Dreyer’s Film Festival at the BFI (2) – Leaves from Satan’s Book (1921), Love One Another (1922) – Dreyer teaches Griffith a thing or two
March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment
The glorious complete retrospective of Dreyer’s feature films goes on at the London BFI with two films where Dreyer looks into the human soul, and doesn’t quite like what he sees. First was the long (157 min!) Leaves from Satan’s Book, compared in its day with Griffith’s Intolerance which had premiered in Denmark only 3 years before Dreyer filmed his epic, four stories into one, study of the Devil’s work. The Danish Institute insists this was inspired by an original scenario, not by Marie Corelli’s Sorrows of Satan which, as you know, Griffith (again!) was to film in 1926. The four stories in Dreyer’s film do not intercut (at least there is no going back and forth between the four stories, though there is considerable intercutting in each episode among different strands of the story, but more on that below), though there is a last-minute, uncharacteristically Griffithesque ride to the rescue in the last episode.
I am not the only one to have felt that there was something borderline irritating in how slowly the Christ figure was moving in the first episode, as Danish conservative Christian reviewers felt insulted back in 1921 by it:
As a sleepwalker, a dreamer, Christ was portrayed, and his apostles were made out to be a flock of fatuous, inferior individuals. (full reception context here)
The line between majesty and boredom is indeed a thin one, and that episode, notably, has become culturally much less relevant than it probably was back then (Dreyer himself would refer to it, much later, as
a dreadful collection of oil prints.
Being a man of my time (!), I tend to sympathize here with both perspectives, and I certainly understand why the Danish labour movement felt also jarred by the recurring suggestion that the Devil was, whether in Revolutionary France or in Bolshevik Russia, always a Red (there’s a definitive conservative feel to the film, from the very positive image of a suffering Marie Antoinette in jail, to the super-heroic resistance of the Fins against the 1918 Bolshevik invasion of their country). What seemed more interesting, however, was the not so subtle sexual innuendoes that Dreyer distributed here and there, from the washing of the feet of Christ, while older men (the Apostle of decidedly sleepy composition, indeed) look on, or the Mary Pieta statue that is transformed into the object of desire as a half-naked monk chastises himself — a rather naughty suggestion that, indeed, seems to have been forcibly censored (the Inquisition episode came to a sudden end, and it seems a whole rape scene, with the monk raping the girl, is missing?).
But this, indeed, is a Dreyer film, filled with those little human touches (the cat to be guillotined!), the wink of the resisting Finnish wife in the last episode, or even the pre-Casablanca scene of French patriots singing (yes, again, singing in a silent movie) La Marseillaise — and those close-ups that tell a far more human story than the epic melodrama that the script
Human, indeed, and quite moving now is Love One Another, Dreyer’s German film about the evil of antisemitism. Again the Danish Institute website about the films of Dreyer has all the information that you could wish for, so let me just point out what was the most striking to me. Not only is the film very moving in the loving care with which Jewish life has been patiently reconstructed for the film, it is also quite a wrenching experience in line of what Kubrick would later be able to achieve: engrossing the audience in scenes that are morally repulsive, and despite the repulsiveness of the scenes shown. Here long, careful scenes depict the hatred-spreading “monk”, the healthy, laughing character of the young anti-Semite, the long march of the Russians that starts as a celebration of the freedoms granted by the Czar, and ends, yet again, in a pogrom — all these Dreyer exposes slowly, methodically, leaving his audience wincing and twitching in palpable discomfort. Again, think Kubrick and the violent beatings of Clockwork Orange to Beethoven’s grand music…
Love One Another is a film all should see — and I don’t have enough information right now under my fingertips to tell you how many films denouncing anti-semitism were made in 1920s Germany, or how popular they were (yes, I know about Ewald André Dupont’s 1923 Das Alte Gesetz, a distant precursor to The Jazz Singer, but is there more?), though this would definitely be interesting to find out — but it’s not just the courage and emotional power of its theme that is impressive, but the way the story is told, or rather,
told. For the story is heavily narrated in long inter-titles that leave very little to narrate for the images — except, again, what is essential for Dreyer, which is how humans react, think, dream, and desire. There are long scenes of longing, scenes of hatred, scenes of hopes, where not much happens in terms of plot, but where people look at each other. And then there’s the intercutting between scenes, that crazy way of telling the story by showing 2 shots of one plot line, then 1 shot of another, then 3 shots of a 3rd, and so on, nervously going back and forth between plot lines. Add long narrative inter-titles, scenes where actors have time to breathe and expand on the emotions, and you have a film that lets most of the story happen off-screen, in between shots, requiring the audience to fill in the gaps in the narration, to provide the geographic, spatial, psychological continuity that the film takes for granted without developing it itself. This is quite a different regime from American narrative cinema of the day indeed. And even though Dreyer here uses that editing that Griffith had perfected for suspense (ride to the rescue inter-cut with frail girl in danger), he uses it for a rather different purpose, to increase the documentary force of images that are distilled as precious gems one by one. A thing or two, yes, to teach the master…