Leaves from Satan's Book (Carl Theodor Dreyer / Denmark, 1919):
(Blade af Satans Bog; Leaves Out of the Book of Satan)

Temptation and persecution through the ages, closer to Der Müde Tod than to Intolerance: Like Lang's Grim Reaper, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Satan (Helge Nissen) is a reluctant monster, after each malefic deed he looks up to the heavens and "the Lord's voice is heard: 'Continue they evil doings!'" The first of the four stories casts the fallen angel as a Pharisee in Jerusalem, spreading hatred amid the scribes while the last supper is scored by a harp-plucking maiden, who envisions Christ (Halvard Hoff) surrounded by beatific sheep; Dreyer's great movie about Jesus remains the screenplay (with precise filming indications) for his unrealized epic, this is a rough-draft tableau filled with stunning elements, like Judas's (Jacob Texiere) blocky stumble from the table, eaten by doubt and encircled by darkness. The Messiah is made into the grotesque wooden figure on a cross in a 16th-century Spanish chamber, where the Devil presides as the Grand Inquisitor. A young monk (Johannes Meyer) flagellates himself for his desire toward a lovely student (Ebon Strandin), easy prey for the Inquisition's lure of control -- once corrupted, the monk recoils from his beloved's crucifix like a vampire, with vast consequences for Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath. Deformed religion, deformed revolution: A guillotine is framed against the 1793 sun, Marie Antoinette (Tenna Kraft) is a prisoner, disgraced aristos are on the run from bloodthirsty revolutionaries. A servant (Elith Pio) finds a place with the Reign of Terror, his anger at being rejected by a refugee is inflamed by Satan, who materializes as a Jacobin and then vanishes into thin air, to be resurrected as an uncredited Rasputin in the Russian-Finnish war of 1918. Surveying the rebels, the villain shows a sardonic bent ("Let him have a bullet when you get into the woods... And now, for a bite to eat!"), though the tale belongs to the wife (Clara Pontoppidan) who distills a nation's struggle into two sterling close-ups, first resisting temptation and then accepting her death. An incalculable foundation of themes and images for Dreyer, who would spend the rest of his life purifying them, seeking the epic in the expanses of the soul. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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