Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) is an elderly woman in rural, seventeenth century Denmark and as she lives alone she is easy prey for gossip, specifically of the kind that gets one accused of witchcraft. And so it is that today the church bells toll and a mob is heard outside her hovel, leaving her to escape through the door for the pigs and into the countryside. She ends up at the house of local preacher the Reverend Absolon (Thorkild Roose), whose younger, second wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin) knows her because of her late mother. Will she be able to help?
Will anybody be able to help anybody else ever again, more like, as director and co-writer Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath, or Vredens dag as it was known in Danish, takes a despairing and bleak view of humanity through a period not known for its generosity of spirit - no, not the 17th Century in rural Europe, but the time the film was made. Dreyer shot this at the time of the Second World War and the Nazis were occupying most of the continent, so it's perhaps no shock that his grim view of people should show through in this adaptation of a historical play from a book by Hans Wiers-Jenssens.
The film spends its first third detailing the capture and trial of Herlofs Marte, who is tortured in order to make her confess to spurious claims that she is a witch. She relents eventually and is ordered to be burned at the stake for her non-existent crimes, and one of the holy men who so condemns her happens to be Absolon, which immediately sets our opinion against him for his cruelty and malevolence. Yet the odd thing is that as the rest of the film plays out, we see he is not such a bad chap, with only the fact that he murders little old ladies for the church counting towards his evil.
Of course, that would be something of an elephant in the room for anybody, especially your local vicar, so the attention of Dreyer turns to Anne. We thought that she was a downtrodden young woman who was forced into a marriage that would be better spent with Absolon's son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), but it's as if not only this society but the director himself cannot bear to see anyone happy here, so we latch onto her less admirable qualities as she grows vindictive against her admittedly nasty mother-in-law and sexually domineering when it comes to Martin.
It's not going to end well, is it? So cynical had Dreyer become about his fellow man (and woman) that we are left in the unnerving postion of seeing all this injustice and feeling as if we have nobody to sympathise with: even the old woman who was executed sowed the seeds of Anne's destruction by casting doubt upon her morality before she died. So when it all builds up to a stark tragedy all round, and coupled to the cheerless, verging on the eerie imagery, the desolation of these characters is hard to shake. At the final moments, you wonder if any of them are worth saving at all, and are tempted to believe they deserve to stew in a poisonous world of their own making; needless to say, this is not a film to reaffirm your faith in anything much, least of all human nature.