Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 film Day Of Wrath (Vredens dag), adapted from Hans Wiers-Jenssens’ novel, Day Of Wrath, by Dreyer, is an earlier, better version of the issues tackled in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, because, even though the film was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, and there are obvious parallels to be drawn between that and the film’s narrative, it is never as psychologically obvious nor melodramatic as Miller’s later allegory on McCarthyism. This is never made more clear than at the film’s end, where the psychologically fragile Anne (Lisbeth Movin) is betrayed by her horrid mother-in-law, her lover, and her own psyche, and actually comes to believe in her own guilt of being a witch, for wishing the death of her aged husband.
The whole film is also a more realistic depiction of self-delusion than Miller’s play, as the 17th Century Danish Inquisitors who torture, maim, and kill in the name of their beliefs show how easily good intentions can become twisted. Anne is clearly the central figure, and her rise and fall, from shy dour hausfrau of old Reverend Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), to energetic vibrant lover of his son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who is about the same age as her, and returns to the home after years abroad, to denounced, deluded, and subservient victim of her wicked mother-in-law, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), is the center of the film’s drama and emotion.
Day Of Wrath is one of the most masterful black and white films ever made, and the use of shadow by Dreyer and cinematographer Karl Andersson is stunning. Only other Dreyer films come close to being as effective in the use of such as this film is. The family home is oppressed in shadow, with small bits of light flickering in ever so often, usually only to lighten the faces of its characters as they waver between good and evil. Pools of darkness give a creepy, expressionistic tinge and weight to everything in the film, even the most mundane objects. Some shots are clearly based on Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings, making great use of human facial expressions and emptiness as emotional signifiers, yet they are like those masterpieces gone noir. The home has a crypt-like feeling that is only ever lifted when the characters get outside, to either burn witches, a wry comment on the living feeling most alive only when killing, or to show the love scenes between Anne and Martin, by the river, in symbolic, effective, and engaging silhouette. Films from before 1950 often suffer from the more stilted style of acting prevalent then, but this film inverts that potential weakness into a strength, as the blank, inexpressive faces of the characters allow their eyes to do most of the acting for them. Small motions and seemingly diurnal moments are thus energized into far more than what they initially appear to be. For example, the change in the glint in Anne’s eyes, after she wishes her elderly husband dead, and then minutes later he has died, says all one needs to know about the corrosive power of a dogma on warping even the sanest minds into a belief of things beyond the pale, no matter how self-destructive.
The film is also a great depiction of evil, not in stark black and white, but in the many shades of gray it truly exists in. There is the evil of the folly of the Danish society of the time, as well the evil that threads through the whole Pedersson clan. There is the evil of the son Martin, who after his professions of love to Anne, is shocked by his father’s death, and with weak will accepts the asinine version of events his grandmother peddles, that Anne is a witch who willed his father’s death. Then there is old Absalon, himself, a man who plays political games with the fatal accusations of witchery, reveling in the power of life and death he holds. Furthermore, we get hints that he married Anne when she was a child, after his first wife, Martin’s mother, died, thus hinting that he was a pedophile. The reason for her hatred of him is because she claims he ‘stole her youth’, something that is at the heart of her affair with Martin, to reclaim her loss. Finally, we get the truest depiction of human monstrosity in the film, Absalon’s mother, who seems to be a walking, talking sack of bile, far more evil than any horror film’s lead monster. At film’s end, when she denounces Anne, and convinces her grandson Martin to come to her side, literally, we get a sense of the even greater power she must have wielded over her son. Precisely how this warped him into a monster we can only guess.
We know, however, that he has sentenced an old woman Herlof’s Marte (Anne Svierkier) to death as a witch, knowing that she accused Anne’s mother as a witch, and threatens to accuse Anne as a witch if he does not pardon her. She claims, ‘I don’t fear Heaven or Hell, I fear only Death.’ Absalon doesn’t pardon her, yet Marte cannot go through with her threat of denouncing Anne, which makes her the only wholly true and faithful of the main characters in the film. Her reward is being thrown into a pyre to burn to death. The power of suggestion, which is obviously at subliminal play with the use of shadows, is also at work in the restraint Dreyer shows in what he shows us of others’ suffering. We do not see the physical torture Marte suffers, only how indifferent to it the church powers are, although we do see a jarring scene of partial nudity with the old woman, which only highlights how restrained the rest of the film is, emotionally and visually. As example, the church hierarchy, down to the lowly scribes, take the pain they inflict as a matter of fact, then twisting reality with words, such as claiming that confessions gathered by pain are freely confessed. Devout choirboys sing God’s praises as calculated murder occurs before their eyes.
The DVD transfer, on this The Criterion Collection set of three films, including Ordet, Gertrud, and a documentary disk, Carl Th. Dreyer- My Métier, is sterling, but there is no film commentary track. There are deleted scenes from two documentary films on Dreyer, and a stills gallery, but no trailer. The film is in Danish mono, with optional English subtitles. The musical soundtrack is almost nonexistent, save for a few moments culled from the Gregorian chant Dies Irae (Day Of Wrath). Like Michelangelo Antonioni, Dreyer views the image as the primary expressive mode for film, with music only a minor tool.
At 97 minutes the film never drags, even with the slow, deliberate acting and pacing, which makes it seem all the more like a chamber drama than a film, because Dreyer’s film is not only concerned with those technical matters, but also with a sense of place. The film takes place in 1623, ostensibly, but it also seems to exist outside time, and could very well be occurring on another planet, or in Guantanamo Bay. Having previously seen Dreyer’s earlier film Vampyr, made in 1932, which is one of the eeriest and moodiest films ever made, this all comes as no surprise. Dreyer’s screenplay strips the drama down to its essentials. There are no scenes that do not advance the plot, but….that’s also its greatest weakness. Six decades ago, much of the machinations of plot may have seemed complex, but in retrospect, it is obvious from the moment that Herlof’s Marte starts threatening to expose Anne that an astute viewer knows Anne is doomed, and that Martin will be the instrument of her undoing, with Absalon slated to die, and Merete triumphal in the end.
Yet, this is not one of those films that is dependent upon plot and cheap subversions. This is not a Hitchcockian crime thriller. One can know the end destination, and still enjoy the journey, because the how you get there is the paramount concern, and Anne’s own tack toward self-destruction is far more compelling than the similar overarching track of Miller’s The Crucible, which was a decade away. That work’s direct attack on the evil of its day, McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), may have had a more short term artistic imprint, but Dreyer’s cinematic obliquity in opposing Nazism, while directly under its thumb, stands up far more strongly today, in a historical light, as a work of art, for its primary concern is the destruction of the individual, which en masse can become a society, not the destruction of the larger faceless society. Thus, the characters in Day Of Wrath have more dimensions to them than the relative cardboard cutouts Miller uses as mere mouthpieces to screed politically.
For example, while Herlof’s Marte is not a witch, and has no powers of conjuring the dead, she is, indeed, guilty of the other charges- dubious as they are. She has dabbled with black magic, she lacks Christian faith, and she does not fear God, only death. She is an infidel, by definition. The real question is, are the guilty always deserving of a punishment? Dreyer lets us ponder that alone.
Day Of Wrath is one of those films that is possibly difficult to judge by modern standards, yet if it is not clearly a great film, the way his earlier Vampyr is, it’s only because it is not a genre work, like that film, and thus not subject to a more delimited horizon. In many ways, these same issues would be tackled a decade and a half later, in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, a more modern and complex work, yet one which never quite hits the visceral peaks this film does. And, comparisons to other great works of art are never to be dismissed lightly. Neither is Day Of Wrath.