Carl Theodor Dreyer is rightly revered as a filmmaker of some repute, whose bold and uncompromising films, such as Ordet (1954) and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) offer and austere, yet beautiful, exploration of human passions kept in check.
Sadly there's only a little evidence of the Dreyer's impressive future in Blad Af Satans Bog [Leaves from Satan's Book] (1921) an unexciting rip off of Intolerance (Griffith, 1916). Four stories from different historical periods illustrate an oddly complicated punishment regime that the Lord has meted out on Satan where he must tempt humanity even though it pushes him further and further from grace.
Whilst it's the first period - set just prior to Jesus' death - that is of most interest here, surprisingly it's the obscure love story from the margins of the First World War that proves to be the decisive moment in the relationship between God, Satan and humanity. Perhaps Dreyer would come to rue his optimism here that in the Great War humanity had reached its lowest point and was, at last, beginning an upward trajectory.
Certainly Dreyer wished to revisit his handling of the Jesus material. Much has been written of Dreyer's attempts in later years to make a film called Jesus of Nazareth that would cast a Jewish actor as the Son of Man and presumably attempt to undo some of the more worrisome anti-Semitic aspects of his original adaption of the Gospels.
Common to all four stories is Satan taking on human form and seeking to influence those around him to betray their souls. Yet whilst Satan has some success influencing the persecution of an inquisition-era Spanish astrologer and the execution of Marie Antoinette it's in the first section where is able to not only trick Judas, but also to persuade Caiaphas to incite a riot. As with so many Jesus films of this era the Jewish people are portrayed as wizened and grasping in contrast to the noble-looking Romans.
That said, one of the film's most surprising turns is that the episode truncates before Jesus ever encounters Pilate, shortly after Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane. Indeed only three episodes from the gospels feature - the anointing at the house of Simon the Leper, the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane. The focus here is far more on Judas and his emotions than on his master. The film opens with Jesus being anointed and Judas is clearly disappointed with the path Jesus is taking. Satan appears and sympathises with his disillusionment eventually lulling Judas into his trap and leaving him at the moment his remorse begins to hit home (though notably before he takes his own life).
The footage of Jesus, however, is more distant and remote. Jesus is often shot from low down and close to the top of the frame. He is constantly peering upwards as if through his brow. The scene of the Last Supper is visually striking, but also rather stiff and unimaginative. If by the end of the section Judas is disappointed with the course events have taken is hard to understand what it was that compelled him to follow Jesus in the first place.
In making his Jesus story the only episode of the four that doesn't revolve around a traditional love story Dreyer also imitates Intolerance, but in contrast to Griffith, Dreyer does actually develop his Judean story and offer a subtler, more nuanced portrait of events. There are some notable touches of his future work here as well, not least the number of and prolonged use of close-ups. In particular the close ups of the woman anointing of Jesus, hints at Dreyer's use of extreme and lengthy close-ups of the face of Maria Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. That the later film was just seven years away is surprising - in terms of the development of Dreyer's style it somehow seems far longer.