Day of Wrath (1943)

Dir. by Carl Th. Dreyer

Images: Elegant, slow tracking shots, often in combination with pans in the opposite direction. Three times during the film, the camera tracks along the row of accusers, as in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Bodies are often half-hidden in shadows while faces, particularly the eyes, remain exposed. Favorite image is high-angle shot of Martin and Anne in a rowboat. Much of the frame is devoted to the water passing underneath, a Tarkovsky-like image of nature.

• • •

I can’t imagine how it must have felt to sit in a crowded theater, watching Day of Wrath during its original release in 1943. Set in 17th century Denmark, when rising religious fanaticism gave church leaders the authority to execute those of “questionable” morality, the film must have mirrored, much too closely for comfort, the Nazi atrocities being waged just outside the theater door. In his liner notes of the Criterion DVD release, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests that Dreyer cast the blonde actress Lisbeth Movin in a deliberate attempt to diminish the allegorical implications of Anne’s plight, thereby diffusing a potentially dangerous situation. As with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), however, it’s nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction here. Day of Wrath is a damning critique of hypocritical authoritarian power told in very human terms, a modern fable that interrogates faith and sin, love and family, desire and its consequences.

As a fan of Arthur Miller, I must admit that comparing his play to Dreyer’s film pains me. The former was written for more explicitly allegorical purposes — a direct attack on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). As such, its characters are comparatively two-dimensional. With rare exceptions, they operate, rightly or wrongly, as stock mouth-pieces for Miller’s political and social commentary. Dreyer’s characters, by comparison, are afforded a more recognizably human complexity and moral ambivalence. For instance, we sympathize with Herlof’s Marthe (Anna Svierkier), the old woman accused of witchcraft in the film’s opening scene, not because she is a pious, honorable, and innocent martyr (like Miller’s Rebecca Nurse), but because of her human failings. She has experimented with witchcraft, she does lack Christian faith, and most importantly, she genuinely fears her death — the pain and suffering awaiting her at the stake — rather than her eternity. Dreyer stages Herlof’s Marthe’s scenes in a manner reminiscent of many in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory: they are stark, honest, and completely free of easy sentiment.

The family drama at the center of Day of Wrath is likewise composed of characters with whom we must sympathize despite their obvious moral lapses. Reverend Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose) is, by most standards, a man of admirable faith and conviction. His piety, however, is cooled by intellectual distance. He respects his family and his God, but is incapable, until the very end of the film, of understanding the human cost of his actions. Anne, Absalon’s young wife, is his most obvious victim. She has been robbed of her youth, of joy, and of children by a man who has never even considered her need for love. Yet, despite her victimization, it is impossible to take any vindictive pleasure from her murderous curses. When she takes Absalon’s son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), as a lover, we are again forced to balance our own sympathies for the young lovers with the troubling moral consequences of their symbolically incestuous act.

Day of Wrath‘s brilliant final scene must have offered little hope to those first audiences. Even Martin has turned from Anne, leaving her resigned to a fate that has always remained beyond her control. It’s a stunning image — the young widow leaning against her husband’s coffin, whispering a confused confession to her accusers. The critical (but superficial) question of Anne’s guilt or innocence is left unanswered, which makes a fitting conclusion to a film that brutally interrogates our lives, but refuses to offer trite solutions.