The Manic Parody of The Treasures of Satan
Note: This is the twentieth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fifth favorite 1902 film, THE TREASURES OF SATAN, directed by Georges Méliès.
I’m getting a little tired of comparing everything released in 1902 to A TRIP TO THE MOON. So, suffice to say: Georges Méliès’ other releases that year, and for some time to come, were relatively underwhelming. Hell, a lot of non-Méliès stuff felt underwhelming in the wake of that masterpiece. THE TREASURES OF SATAN is the weakest of my favorites of 1902 for that reason, and due to its lack of anything truly new in the Méliès or film canon. Nevertheless, it embodies a crucial through line for a segment of Méliès’ work: the Satan pictures.
Méliès, and a lot of other trick film directors of the time, seemed to have an obsession with Satan, demons, and other related imps. It makes sense; the Devil himself embodies trickery and evil so brilliantly that he was an effective symbol in a time when films still did not really use intertitles. His very appearance, abilities, home, and minions also served as visually exciting components in astonishing trick films. Besides being a technical and narrative workaround, Satan is just an incredibly fun character and concept to play around with. You can call it blasphemy, but there is a reason why so much media, whether it be film, music, or literature, use Satanic themes, dark magic, witches, or anything else related to the Beast in some way. Satan, and everything he represents, stands for the dark side of human consciousness. And that’s almost universally thrilling to confront in the relatively safe zone of media, and in this case, film.
To be clear, THE TREASURES OF SATAN is not an incredibly insightful examination of the fascination with Satan and his darkness. But it does stand as a breakneck example of Méliès’ use of Beelzebub as a symbol of parody, which itself can play into a narrative about “Satanic” media. You see, THE TREASURES OF SATAN is a comedy, although a pretty dark one, ultimately. There are competing theories on what is actually happening in the film, due to its lack of intertitles and conflicting catalog descriptions, but I think it’s pretty clear. Rather than Satan stealing from a miser, which an American Star Film Catalog purports, a thief creeps into Satan’s castle to steal from money from him. Why someone would be that stupid, I don’t know, but the thief, played by Méliès, soon comes upon some resistance.
The box holding the money bags Satan and his minions had been handling at the beginning of the film slams itself upon the thief’s hands, and things just go downhill from there. The money bags start frolicking about, devil women appear and start prodding the thief with spears, the treasure box teleports around the room, and eventually becomes a demon itself. Finally, Satan reappears, tosses the man into the box, sets it on fire, and explodes it. Oh, but the money bags were fine.
The ultimate fate of the thief is an abrupt and final conclusion after the manic movements of everyone (and everything) leading up to it. Méliès films typically have larger than life, theatrical, and physically quick performances, but THE TREASURES OF SATAN almost induces anxiety with the frantic actions of the thief and his torturers. Of course, it’s amusing in a way, but it never feels like good, wholesome fun. It’s almost like watching Sisyphus roll the boulder up the hill over and over again, and plays to the strange morbid humor humans can feel witnessing the failure, significant or not, of others.
I see in THE TREASURES OF SATAN a commentary on the understandable struggle and greed for riches, and the irredeemable evil residing in those who control said riches and would prevent anyone else from benefiting from them. Méliès was known to get “political,” and he often used Satan to do it.
Méliès opposed extreme religious control, most notably when it came to the Dreyfus affair. He would make a strongly pro-Dreyfus film in 1899, THE DREYFUS AFFAIR, but he would also utilize the religious satires THE TEMPTATION OF SAINT ANTHONY (1898) and THE DEVIL IN A CONVENT (1899) to make his case against ecclesiology; the latter would prominently feature, you guessed it, the Devil.
Méliès would comment on all manner of societal issues and mores through all manner of settings and symbolic avatars, but when he would want to be particularly rebellious and over-the-top, he would use Satan. THE TREASURES OF SATAN is one of the more intriguing of these early, over-the-top rebellions due to its incredible pace, darkly comic tone, and ultimately, its place in a tradition of using Satan, an instantly controversial figure in Méliès’ time, to prove a point or illicit a reaction. It isn’t very visually impressive, but what it stands for led me to place it in my last favorite spot for 1902.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.