Based on a novel by Hans Wiers-Jenssens, Carl Th.Dreyer’s Day of Wrath remains an intense, unforgettable experience. The credits against the score of Dies Irae, chanted by a solemn choir on the background sets the tone. One might expect the film to be a moral play from a casual reading of the plot. Consider the plot: Anne, the young second wife of a well-respected but much older pastor, falls in love with her stepson who has come home. The film could easily have slid into the other extreme judging by the bare storyline. The film is not for those who approach a film to satisfy their prurient interests. Carl Dreyer is in full command of his material never swerving to please either. He leaves the film open ended and it makes it all the more compelling drama somewhat like Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. Was Anne similarly guilty or not is left to the viewer and there are no easy answers.
Set in Denmark in the 1600s Dreyer’s austere narrative does not let off the aged, devout minister, Absalon (Thorkild Roose) for marrying a far younger wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin). His moral authority places him head of the religious council and in power over life and death of members of his parish. But is he what he seems to profess? All his professed piety is negated by his foolish May- December marriage. As the film progresses we know his gravity and condescending concern for her is more a manifestation of the aridity of his soul. He can well dispatch a helpless woman to her death who knows too well the circumstances by which he claimed the young bride. With her death the minister has merely bought time. None of his fellow clergymen shall know he conspired to release Anne’s late mother, an accused witch, in return for Anne agreeing to marry him. This is the moral dilemma number one.
Abaslon’s unmarried son (and Anne’s stepson), Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) poses the second. In the final scene we feel with Anne in the manner her last remaining support is cut off. Martin is as much guilty of lust but having tasted stolen bread in secret, the gravel that he spits out is his lack of moral compass. He gives in too easily to ‘religion’ of his departed sire and superstition. The shot where Anne stands by her husband’s coffin abandoned and accused by her peers is all the more keenly felt since it is a commentary of Martin’s betrayal. It breaks her will so much as to let her tormentors do what will. But was she really guilty of Absalon’s death?
Whether Anne is really guilty or not is left unanswered as the scene in the first half where Absalon reveals about her mother. She was a witch who could with her powers work with the dead and the living to bring anything to pass. He shares this piece of news concerned that she as her child possessed the same powers, and in the perilous times when witches were hunted and burned she should be very careful. Next shot we see her enunciating the name of Martin clearly and trembling with desire. The viewer knows the name is spoken with all her being. Was it the desire of a woman awaiting for a physical union with one who is in his prime? Or is the cold power of a witch manifested here? In whichever case Martin responded because of his human fraility. Whether Martin answered her call on incantation or by his own physical desire makes him equally guilty. But he is not punished. Moral dilemma of man answering his natural urges is solely on his own human condition: in other words witches or demonic possession are simply labels to paper over one’s moral lapses.
While largely Dreyer’s essay deals with a forbidden love triangle there are two characters whose formidable presence delineate the moral ambit of the three characters. Anne’s tragedy is what imposed by hereditary. Herlofs Marte (Anne Svierkier) at the beginning of the film comes to Anne in fright; her appeal for refuge is on the basis she is the daughter of a witch of her own coven. Anne in helping her has already placed herself on the wrong side of the powerful Council.
Marte who is accused of witchcraft knows society for what it is. She knows what beats behind the straitlaced minister and his ilk. She is unrepentant and is not taken in by the moralizing prig whose heart is all angles as sharp as the scythe of Death. She cries out “I fear neither heaven or hell; I am only afraid to die,” and it is merely admission of her human fraility that is beyond pretensions or need for redemption. When she falls along with the burning stake it is as she falls on us. It is an unforgettable cinematic moment.
At the outset we witness an intimate domestic scene that is a commentary on the household. It is not Absalon or his wife but his mother who is in charge. She is a veritable Gorgon. Naturally Anne could not do anything right and when her mother-in-law accuses her of engineering her son’s death we are left with no doubt as to the motive. Mother of the minister and in her dress and conduct a matron of unassailable virtue she is unrepentant and unredeemed as much as Herlofs Marte occupying the other end of local community in Norway.
Filmed during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (Vredens dag) is a harrowing account of individual helplessness in the face of growing social repression and paranoia. Exquisitely photographed and passionately acted, Day of Wrath remains an intense, unforgettable experience.
Preben Lerdorff Rye
Director Carl Th. Dreyer
Screenplay Carl Th. Dreyer
From a novel by Hans Wiers-Jenssens
Producer Carl Th. Dreyer and Tage Nielsen
Cinematography Karl Andersson
Editing Anne Marie Petersen and Edith Schlüssel
Music Poul Schierbeck
Rev. Absalon Pederssøn: There is nothing so quiet as a heart that has ceased to beat.
Martin: Shall we ever find each other again?
Anne Pedersdotter: Who shall prevent it?
Martin: The dead.
Anne Pedersdotter: I see through my tears, but no one comes to wipe them away.
Though the film is outwardly a chronicle of a religious witch-hunt, it contained many subtler comparisons to the behavior of the Nazis (torture and questioning) and Carl Theodor Dreyer fled Denmark for Sweden where he remained until the war was over.
‘Much of Dreyer’s austerity in dissecting the frailities of human heart and psyche without sitting in judgment of moral compulsions he is more a coroner than a surgeon. Hysteria of witchcraft and heresy of 17th Century had given way to Eugenics and racial purity demanded by the Nazism. Looking at society conditioned by Luther or Calvin authority of the godly required scapegoats. The church leaders based their policy on the Holy Writ while the Nazis policy of lebensraum drew their own conclusions from Spencer and Darwin. Dreyer’s concern was for those who made up society, Everyman on whom was the burden of making the policy of powers- that- be work. In locating the areas of putrefaction he didn’t make them monstrous or innocent. Absalon, Jeanne d’Arc, one mythical and the other historical, were victims of greater forces.
Dreyer’s upbringing was neither strict nor Lutheran. Born out of wedlock in 1889 to a Swedish servant (who died horribly a year and a half later trying to abort a second child), he was adopted by the Dreyers in Copenhagen, who gave him a nonreligious upbringing and whom he grew up despising religiosity. Absalon’s mother must have touched a familiar chord in him to make her as instrument of hatred masquerading as propriety. ‘The slow pacing is necessary for the intensity and the sexiness under the gloom to register. Freely adapted from a Norwegian play… Anne Pedersdotter that Dreyer had first seen in 1909, Day of Wrath looks today more cinematically advanced than any other movie released in 1943.
The film’s handling of period is unparalleled, achieving a narrative richness that may initially seem confusing. Set in 1623, when people still believed without question in witches, the film views that world from a contemporary perspective without for a moment dispelling our sense of what it felt like from the inside. Dreyer pulls off this difficult task through his singular style, involving a sensual form of camera movement he invented: the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction. It’s difficult to imagine—a three-dimensional kind of transport that somehow combines coming and going in the same complex journey—but a hypnotic experience to follow. The film’s first real taste of it comes fairly early, when we follow Anne in her sinuous progress towards the torture chamber where Herlof’s Marte is being interrogated. The camera tracking with Anne around a pillar prompts our involvement while its simultaneous swiveling away from her establishes our detachment. And enhancing the strange sense of presence that results is Dreyer’s rare employment of direct sound rather than studio post-synching—giving scenes an almost carnal impact..’ ( Ack:Figuring Out Day of Wrath- Jonathan Rosenbaum/Criterion collections, 20 Aug 01)