Celebrating the 100th anniversary of two classic letters by Danish director Carl Th. Dreyer on his artistically ambitious silent film Leaves from Satan’s Book
Dreyer is often considered to be the great uncompromising loner who ended up making only thirteen feature films in a career that spanned nearly 45 years. The letters by the young Dreyer at the beginning of his career illustrate how he had grand ambitions from the outset and, as a consequence, encountered numerous obstacles when trying to make the case that his particular vision for ‘a big film’ rather than ‘merely an adequate film’ called for substantial financial backing.1
As Dreyer explains to the film company in the first letter, he has a vision for a film that is based on ‘the best manuscript ever submitted’ to the company, which would make for an ‘outstanding film’ with the potential to ‘restore the company to its former glory’. Dreyer’s ambition is ‘to produce a work of art that will set a standard for future films’, and the letter outlines what is needed to make this ambition come true instead of settling for ‘merely an adequate film’ necessitated by Nordisk’s ‘butchering’ of his desired budget (Dreyer 1919a).
Only three days later, another letter from Dreyer to Nordisk bears witness to a director who has been forced to accept a remarkably reduced frame if he wants to make any film at all. Contrary to the proud and insistent voice in the first letter, painting an image of a director unwilling to compromise, he now accepts the fact that he cannot make the proposed ‘big film’ and even argues that ‘the reduced film’ might turn out to be ‘much better and more forceful than the big film’ (Dreyer 1919c). The realities of filmmaking shaped and scaled down his vision, and the film that was made – the silent film classic Blade af Satans Bog (Leaves from Satan’s Book) (Dreyer, 1921a) – was thus the film that he was able to make at this particular time under the circumstances given.
Letters as a chance to look past the screen and across film cultures
In Looking Past the Screen (2007), Jon Lewis and Eric Smoodin present a model of film studies in which films themselves are only one source of information among many. They highlight the value of combining textual analysis with knowledge coming from primary sources on the films under scrutiny, such as collections of personal papers, popular and trade journalism, fan magazines, studio publications and industry records. This approach has always marked most film historical scholarship even if finding and gaining access to this kind of material can be both difficult and time-consuming.
In their seminal work Film History: Theory and Practice Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery also point at other sources than the films themselves as valuable when working with film history (Allen and Gomery 1985). Similarly, media industry and production scholars continuously emphasize the importance of including a wide variety of sources and an industry’s ‘deep texts’ (Caldwell 2009) when studying ‘makers and making’ (Banks 2015). As illustrated in landmark studies of the classical Hollywood cinema, films have to be understood in the context of the particular production framework in which they emerge (Bordwell et al. 1985). Detailed analysis of different production cultures can offer important contextual understandings of films from particular periods and places, as can case studies of specific productions.
However, a fundamental question is always how scholars can acquire nuanced knowledge about the development of a project from the original idea to the final film. Good archives are of course crucial in this regard. In Scandinavia, a collection such as the Ingmar Bergman Archive contains around 10,000 letters to and from Bergman that offer unique insights into his life and thoughts (see e.g. Rossholm 2013; www. ingmarbergman.se). In Denmark, the Danish Film Institute holdings include the Nordisk Film Collection with more than 30,000 letters and the Carl Theodor Dreyer Collection with approximately 4000 letters to and from Dreyer during the course of his career.
Dreyer’s letters have been used by many scholars who to date have produced more than 60 books about his films. As an example, the 1989 edition of the journal Sekvens analysed the many years of correspondence between Dreyer and Blevins Davis about Dreyer’s wish to make a film about Jesus (Drouzy and Jørgensen 1989). The two Dreyer letters from 1919 presented here are revealing with regard to the director’s career and specific working conditions in Denmark a century ago, but they also suggest parallels to other time periods and film cultures. Many other directors have been challenged by similar constraints, such as limited resources for making their visions come alive. The following offers a brief context for the letters that are translated and published in their entirety in English for the first time.
Letter 1, 23 March 1919: The grand ambitions for Leaves from Satan's Book
The young Dreyer had been employed at the newly established script department of Nordisk Films Kompagni since 1913, and in 1918 the company gave him his first chance at directing with Præsidenten (The President) (1919). While in the script department, Dreyer had read a script by Edgard Høyer that he wanted to make into the ambitious drama Leaves from Satan’s Book.
Inspired by D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916, Danish premiere in 1918), the film was to consist of several episodes about the fallen angel Satan, who tries to tempt human beings to do evil. The final film has four parts. The first episode tells the story of Judas’ betrayal of Christ; the second takes place during the Spanish Inquisition; the third occurs during the French Revolution; and the last episode is set during the Finnish Civil War in 1918.
At the end of the 1910s, Nordisk was changing its mode of production because of financial difficulties (Thorsen 2017). Directors were assigned financial responsibility for individual productions. They were required to make production plans themselves and were held financially accountable if they exceeded the budget. All scripts had to be approved by the director general and founder of Nordisk, Ole Olsen (Thorsen 2017: 207). In the first letter, to Nordisk manager Wilhelm Stæhr, Dreyer outlines the ambitious goals of his film and explains that it cannot be made for less than 230,000 to 235,000 DKK. He threatens to move the entire production to a Swedish company if this budget is not met:
Copenhagen F, 23 March 1919
Frederik VII’s Allé 12
Director W. Stæhr,
A/S. Nordisk Films Kompagni
My dear Director Stæhr!
Today, as promised, I return to the matter which for the past couple of days has preoccupied you as well as myself, and in this letter, I will candidly and straightforwardly lay my views on the line.
It is my conviction that “Leaves from Satan’s Book” is the best manuscript ever submitted to Nordisk Films Kompagni. Moreover, I am truly convinced that this manuscript may be turned into an outstanding film which will be a credit to Nordisk Films Kompagni and restore the company to its former glory, but this requires that the film is made with scrupulous attention to all the artistic demands.
I have already told you, and I repeat it here, that I will make it my goal to produce a work of art which will set a standard for future films. That is my goal. I cannot guarantee, of course, that I will reach my goal, but I can assure you – and I do not believe you doubt it – that I shall not rest until I have given every detail of the film the stamp of quality I wish it to have. Furthermore, I refer you to my preparations with which you are more familiar than anyone else, and I am sure you will concede that they demonstrate a rare belief in, and dedication to, the task I have taken upon myself. All things considered, I venture to claim that no such pre-production efforts have ever been made in this country before, and no director has ever approached his task as well prepared as I am now. Is all this not enough to convince the Director General? Have you told the Director General that the black pigs and the guinea fowls and the donkeys which I shall need in July …that they were acquired already in January? Have you told the Director General that I have searched high and low to find authentic Southern Europeans to fill the ranks as extras in the Spanish story, and sent everyone in search of genuine Finns for my Finnish story? That already now, a great number of characters are engaged for my revolution story, and that according to my directions people are presently employing Jewish types for my story of Christ? Have you told the Director General how I have been sitting for months on end in the library researching every detail in my decorations? Nothing has been left to others, I have seen to everything myself. Does not all this clearly testify to the fact that my goal goes far beyond making merely an adequate film? Have I not deserved approval and understanding from the management (not to mention appreciation and gratitude) when I show the commitment and fervour with which I take up the task?
And how has this understanding shown itself? The management has done its utmost to ‘butcher’ the film. The film must cost no more than 150,000,- so please reduce the budget by 80,000,-! When this amputation proves problematic, they ask the set painter to figure out how to save 20,000,- and this man makes a list of items, sections and scenes which he deems expendable or possible to cut. In one place, he spells ‘group’ with a b, but that is no matter; I am sure he is sufficiently skilled to sit for an hour in the afternoon and hack away at the project on which yours truly has spent a year of his life – in the vain hope of turning it into a work of art.
When I keep insisting that the film cannot be made on a smaller budget than my estimated 230-235,000,- kroner, the management may put this down to my personal obstinacy, but on closer inspection, the management must admit that there is no cause to suspect that I act out of other than purely unselfish and idealistic motives. Why would I not agree to make the film for 150,000,- if I believed there was a way to achieve this? I would be happy to! But this film cannot be made for less than 230,000,- and you, Director Stæhr, can forget about ways to cut costs, for I am the only person who can judge in this matter since I have every frame of the film as I see it imbedded in my mind’s eye. Furthermore, as you must know, my manuscripts are so detailed and so painstakingly revised that nothing in them is redundant, dispensable or random. The images make up an organic whole. As I have said, I know that if this film is to be what I want it to be, it must cost 230,000,- kroner. I will not agree to “cut a heel and clip a toe” to make the project “go through”, for I would indeed be a remorseless villain if, just to salvage my fee, I should agree to make a film which in my sincere conviction can only be a third-rate or a fourth-rate film.
In the above I have, perhaps too elaborately, accounted for my view of the matter because I wish to make it perfectly clear that if Nordisk Films Kompagni and I agree to part ways, the reason is that N.F.K. wishes to settle for an adequate film (which in my book means a poor film) whereas my goal is to set a standard for films. I fully understand that the gulf between the management and myself is so wide that we can never meet, and I cannot budge from where I stand without betraying my conscience. In other words, it is necessary to find a quick solution – preferably a settlement which satisfies both you and me, and this brings me back to the proposal I made in my letter to you yesterday. I have discussed the matter at length with the gentlemen I mentioned; they are extremely interested in the plan, and they are prepared to carry it out anytime, provided that the management agrees. On this sole condition, the gentlemen are willing to take over the film, the manuscript, the costume obligations, the props made so far, and the decorations together with all expenses, outlays, advance payments, etc. In return, they wish to have a free hand concerning employments, since they intend partly to recast the film with Swedish actors. Of course, I prefer to keep most of the people I have employed, but, in principle, the gentlemen want full authority.
My agreement with the gentlemen is that, in order to waste no time, I will go with them to Stockholm on Tuesday. Already on Wednesday, or Thursday at the latest, a decision will be reached. The gentlemen have asked me to bring the following to Stockholm:
- 3 manuscripts
- 1 copy of the budget
- A copy of the contract between N.F.K. and Leopold Verch
- A list of all engagements made, with a production plan and fees
- Transcripts of all other signed agreements that may exist
- All sketches for decorations and props
- The plan of shooting made by production manager Andr. Frederiksen with a plan of location shooting and studio shooting
- An itemised list of all expenses and payments to date, etc. etc.
- An itemised list of unpaid expenses to date
- A list of the decorations and props made so far, with prices.
Provided that this proposal meets with the Director General’s approval, I ask you to send me the material mentioned above so that I have it no later than Tuesday by 4 p.m. The material must be accompanied by a written statement declaring that the management is willing to agree to the proposal within eight days. The written consent from N.F.K. must be absolutely binding.
I have hereby extended my proposal to the company as briefly and as clearly as I know you prefer it. I find that it has the advantage of satisfying the company as well as myself, and I thank you for your promise to recommend the proposal to the Director General.
In the hope of hearing from you as soon as there is any development in the matter, and with my best wishes, I remain
Carl Th. Dreyer
This can be seen as a sign of cockiness, but Dreyer researchers Jean and Dale D. Drum have argued that the highly principled Dreyer would never deliberately mislead Nordisk (Drum and Drum 2000: 63). It is uncertain if the director actually had a Swedish offer at hand, but it is possible. While working at Nordisk’s script department Dreyer often travelled to Norway and Sweden, and he had built a network within film and theatre circles in the two countries. Overall, the letter comes across as being written by a self-confident young director with a strong belief that his proposed film has the potential not only to set an example to follow, but also to restore the former glory of Nordisk.
Letter 2, 26 March 1919: The harsh realities for making Leaves from Satan’s Book
The two letters about Leaves from Satan’s Book that are translated and published here are part of a correspondence with altogether eight letters between Dreyer and the management of Nordisk from 12 February to 27 March 1919.2 The letter from Dreyer on 23 March received a quite sober and straightforward answer, not from Stæhr but from Ole Olsen, the head of the company, basically making clear that if Dreyer could not meet the budget constraints – which Olsen did raise from 120,000 to 150,000 DKK – his contract would be terminated (Olsen 1919).
The next day Dreyer stated in a letter to Nordisk that he would not make the film under those circumstances (Dreyer 1919b), but after talking with Stæhr the following day he explained in a new letter that he would undertake the project as long as he would be consulted and given the opportunity to approve script changes. If he retained creative control in this way, he accepted the budget, having given up on the idea of making ‘the big film’ (Dreyer 1919c):
(27 March 1919)
Copenhagen F, 26 March 1919
Frederik VII’s Allé 12
Director General Ole Olsen
Nordisk Film Ko.
Vimmelskaftet 45, here
I hereby acknowledge receipt of the Director General’s letter of today from which I find that a statement in my letter from yesterday has caused a regrettable misunderstanding, i.e. my statement in which I renounced all responsibility for the film. What I meant to say was that if the company1 should decide on a long series of changes in the present manuscript and then submit the changed manuscript for me to direct, I could not assume responsibility for the film. Today, however, I have spoken with Director Stæhr who assured me that the procedure concerning the changes in the script will be as I suggested, i.e. that the changes will be subject to negotiations among Director Stæhr, Mr. Scriptwriter Vald. Andersen and myself, which means that I will not only be consulted but even given the opportunity to approve the necessary changes. Under such circumstances it goes without saying that, in all fairness, I will assume responsibility for the film as I did before.
As appears from the above, when I relinquished responsibilities yesterday it was not because I believed that we could not make a good film for 150,000 … or even 120,000 kroner. Quite the contrary, having reconciled myself to the fact that I must give up all hope of making the big film, I am convinced that the reduced film in several ways, and not least in respect of its dramatic effect, will be much better and more forceful than the big film.
I do not think the Director General doubts that I will soldier on with as much care, fervour and interest as hitherto.
Since time is of the essence, and since everything depends on a quick and efficient effort, I will be extremely grateful if the Director General would care to let me know his answer by telephone in Valby where I am summoned for a meeting with Director Stæhr tomorrow morning at 9.30 a.m.
Carl Th. Dreyer
1 Inserted by hand: “as an interpretation of the regulations concerning financial directions”
Even with a reduction of the budget from 230,000 to 150,000 DKK Leaves from Satan’s Book was one of the most expensive films – if not the most expensive – produced in Scandinavia at the time. Though it is hard to find information on the exact production costs of Scandinavian silent films of the period Nordisk’s most prestigious film from a few years earlier, Atlantis (Blom, 1913) had a cost of 73,296.86 DKK (Thorsen 2017: 129), and in Sweden, Victor Sjöström’s almost four-hour long Ingmarssönerna (Sons of Ingmar) (1919) cost 122,356.43 SEK (Werner 1981: 179).3 However, with 80,000 DKK less to shoot the film, something had to be cut.
Around the film’s premiere, scriptwriter Høyer remarked that the trial of Marie Antoinette, some of the most spectacular scenes in the script involving big sets and many extras, was missing in the final film (Tybjerg 1999: 21–22). In his shooting script, Dreyer has marked the scenes from the trial as cut (Dreyer and Høyer 1919: 37–47). Perhaps the exclusion actually improved the film? Danish film scholar and Dreyerexpert Casper Tybjerg has argued that the screenplay lacks balance and is ‘weighed down by the complicated French episode’ (Tybjerg 2010).
The finished film was sold to fifteen countries and received mixed reviews (Larsen 2010; Tybjerg 1999). After completing Leaves from Satan’s Book, Dreyer actually went on to make Prästänkan (The Parson’s Wife) (1921b) for a Swedish company, Svensk Filmindustri. In a Danish newspaper article written shortly after leaving Nordisk, Dreyer criticized Danish cinema and its ‘dubious odour’ while praising the artistic integrity of Swedish film. Pronouncing a thinly veiled verdict on his former employer, he stated that Danish film had all the opportunities but lacked the person with ‘authority, taste and culture’ who could ‘raise cinema to a higher sphere’, the person lacking these virtues being Ole Olsen (Dreyer 1920).
The correspondence between Dreyer and Nordisk offers valuable insights for studying the fundamental nature of working with an expensive medium such as cinema. When reading the letters one does not think of this as a dusty silent film controversy from a hundred years ago. The voice of a director trying to convince investors to finance his vision seems as current and relevant as ever.
As argued by film scholars such as Lewis and Smoodin, sources such as these offer the possibility to look past the screen and gain a more nuanced understanding of classic films such as Leaves from Satan’s Book, while also providing the opportunity to explore the often complicated relationship between the dream of the film and the final film, then and now. There have been and will always be tensions between artistic ambitions and the realities and logistics of filmmaking. The negotiations and ultimate solutions in this regard can take many forms. These Dreyer letters, celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, remind us of that.
1. Part of the correspondence has previously been published in French (Dreyer 1968: 12–13), in English (Bordwell 1981: 15–16; Tybjerg 1996: 263; Drum and Drum 2000: 60–62) and Danish (Drouzy 1982: 241–43; Kau 1989: 392–94).
2. Due to space constrainsts only two letters have been included in their entirety. The entire correspondence is accessible in Danish at the DFI Dreyer site, https://www.carlthdreyer.dk. Accessed 10 June 2019.
3. Werner operates with different sets of expenses: the total production cost vs. the active expenses. The total production cost includes staff on annual salary, cost of maintaining studio facilities, etc. The active expenses are the direct out-of-pocket investments. In this article, we refer to the active expenses.
The Film Letters event was organized by The Royal Danish Library in collaboration with research librarian Birgit Granhøj and curator Sophie Engberg Sonne from The Danish Film Institute (DFI). The authors would like to thank Casper Tybjerg for advice on this article, Lars Kaaber for translating the letters and DFI for financial support to translate them.
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7 April 2021 | Isak Thorsen og Eva Novrup Redvall