Leaves From Satan’s Book at the PFA

I saw Carl Th. Dreyer’s Leaves From Satan’s Book at the Pacific Film Archive this afternoon. Made in 1919 through 1921, it’s easily the earliest Dreyer film I’ve yet seen. Judith Rosenberg accompanied this silent film on piano; a translation of the Danish intertitles were read aloud by someone who’s name I failed to get.

With its four stories set in different time periods, Leaves often gets compared to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. In fact, there’s some controversy about whether Griffith’s film inspired this one. There’s one very big difference, however: Dreyer doesn’t cut back and forth between the stories. Presented in chronological order, one plays out to the end before the next one begins.

Each story has Satan (Helge Nissen), disguised as a mortal man, trying to tempt a basically good person to do evil—a plot device that takes the stories out of the realm of simple melodrama. Melodrama assumes that people do evil because they’re evil. Here people do evil because they’re scared, or because they can’t resist a temptation that they know is wrong.

And although this Satan does his best to tempt them, deep down he hopes they’ll resist. He has his reason. Every time someone resists temptation, Satan’s punishment is shortened by 1,000 years.

Satan’s human disguise is always a person of authority—often religious authority. In the first episode, about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, he’s a Pharisee. In the second, set in 16-century Spain, he’s a leader of the Inquisition. In the third, about the French Revolution, he’s a revolutionary leader sentencing people to the guillotine (although he also turns up as a beggar/informer in that one). And in the last one, set in the 1918 war between Finland and newly-Soviet Russia (very contemporary history when the film was made), he’s a Communist officer who is also, inexplicitly, a monk. That’s a bit confusing. At one point, he reads from a book called the Communist Catechism, which has a cross on the cover. Maybe Dreyer didn’t know much about Communism.

The Inquisition and French Revolution sections are easily the best, dramatically and thematically. The first section suffers from Jesus’ presence—there’s not much drama with a character that perfect. And the final section, perhaps because it was too close to look at objectively, really does devolve into melodrama. But the 16th- and 18th-century stories hit a nerve. One involves a lustful monk who turns to the inquisition to take the object of his desire and her father. The other involves a former servant torn between his decent, human desire to protect his one-time bosses and the need to save his own neck.

The picture is filled with those penetrating close-ups that were such an important part of Dreyer’s style. No other filmmaker made such an art of discovering a soul by examining a face. Rosenberg did her usual excellent accompaniment, but the translations seemed wanting. Many times an intertitle that filled the screen with a great deal of Swedish text was translated into one or two short sentences. I found myself wanting more.