Based on / Leaves from Satan’s Book

The lavish Leaves from Satan’s Book is the only one of Dreyer’s films that is not adapted from a source of any kind. The film used to be regarded as an adaptation, but recent research has shown it is from an original screenplay.

There is a prevalent belief in Dreyer scholarship that Leaves from Satan’s Book (produced 1919, Danish premiere 1921) was based on The Sorrows of Satan (1895), a lurid Faust-inspired novel by the British writer Marie Corelli. That notion rested on information in Ebbe Neergaard’s book on Dreyer, En Filminstruktørs Arbejde – Carl Th. Dreyer (1940, new edition 1963), and on faulty retrospective information provided by Dreyer, who in one case mentioned the novel as the source of the film in an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 170 (September 1965). The plot of the novel has almost nothing in common with Dreyer’s film. Moreover, considering that the novel was a huge bestseller, it does not seem realistic to assume that Nordisk Film in the 1910s could have afforded to pay for the rights to it.

In fact, Leaves from Satan’s Book is a fairly loyal adaptation of an original screenplay by the successful Danish playwright Edgard Høyer (1859-1942). Nordisk Film had had the script lying around since 1913 and Dreyer had read it in his capacity as script consultant at the studio. An interview with Høyer in the B.T. newspaper on 12 January 1920 makes it plain that Høyer, in line with the philosophy behind the so-called Autoren-film (in which the screenplay’s writer or source was prime, because they could be used to raise the film’s cultural and artistic status), considered Leaves from Satan’s Book to primarily be his film. He even mentions the exact time of day when he completed the screenplay (9:45 o’clock, 12 Sep. 1913). The article’s subheading is also interesting in that regard: "Edgar Høyer talks about his epic film 'From Satan’s Diary.'"

Dreyer, as mentioned, chose to follow the screenplay fairly closely, though he did, much to Høyer’s chagrin, make a number of changes. For instance, he toned down the anticommunist aspect of the famous Finland episode. 

By Morten Egholm | 21 May 2010