When Carl Theodor Dreyer migrated from journalism to filmmaking in the 1910s, he quickly established himself as an artist interested exclusively in big themes such as fate, faith, and mortality. For his third feature, 1921's Leaves From Satan's Book, Dreyer spent two years making an Intolerance-inspired anthology of four stories, spanning four eras, all about temptation and the resistance thereof. In 30 A.D., Judas agonizes over whether to betray Jesus. In 16th-century Spain, a monk joins the Inquisition and is party to the torture of a woman he secretly loves. In 1793, a young worker becomes a player in the French Revolution and breaks a promise to his kindly former employer. And in 1918, a Finnish woman whose husband is away fighting the invading Russians has to decide whether to save his life by fighting alongside the enemy. Satan (played by Helge Nissen) appears in each vignette, urging the heroes to make the wrong choices. But Dreyer has sympathy for the devil. The movie begins with an explanation that Satan's on assignment from God, and that he urgently hopes the souls he's targeted will refuse him.
Like a lot of Dreyer's later work, Leaves From Satan's Book is deliberate in its historical pageantry. It's expressive, but without the extreme forced perspectives of The Passion Of Joan Of Arc or Vampyr. Of the four stories, the best are the firsthighlighted by a poetic montage of a woman playing a harp, a sky full of fluffy clouds, and Christ standing amid a field of sheepand the third, which is a more detailed examination of how revolutionary times turn neighbor against neighbor. When the fervor hits, where does loyalty lie: with the cause, or with the people? The naïve revolutionary of 1793 (played by Elith Pio) gets his answer when he sells out his friends and reads this note: "Judas' reward falls to Judas."
Beyond the general indictment of human greed, Dreyer doesn't position Leaves From Satan's Book as any kind of blanket statement. It's more "something to think about." In the first two sections, Dreyer considers sin in a Christian context, and asks whether people who are faithful to a false ideal have really committed any evil. The third and fourth sections are more troubling, as Dreyer moves the notions of good and evil away from religion and asks, coolly, whether wrong is always wrong, or if it just depends on the circumstances.