The prologue to Leaves from Satan’s Book recounts the familiar tale of Satan’s banishment from Heaven. In order to return, Satan is doomed to perform acts of temptation upon humanity with the stipulation that for every soul who yields, 100 years will be added to his time on earth. However, for every soul who resists, 1000 years will be commuted from his judgment. It is through this unorthodox perspective that the film follows the destructive path of the fallen angel, appearing through the ages as an opportunistic instigator in times of war and conflict. The first chapter takes place in Jerusalem in the year 30 A.D. as Satan (Helge Nissen), in the guise of a Pharisee, attends a gathering with other religious elders at the home of Caiaphas in order to discuss the unconventional ministry and reported miracles of Jesus of Nazareth (Halvard Hoff), and subsequently finds a potential conduit in the faltering faith of the apostle, Judas (Jacob Texiere). The second chapter occurs in 16th century Seville as a learned monk named Don Fernandez (Johannes Meyer), harboring a profound desire for his beautiful student Isabella (Ebon Strandin), resignedly abandons their private instruction to join the Spanish Inquisition, only to find himself overseeing the fates of Isabella and her father, Don Gomez (Hallander Helleman) after they are charged with heresy. The setting of the third chapter is 1793 Paris, as a young man named Joseph (Elith Pio) – the humble and dutiful servant of the benevolent Chambord family – finds immediate social prominence during the turbulent early years of the nascent French Republic when he is inducted into the inner circle of the Jacobins, and soon begins to lose sight of his solemn promise to the late Count de Chambord (Viggo Wiehe). In the fourth (and final) chapter, Satan assumes the form of a Russian monk in the rural, occupied Finnish town of Hirola in 1918, and presents an impossible choice to a devoted wife named Siri (Clara Pontoppidan) when an unwanted suitor, Rautamiemi (Carl Hildebrandt), denounces her husband Paavo (Carlo Wieth) before the Russian authorities.
Inspired by the epic scope and thematic structure of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, Leaves from Satan’s Book is an ambitious, visually innovative, and innately idiosyncratic presentation of world history through the essential perspective of human experience in reaction to – and as a result of – divine consequence. Carl Theodor Dreyer incorporates a series of episodically distinctive experimental techniques and stylistic devices that would resurface in his subsequent films: the singular focus close-ups and application of austere kammerspielfilm elements in the Betrayal of Jesus and French Revolution episodes to create a sense of concentrated expression that is incorporated in the heightened emotionality of The Passion of Joan of Arc and the foreboding and otherworldly psychological landscape of Vampyr and Day of Wrath; the rigorously formal statuesque composition of Don Fernandez’s self-flagellation and repressed thoughts in the Spanish Inquisition segment that is hinted in the languid, fragmented articulation of Johannes in Ordet, and is further realized in the inexorable stasis of Gertrud; the gentle humor and infused lightheartedness during the Finnish Revolution section that is also manifested in Dreyer’s domestic dramas, The Parson’s Widow and Master of the House (note the recurring image of the heart-shaped pendulum clock that is literally recycled in Master of the House). By portraying Satan as a deeply conflicted, perennial spectator attempting to find and test the resolve of souls in crisis as a redemptive opportunity for commuting closer towards eternal paradise, Dreyer provides a thoughtful and provocative examination of human weakness and provides a compassionate, universal metaphor for a soul’s quest for transcendence.
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