Figuring Out Day of Wrath

Ifirst encountered Carl Dreyer’s work in my teens, but it wasn’t until my forties that I began to be ready for it. I mainly had to rely on lousy 16-millimeter prints, so ruinous to the sounds and images of Day of Wrath that I could look at that film only as a form of painterly academicism, a repressed view of repression. The film defeated me with its unalleviated gloom and dull pacing, which I associated with Dreyer’s strict Lutheran upbringing.

All this was sheer nonsense, as I discovered once I had access to better prints, information, and reflexes. For one thing, contrary to many reference works, Dreyer’s upbringing was neither strict nor Lutheran. Born out of wedlock in 1889 to a Swedish servant (who died horribly a year and a half later trying to abort a second child), he was adopted by the Dreyers in Copenhagen, who gave him a nonreligious upbringing and whom he grew up despising. (According to biographer Maurice Drouzy, he worshiped his real mother and hated his adopted one, and good as well as bad mother figures abound in his work.) What I had taken to be religious beliefs were actually calculated challenges, and according to what Dreyer’s friend Ib Monty once told me, he wasn’t especially religious at all. What’s great about Day of Wrath is a passionate ambiguity that leaves all major questions frustratingly unresolved yet vibrantly open, quivering and radiant with life and meaning. The slow pacing is necessary for the intensity and the sexiness under the gloom to register. Freely adapted from a Norwegian play—Hans Wiers-Jenssen’s Anne Pedersdotter—that Dreyer had first seen in 1909, Day of Wrath looks today more cinematically advanced than any other movie released in 1943.

The film’s handling of period is unparalleled, achieving a narrative richness that may initially seem confusing. Set in 1623, when people still believed without question in witches, the film views that world from a contemporary perspective without for a moment dispelling our sense of what it felt like from the inside. Dreyer pulls off this difficult task through his singular style, involving a sensual form of camera movement he invented: the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction. It’s difficult to imagine—a three-dimensional kind of transport that somehow combines coming and going in the same complex journey—but a hypnotic experience to follow. The film’s first real taste of it comes fairly early, when we follow Anne in her sinuous progress towards the torture chamber where Herlof’s Marte is being interrogated. The camera tracking with Anne around a pillar prompts our involvement while its simultaneous swiveling away from her establishes our detachment. And enhancing the strange sense of presence that results is Dreyer’s rare employment of direct sound rather than studio post-synching—giving scenes an almost carnal impact that becomes lost in smudgy and staticky prints.

There are many ways of interpreting the eerie story. We can believe that the characters, oppressed by sexual repression, conjure up fantasies about witches; or we can believe that witches really exist, and this story is showing us how one particular society, working through the church, produces them. Either way, Dreyer’s hatred for intolerance and institutions is evident throughout, though all the characters can be said to have their own reasons, and simple hypocrisy is never an issue. Meret, who resembles W.C. Fields at odd moments, might be the closest thing in the film to a villain, but her assessment of what’s going on may actually be more correct than anyone else’s. And we accept Absolon as a good man—struggling to be responsible about his own sense of virtue and justice—at the same time that we feel complicit with his son and wife betraying him, caught up in their blazing passion for one another.

Some combination of all the above is operative at every moment, lending a multidimensional impact to each gesture, word, and emotion. We bear the frightening knowledge that genuine evil resides in this confined world, but without a capacity to locate it in literal sorcery, we paranoiacally find it everywhere and nowhere—in a kind of collective virus infecting a whole community without ever being clearly traceable to a single individual.

This film was made and premiered during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, when Jews were being deported. Drouzy surmises that Dreyer may have cast a blond actress as Anne to avoid charges that he was making a political allegory—though the message wasn’t lost on the Danish underground at the time, and today it clearly registers as one of the great Resistance films. Yet according to critic Tom Milne, Dreyer “always insisted that any such political overtones to the film were strictly unintentional”—meaning that Day of Wrath may be the reverse of a conscious allegory like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (almost certainly influenced by Dreyer’s film). But this only suggests that some works of art ultimately know and say more than their makers. Like one of the characters in his masterpiece, Dreyer was trapped in his obsessions, yet he remained so faithful to his art that he may have wound up saying more about his own times than most direct commentators.

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