tableau shots with little to no camera movement but with the occasional close-ups.  The second section, set during the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expected that!) is a little more visually ornate (and often quite lovely to look at, in a twisted Inquisitiony sort of way).  The third, during the French Revolution, is the most narratively intricate and the fourth, during the Finnish Civil War of 1918 (between Reds (communists) and Whites (conservatives)) shows the influence of German Expressionism (scary shadows, canted angles) and Griffith's most advanced editing techniques (there's even one of Griffith's signature damsel in distress chase scenes).

The sense of moving through history then is the movement through cinematic history, a history that at that point was barely 25 years old.  It's an audacious kind of film for a young director, and one that prefigures Dreyer's singular style.  By the time of The Passion of Joan of Arc, eight years later, he'd completely left his contemporaries and influences behind.  All of his remaining films are wholly unique works, unlike anything that had been made before or since.

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