In what is generally considered his magnum opus — The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) — director Carl Theodor Dreyer chronicled the trial and execution of the titular heroine at the hands of vicious and merciless clergymen. The idea must have strongly resonated with Dreyer, as he tackles a similar situation in Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag, 1943), only this time during the 17th century witch hunts of his native Denmark. The film follows the troubled existence of Anne, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage with an older clergyman. Mired in a strict, dour household and tormented by her implacable and disapproving mother-in-law, Anne meekly goes through the motions of being a dutiful housewife. But everything is thrown into disorder when she falls for her aged husband’s dashing son and gets wrapped up in the capture and execution of a local woman accused of being a witch. The result is the lighting of a slow fuse leading inevitably to tragedy and misery in the face of a social and religious order that cannot tolerate a young woman fulfilling her innermost desires. Beautifully shot and brimming with tension, Day of Wrath delves deep into the inevitability of fate and the devastating power of guilt and desire. (97 min.)
J. – Man-oh-man, do I keep getting increasingly impressed with Carl Dreyer. This our third Dreyer film so far and every one has been a winner — indeed Joan of Arc still sits atop my Top 10… As of Yet list and is going to be mighty tough to dislodge. And I like that Day of Wrath finds a way to dive into some of the same thematic material as Joan of Arc without feeling derivative or like Dreyer obsessed with burning people at the stake.
There’s a lot to get at in Day of Wrath, but I suppose I’ll start with the society that Dreyer builds ups here. Or should I say, the society that Dreyer impressively builds up with all of six characters and a few spartan sets. The weight of religious fervor and the stern unyielding social order are all made readily apparent through the interaction of the reverand Absalom, his mother, and his young wife Anne. Absalom’s ministerial garb alone makes him look look imperious and learned but also bent and caved-in by the weight of God and sin. And his stern demeanor and insistence on protocol mask a man who is clearly very conflicted and conscious of wanting to good while fighting a selfish streak that will ignite this powder keg. Likewise, Anne and her mother-in-law are banded up in austere clothing that allows for no frills or even a glimpse of hair. On the mother-in-law, a paragon of conservative vitriol, the outfit couldn’t be more appropriate; on Anne, it looks like a straight-jacket. Anne’s meekness and resentment towards her husband and mother-in-law, and their moralizing and stern approbation in return establish the nature of this world far better than even the sight of clergymen torturing a supposed witch (we’ll get to that) — and set the stage for a conflict between generations and between diverging concepts of duty to God, society, and oneself.
S. – It is remarkable the atmosphere of oppression Dreyer constructs around so few characters. An early scene establishes the the grim home life of Anne, who is utterly dominated by her severe mother-in-law and largely ignored by the pious Absalom. It is clear that Anne is powerless and when confronted with having to make a rapid decision to help a local woman, Herlofs Marte, escape from her pursuers, she is utterly unable to make a decision. Her obvious helplessness saves her from suspicion of aiding a witch, yet she will later find out that in Dreyer’s Danish village a woman displaying any power outside that of the established order is very likely to find herself facing execution. The pacing of the scene in the family home is very slow and deliberate, there is a heaviness to way the characters interact, a sense that everything is pre-ordained and operating the way it should be. The breach of the prison-like atmosphere by a frantic Herlofs Marte is a catalyst for change in the regimented household, marking the beginning of Anne’s awakening, Absalom’s crisis and stoking the mother-in-law’s fierce determination to maintain the status quo.
J. – I have to give serious kudos to 71-year-old Anna Svierkier for her performance as Herlofs Marte — apparently her only role in any movie. Her desperation is absolutely palpable, as is her fury. And it is quite a brave performance on her part, spending a significant part of her time on screen shirtless being berated or tortured by grimacing clergymen. After all the sanitized American films we have watched of late there is extra power to seeing someone bared, both physically and emotionally, before the eye of the camera. It is a rather interesting aspect to this film that it obviously is coming from the viewpoint of somebody critical of the brutality of the clergy, particularly with regard to attacking women through the lens of a witch hunt, yet Herlofs Marte is introduced doing, well, witchy things and her threats toward the clergymen all come to pass. I like that open ended-ness, in part because it lends another sheen of dread to the film, but it also does add a strange level of justification to the behavior of the film’s less sympathetic characters. You also get the distinct feeling in that moment before Marte burns that what she has said is no empty threat — the tragic end of the story has already been revealed, now it is just a matter of seeing how we get there.
And that’s absolutely where that catalyst element comes in. It is only after Herlofs Marta’s dying invective that Anne and Absalom’s son Martin come together. One wonders if that would have happened if Anne hadn’t been so torn up over both the horrible fate of the old women and he husband’s role in that execution. Her existence with Absalom was one of repressed emotion, and when she no longer could contain herself in sight of the raging pyre there was no way that things could go back to normal.
S. – The violence in Day of Wrath is palpable. Not because it is graphic, indeed we don’t witness any of the torture as Marte is compelled to confess being in league with the devil. Rather because it is in stark contrast to the stylised movie-violence that has become so commonplace. The scene you mention, J., with a topless elderly woman pleading for her life to a panel of modestly clothed clerics sequestered in a windowless room is chilling. It is clear that there is no way out for her. The details of Marte’s ordeal are left to your imagination, fed by the sight of the indifference of the men to the vulnerable old woman undergoing interrogation. In The Passion of Joan of Arc the climatic burning at the stake was horrifying, and once again the simple and all too real depiction of death by this means was absolutely harrowing. However, in Day of Wrath this horror is not the climax, but becomes the undercurrent of fear and tension that influences the interactions between Absalom and his family throughout the rest of the film. This adds real depth to the intellectual struggle faced by Absalom as he slides from righteousness into questioning his faith, his practices and his true motivations in the aftermath of Marte’s execution.
J. – That was a powerful scene when Absalom appears to be looking inward and questioning his actions with regard to Marte, but there is also much uncertainty into exactly where his conflict lies. At first it appears that he questions the godly rationale for burning Marte, wondering whether there wasn’t an element of self interest in his actions because Marte had threatened to denounce Anne’s deceased mother as having been a witch. But I feel like the conflict morphed — with a little help from Absalom’s mother — into a new question over whether Absalom had been right to spare Anne’s mother — once again for reasons of self-interest (i.e., his interest in Anne). This, of course, is another arrow in the mother-in-law’s quiver — Anne’s mother may have been in league with the devil, so might not Anne be as well?
I love how all of this gets woven together almost in isolation from the developing romance between Anne and Martin. An affair between a step-mother and step-son is never going to end well, but the growing talk of witchcraft and Anne by others in the young woman’s circle leaves her exposed to dangers she isn’t even aware of. Indeed, Anne’s reaction to the news that her mother had been accused of being a witch was to be awed by the alleged powers of her mother, rather than being fearful how this relation exposes her to danger. And the film constructs this blithe indifference visually, having Martin and Anne’s trysts take place in dreamy outdoor settings rather than the colorless confines of their home. Likewise, Anne’s costume slowly transforms, with her headwear becoming less and less austere and ultimately abandoned entirely as she fully rejects the trappings of her married life, apparently oblivious of the grave she is digging for herself in the process of demanding freedom in so conservative and suspicious a society.
S. – As time passes the dual lives being lead by Anne and Absalom are vividly contrasted by the different settings we find them in. The pious and dour Absalom perpetually surrounded by order and gloom, while the adulterous Anne is bathed in sunlight and happiness. It is telling that Absalom comments with a tone of wonder that he has never heard Anne laugh before, when she can be heard enjoying her conversation with Martin in the next room. Yet neither of these characters is unequivocally good or bad. I felt much sympathy for Anne as the victim of such a rigid and restrictive society although her behaviour is frequently foolish and sometimes downright cruel. On the other hand Absalom is difficult to like, but he does wrestle with his conscience. Observing the controlling and manipulative actions of his mother it is possible to see how he has become self-righteous and selfish. On top of the intriguing personal dynamics is a stroke of genius from Dreyer that you have already alluded to, J.: the possibility that witchcraft is indeed in play. What if the threat to the god-fearing folk of the town is real? All of these layers add complexity to a fascinating and affecting film.
J. – It is a wonderful film, and I do like that the characters and conversations are not as black-and-white as the excellent cinematography. As you say, Absalom is dour and pious, but he also does truly love Anne — so much so that he has neglected to find out whether she ever loved him. That is unacceptable, but there is merit in the character’s belated recognition of what he has done to his young wife. That gives Absalom a measure of audience sympathy when Anne fully turns on the old man in the absolutely riveting scene in which she tells her husband the truth — the whole truth. The performances by Thorkild Roose (Absalom) and Lisbeth Movin (Anne) are both excellent throughout the film, usually taking advantage of slow, deliberate movements that ramp up the tension to nerve-wracking levels, but it is the explosion of emotion at the climax where the two really shine — Movin looking positively possessed and Roose tremoring in fear and despair.
Unfortunately Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) is never really fully fleshed out, which is something of a weakness in the film, but there is clearly a vitality and daring to him that his father does not possess. But I think it is very much to the film’s credit that Martin absolutely is Absalom’s son, in that he cannot fully escape the piety and rigidity of the household, nor can he handle the crushing guilt that his affair with Anne is generating within him. The pious people demonstrate early on the power of self-interest when clothed in the robes of religious dogma; but the film ends with the power of guilt and how religion finds a way to once again harness the self-interest of those who want to expiate their shame, regardless of the price that others must pay for that cleansing. So when Martin turns on Anne it is a powerful moment — a moment built not on what she has done, but what Martin has done. Anne loves too freely, Anne hates too bitterly, and Anne can only be destroyed for her passion.