“Day of Wrath” - Carl Dreyer (1943)

Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968), though esteemed by critics as one of the great filmmakers, is someone whose works are relatively unknown to modern audiences [1,2]. Over the last thirty-six years of his career, he directed only six films – notably The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet (1955), and Gertrud (1964) – and they are all singular creations that defy easy categorization. Nevertheless, each has the common feature of being imbued with Dreyer’s uniquely expressive human focus that seems to point to some transcendent reality beyond everyday circumstances [3]. One might say his films are “spiritual”, but Dreyer’s films go beyond the usual religious connotations of that term (Dreyer, himself, was not particularly religious) and seem to probe the very nature of existence itself.  All of the five above-listed films are engaging in this manner, but there is one work that stands out as not only being Dreyer’s best film, but also one of the greatest films ever made – Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag).

The story of the film is based on the Norwegian play Anne Pedersdotter (1908) by Hans Wiers-Jensse, which was set in the late 16th century during the height of the witchcraft trial hysteria, when many women were burned at the stake for allegedly being witches under the influence of Satan.  In this story the principal character is accused of witchcraft.  Dreyer had wanted to make a film of this play since seeing it for the first time in 1925, and he was finally able to achieve his goal, resetting the film in Denmark, some twenty years later during the German occupation.  Many people have felt that the depiction of dogmatic oppression in the film alludes to the Nazi oppression of Jews of that time, but Dreyer always denied that Nazi oppression was a major theme of the film [4].

Dreyer was more concerned with existential themes, such as what can guide us towards a meaningful and compassionate path in life. Clearly there are multiple perspectives on something so general as this, but Dreyer, with his Day of Wrath, gives it one of its most poetic and poignant cinematic expressions.

A fascinating aspect of Dreyer’s films is his cinematic style of expression.  For one thing certainly all his films have an expressionistic flavor, and Day of Wrath is particularly seasoned with it. And yet his reserved human characterizations set in spare, conventional settings seem to offer an unusual psychological naturalism, too. He seems to achieve this compound of expressionism and naturalism by means of his characteristic mise-en-scene, involving
  • a steady diet of medium composition shots, often shot from a lower angle;
  • shadowy, chiaroscuro lighting with facial highlighting that enhances the atmosphere;
  • slow, deliberate tracking shots about a room, sometimes concurrently including a reverse pan;
  • emphasis on the light-sculpted human face – in particular there are many extended reaction shots of principal characters in response to a preceding remark or event.
Interestingly, Dreyer’s camera often lacks a consistent narrative point of view – as if the camera disavows standing in for a quasi-charatcterological “invisible witness”, as it does in many films, but instead takes on a more abstract narrative role.  This can sometimes be jarring, with camera-axis-crossing cuts cropping up in key scenes, but in Dreyer’s films it can somehow strangely add to the transcendental feeling of the viewing experience.

In Day of Wrath there are two main psychological perspectives (vital autonomy versus guilt-laden supervision), and they are presented by showing the characters who represent these two perspectives in parallel for much of the film.  This parallel presentation of two conflicting moods is a key aesthetic feature of the film. The story is not really partitioned into separate acts, but instead seems to have a continuous, dreamlike flow to it.  Nevertheless, we can identify three phases to the story.

1.  A Witch is Condemned
In the opening sequence an elderly woman, Herlofs Marte (movingly played by Anna Svierkier), is declared on 12 May 1623 to have been suitably denounced by three “upright” parishioners for being a witch and therefore must face trial. We will soon see that such church trials invariably entail extended torture, a forced confession, and then a public execution of being burned at the stake.  The first shot of Herlofs Marte, a tracking shot lasting 2:38, shows her apprehension at home when she overhears shouting outside on the street calling for her arrest.  She sneaks out the back way and off into the village outskirts.

In parallel with Herlofs Marte’s flight, the film introduces Anne Pedersdotter (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman in her twenties married to an elderly Christian pastor, Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose).  Absalon’s adult son, Martin (played by Preben Lerdorff Rye, who would later star in Ordet), who is the child of Absalon’s deceased first wife and is some years older than Anne, returns home from abroad and meets his new “mother” Anne for the first time. We are also introduced to Absalon’s stern mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who clearly disapproves of her son having married such a young and attractive woman as Anne. Throughout the film Merete is shown in scowling reaction shots silently expressing her disgust with Anne and everything she represents.

Shortly thereafter when Anne is alone at home, she is furtively approached by Herlofs Marte, who is seeking a place to hide from the punitive townspeople. Herlofs Marte desperately informs Anne that Anne’s now-deceased mother had once “confessed” to being a witch, but that the confession had been suppressed by Absalon so that he could marry Anne.  So it should be her moral duty to protect another woman from the accusation of witchcraft. 

Although Anne does help Herlofs Marte to hide, the poor woman is discovered and taken into custody to confess.  Subsequently in private, Herlofs Marte threatens Absalon that she will reveal his cover-up of Anne’s mother unless he helps her now.  Although Absalon is alarmed by this threat, he is too much a part of his authoritarian rule-governed system to help her (even though he helped another woman in such circumstances when it suited his purposes), and he merely tells the woman that he will assist her to find salvation in the afterlife.  She tells him, desperately,
“I fear neither Heaven nor Hell.  I am only afraid to die.”
Meanwhile Anne and Martin go walking out in the fields together and display a growing friendship.

Eventually Herlofs Marte is duly tortured until she confesses to being a witch.  Then in a truly memorable scene, with Anne (after an atmospheric 49-second tracking shot showing her wary approach   to her lookout) looking on in alarm from an upstairs window, the woman is bound to a stake and burned to death.  So this first third of the film has set up the forbidding social landscape in which of the rest of the story involving Anne, Absalon, and Martin will take place.

2.  Anne and Martin
The second phase of the film depicts the growing attraction between Anne and her stepson Martin.  In the background is the ever-scowling grandmother, Merete, who tells her son Absalon that he will finally have to choose between God and Anne.

Absalon, worryingly trying to mollify Anne’s anguish over Merete’s harshness, tells Anne about her mother’s confessed witchery.  In a moment of passion at this apparently rare moment of intimacy between the two of them, Anne embraces Absalon and tells him to express his passion for her:
“Hold me and make me happy”
But Absalon nervously withdraws from the embrace and tells her he has too many things to worry about now. 

Meanwhile Anne, far from being horrified by the revelation of her mother's presumed witchery, silently wonders if she herself has inherited some witchcraft powers to summon the living and the dead. After Absalon leaves the room, she quietly whispers to herself, “Martin, come.” And he does. And they kiss, thereby confirming their mutual passion.

There are now parallel cuts showing Absalon brooding inside alone while Anne and Martin are outside among the birches loving each other in another poetically beautiful scene.  Anne tells Martin, “Hold me tight. . . Make me happy.”  And he does.

From the earliest signs of the growing passion between Anne and Martin, the viewer knows that their forbidden love is an impossible dream.  We know it cannot survive and that it faces a doom that is the essence of tragedy.  But Anne’s growing glow is undeniable.  At a family Bible session, Anne quietly and joyfully reads a passage from the “Song of Songs” (a Biblical celebration of sensual love), much to the displeasure of the frowning Merete.

There is then a truly wonderful scene of Anne and Martin alone together outside in a rowboat and talking together.  Anne is joyful; Martin, like us, is worried;
Martin: How alive your hand are. . . your fingers. . . your wrist.
. . . . . . .  I can feel your pulse beating.

Anne: Beating for you!

Martin: The sun is coloring your cheeks. 

Anne: Not the sun, happiness!

Martin: Happiness? How long will it last?

Anne: Forever!

Martin: Anne, where will we end up?

Anne: Wherever the stream leads us!

Martin: One day. . .

Anne: Don’t think about it.  So much can happen.

Martin: I see my father before me all the time.

Anne: I see only you.
3.  Final Accusations
Absalon has gone out during stormy weather to conduct the last rights for a dying fellow church official.  At home, Anne is seen to be increasingly assertive, and her hair is correspondingly less covered.  Alone with Martin and thinking aloud about Absalon, she wonders, “I often think, if he were dead . . . “ That, of course, would change everything.  She further wonders to herself (and in a parallel cut to the home-returning Absalon, the unseen narrative witness wonders along with her) just what strange powers her human mind may actually possess.   

When Absalon finally returns, he is obsessed with death and sin.  After Martin retires for the night, Absalon confesses to Anne his sin of robbing her of her youth.  Anne responds vindictively, confirming his guilt and even accusing him of abandoning the marriage bed and leaving her childless.  She harshly tells him further that she has wished that he were dead and that she and Martin are now lovers.  With that Absalon cries out and falls down dead.

Did Anne cause Absalon’s death?  Martin is unsure, but after making Anne swear her innocence over Absalon’s coffin during the vigil, he promises to stand by his love if she is accused. Later, though, at Absalon’s funeral, Merete vengefully asserts that Anne did indeed kill Absalon and ensnared Martin with the help of the “Evil One”: she is denounced as a witch. Martin, weakening under the maternal social pressure of guilt, caves in and turns against Anne. 

Anne has now been abandoned by everyone, including the person to whom she had hitched her fate.  She is asked before the funeral congregation to avow her innocence, and in the film’s closing shot she tearfully succumbs and confesses that she must be a witch.

From the outset is was clear that theirs was a forbidden love over which was cast a dark shadow of impending tragedy.  Even so, Anne’s final submission to effectively self-immolation comes as a disturbing shock at the close of the film.

At the end of the film, we are left to contemplate what it is that drives so many people towards cruel punishment. Everyone errs, even Anne, but why must so many people be cruelly punished or executed for the sake of “justice”?  Although most of the characters in this story are obsessed about guilt, there are no clear identifications of the guilty and the innocent in this tale.  They are all too human.
  • Anne fell deliriously in love, but she also lied when the occasion suited.
  • Herlofs Marte did dabble in witchcraft, but she seems very human, too.
  • Merete, mostly concerned about scandal and her family name, was resentful, but she did love her son.
  • Absalon’s whole life was concerned with guiding people away from sin, and yet he is revealed to have sometimes been a hypocritical opportunist.  Nevertheless, he comes across as a basically well-meaning and innocent person.
  • Martin, like Absalon, was caught between love and loyalty to a doctrinaire ideology.
Religions and ideologies such as Marxist-Leninism have all been formulated with the intention of leading the human world to justice and optimal welfare. But all those ideologies that do not recognize the importance and rectitude of individual human rights can always serve as tyrannical instruments that justify cruelty [5]. So it was with Protestant Christianity in the witch-hunt era, and so it has continued ever since.  At the very heart of our salvation must be a social doctrine that emphasizes compassion and eliminates punitive resentment.

A connection can be made in this regard to our understandings (usually misunderstandings) of femininity. There is a mystery about life that far exceeds the capacity of our rational understanding, and women embody this mystery right in front of us. In light of these eternal mysteries, authoritarian communities in the past often attributed unknown causal powers to women and then blamed them for causing the inexplicable and unwanted.  Women were often the natural targets for blame concerning the otherwise unaccountable. Narrative accounts of this kind of persecution are what we see in Day of Wrath and also in Satyajit Ray’s similarly exquisite Devi (1960) [6].  But we must remember that women are not only naturally mysterious, they are also naturally compassionate.  And furthermore, perhaps that compassion and that mystery are inextricably parts of the same thing.

Dreyer’s films, especially here in “Day of Wrath”, show an appreciation for femininity unlike most filmmakers other than Kenji Mizoguchi and Satyajit Ray.  As I remarked in my review of Vampyr [7],
"Dreyer, like Mizoguchi, always had a fascination and sensitivity for the feminine role in human interactions . . . Like Kenji Mizoguchi, the feminine role is not an abstraction for Dreyer, but is always a very physical presence in his films. Yet it is far distanced from the typical male fantasy of a feminine abstraction. . . . Von Sternberg’s women are idealized and viewed from the man’s perspective. But throughout Dreyer’s career, his women, like Mizoguchi’s, are grounded in the physical world, and yet have some strangely 'spiritual' dimension, too."
Anne in Day of Wrath is full of life and sensuality – and full of the wonder for life, too.  Dreyer prohibited actress Lisbeth Movin, who played Anne, from wearing makeup in the film, in order to promote her natural feminine allure – not the abstract beauty of fantasy.  And sure enough, Movin is compellingly beautiful in the role.  Indeed, after their first kiss, Martin told Anne that her eyes were not childlike (as Absalon had described them), but “deep and mysterious”, in whose depths he saw “a trembling, quivering flame”. This is the mysterious feminine allure that in this film is crushed by resentment-filled dogma. For our future salvation we should not turn away from this feminine mystery, but instead look in its direction.

  1. Derek Malcolm, “Carl Dreyer: Day of Wrath”, The Guardian, (6 April 2000).    
  2. Gary Morris, “Carl Dreyer: Day of Wrath, Ordet, Gertrud on VHS”, Bright Lights Film  Journal, (1 July 2000). 
  3. Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972).
  4. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Figuring Out Day of Wrath, The Criterion Collection, (20 August 2001). 
  5. Gary Saul Morson, “The House Is on Fire!”, The New Criterion, vol. 35, no. 1, (September 2016). 
  6. The Film Sufi, “‘Devi’ - Satyajit Ray (1960)”, The Film Sufi, (14 November 2013).  
  7. The Film Sufi, “‘Vampyr’ - Carl Dreyer (1932)”, The Film Sufi, (8 October 2009).     

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