Day of Wrath (1943)

Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer. Starring Lisbeth Movin, Thorkild Roose, Preben Lerdorff Rye

Paul Schrader describes Day of Wrath as “a schizoid work of art,” for “the first half of Day of Wrath wonders if there are such supernatural things as witches; the second asks why Anne thinks she is a witch.” That’s a fair one sentence synopsis of the film, down to the so-called “schizoid” aspects, although I would replace “if” with “that,” and “thinks” with “knows.” To me, it is abundantly clear that the film does not attempt to cast Herlof’s Marte (Anna Svierkier) as the wronged victim of a plot to condemn innocent women. In the first minute of the diegetic portion of the film, Herlof’s Marte is pouring some tea-like brew for another woman with plants picked from “under the gallows.” Herlof’s Marte tells her, “There is great power in Evil.” Laurentius (Olaf Ussing) is struck down from beyond Marte’s grave, presumably from a curse  And while we might well be skeptical of Anne’s initial proof of her witchy powers – conjuring up a living person already in the house, Martin (Rye) is not so much conjuring as it is waiting around – the evidence begins to proliferate the longer she practices. The culmination is in how her husband, Absalon (Roose) is struck dead not long after she verbally wishes him to die. If witches don’t exist in this little Danish village, they might as well: the things they want come to pass anyway. In The Crucible, which has enough similar elements on its surface to be an interesting point of comparison, the witches are obviously not witches but victims. The witches in Day of Wrath don’t give us a compelling reason to believe they aren’t who the government says they are outside of our prior knowledge as to the fiction of such people in real life. Within the world of the film, though, witches are as real as the houses or the river or the wind.

The tragedy of Day of Wrath, for better or worse, isn’t Herlof’s Marte or Anne. It’s a Shakespearean sort of tragedy that, blinded by his lust for an attractive young woman, the town minister decides to overlook the fact that his future mother-in-law is a practicing witch. Herlof’s Marte knows both the fact of Absalon’s lust and of his ill-gotten precedent for judicial forgiveness, and she spends much of her time on screen pleading with Absalon and Anne based on how Absalon won his wife. With Marte, a round old woman with a shrill voice, Absalon is as pious and opaque as ever. More than once, after torture or before the execution, she pleads with him to release her the same way he released Anne’s mother. He responds with the platitudes of faith, with prayers for her, but never with what she wants: a way not to die. By the standards of the day, Absalon appears to be a very decent man; his mother (Sigrid Neiiendam), whose ability to keep herself alive on spite alone means she died just last week, claims that the only grief he ever gave her was when he decided to marry Anne. Yet we can see that the old man is able now to look back and recognize his flaws and mistakes in stark relief. He can understand now that a lifetime of decent living has been undone by lust; in the model of a Greek hero, a miscalculation created by a character flaw has brought great trouble to his household. All of this is revealed carefully, slowly. In the first quarter of the film, his mother’s hatred of Anne is noisily proclaimed. (Their marriage, in her words, is “scandalous.”) Placed on top of that is the opposite side of the coin, represented by Herlof’s Marte, who now presents an active threat to his authority and good reputation with her knowledge of his courtship. He’s dug his own grave long before he is forced into it, and I suppose if one is to read a message of anti-authoritarianism into the film (a dubious reading), then one must strongly emphasize how an authoritarian government must be totally upright in order to govern. Absalon, who appears to have a great deal of power over life and death in this village, might have been such a person for decades but is certainly not now.

In the same way that this film is not very sympathetic to religious or political deviants, it is not very kind to women. There are three women in this movie, and while each one is deserving of sympathy, not one of them is terribly likable. One feels some pity for Herlof’s Marte, who has a shocking death which is shot unsparingly (I have no idea if they actually pushed people on big ladders face first into open flames, but if so, heavens to Betsy), and appears to do no real harm to anyone. One also feels for Absalon’s mother, who thinks rightly that her son has been undone by a beautiful woman in the twilight of his years but who has no way to say so without sounding like a colossal shrew. Of the three, Anne is the easiest to like. She has no idea in the beginning that her mother was indicted for witchcraft, secretly hides Herlof’s Marte in the loft when she pleads for help, and is, most importantly, trapped in a marriage with a man she doesn’t love. One wonders if Absalon is capable of a sexual relationship, and one fervently hopes not. Every touch or kiss is harassment; every moment of intercourse is rape. The film lets us watch Absalon when he releases, for the first and second times, what he’s done to his wife. No one says the r-word, but he very matter-of-factly says aloud that she’d never had a choice to be married to him. When Day of Wrath was released in 1943, Movin was 26. Roose had turned 26 in 1900. The age gap between them is exacerbated by the cragginess of Roose’s well-lined face; he resembles old Spencer Tracy, but without any of the wryness or twinkling that is so frequently associated with Tracy. He walks slowly and carefully, as if his wooden legs were fragile material handled by a tyro puppeteer. Movin is just the opposite. She walks quickly, moves briskly, speaking in a voice which is mostly unexpected; she coos, a verb largely absent from movies these days. Her face has a Cheshire Cat quality to it, with her wide-set eyes and almost frighteningly large smile; thus, the talent she has in seduction feels primarily predatory. When Martin shows up, a younger, handsomer, and more virile version of his father, it’s not surprising that he and Anne take to each other immediately. It takes two to…dance whatever very Lutheran dance Danish people do…and Martin, despite knowing better, takes up with his stepmother. (The creep factor is amplified by some factor of ten when Anne, upon meeting Martin for the first time, is introduced as his new mother; she’s almost certainly younger than him.) Where Anne revels in their affair, Martin (hounded by his grandmother) cannot take any joy in what appears to be more compulsion than choice. In one memorable scene, the two of them ride a boat in the current of a small stream. Looking out at a tree, Martin says that the tree is sad for them, weeping; Anne says that the tree is expressing the longing they feel. Such is a typical back-and-forth for them, where Martin raises a gloomy point and Anne counters with a cheerier interpretation. Day of Wrath does well what the best dramas do well; it provides us with reasons to feel for each character while simultaneously laying the groundwork for us to condemn them. Are Absalon’s ignorance, chauvinism, and corruption worse than Anne’s adultery, witchcraft, and venom? I’m inclined to side with Anne, though I think the film’s final judgment lands much harder on Anne than Absalon.

What makes the film really special, in many ways very nearly perfect, is its technical brilliance. If you were so inclined (or so moneyed and fortunate), every other year from 1939 to 1943 you could see a movie doing something totally new with direction and cinematography. In ’39, Renoir presented a deep focus manifesto with the added bonus of a shockingly complex audio track. In ’41, Welles and Toland rewrote the grammar of cinematography. And in ’43, Dreyer moves his camera with such stateliness and precision.

One of my favorite establishing shots in any film comes early in Network, where we get the exteriors of the three major stations’ headquarters as well as fictional UBS. It’s so simple, and it sets up our understanding of where Diana and Frank and Max go to work without any frills. It’s a very good establishing shot. It shows us a place. Day of Wrath likes to begin scenes with establishing shots which establish a milieu or the idea of a scene, not merely some place, and Dreyer does it by rhythmically, predictably, omnisciently moving his camera. I was spellbound by a scene where Anne comes into church and hears the children rehearsing the hymn they’ll sing as Herlof’s Marte burns. She comes up one hall, framed by the pillars (Dreyer frequently shoots Anne behind pseudo-bars, foreshadowing her penultimate fate) and then the camera takes a different angle, and suddenly we see a great white hall with a depiction of Christ on the Cross behind her. It is a surprisingly rapid switch for a film which does not often move quickly. Another shot, even longer in length, takes place at Absalon’s funeral service; moving in something very near a circle, the camera follows a series of singing boys each holding their candle. Each boy’s voice is caught, and so the hymn takes on different characters depending on which child is nearest the camera. More than showing us a church – which we figure out within a second and a half anyway – we are shown a circular, ritualistic procession which catches and keeps our attention.

What makes Day of Wrath look different from other movies, even more than the advanced, lasting establishing shots, is how big every room appears to be. Every chamber in this film has a low ceiling and, thanks to a moving camera or the clustering of small groups of people, looks to be absolutely massive. When Herlof’s Marte is being tortured and begins to answer questions from Laurentius, we see that the room she’s being tortured in is totally cavernous. All of the men gather together in a small huddle around a table or two, as if terribly frightened by the monster they see before them. The living areas of Absalon’s house are similarly disproportionate, filled with spare emptiness in nearly the entire room but for the odd wall decoration or the grouping of people all together. One reads this personal closeness as a defense mechanism against the unspoken terror of the vastness of the world outside. More than whatever orders the Bible gives, that is what motivates the flock to seek out and destroy the witches; it is the feeling of smallness and vulnerability that the masses feel.

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