February 23, 2016
“Is it not a fact that the greatest dramas occur in silence?” -Carl Dreyer
Day of Wrath (1943) is set in 1620s Denmark, a period of increasing paranoia surrounding the practice of witchcraft. King Christian IV passed an ordinance in 1617 which defined the crime for the first time, and specified that only witches who had made pacts with the devil would be burned. Prosecutions proliferated in the decade following the establishment of the ordinance, and Day of Wrath takes place in its aftermath. The film is about witchcraft, incest and torture, but director Carl Dreyer keeps all of it offscreen. What he focuses on instead is how the weight of guilt expresses itself on his actors’ faces. The accusers and the accused are all guilty of contributing to the debased state of their society, whether it is through the suppression of female sexuality or attempted acts of murder (it was filmed during the Nazi occupation of Denmark). Dreyer arranges his pained characters in static tableaux that his camera maneuvers around with funereal grace, with suspected witches and unforgiving torturers all equal under DP Karl Andersson’s floating camera. Day of Wrath is a film about the intensity of belief, one in which the supernatural and the divine are the only escapes from the brutal repression of reality.
I was led back to Day of Wrath because the Brooklyn Academy of Music screened it in their ongoing “Witches’ Brew” series. The series was inspired by the horror phenomenon du jour, The Witch, set in 1630 New England, nearly the same time period as the Dreyer film. I have yet to see it, but am taking this revived interest in the conjuring arts as a gift from the dark gods, and as an opportunity to revisit Day of Wrath, which continues to retain its mystery.
Day of Wrath was adapted from the play “Anne Pedersdotter” (1908) by Hans Wiers-Jenssen. Anne was one of the most famous victims of the Danish witch hunt, though Wiers-Jenssen’s play has little to do with the real case. The actual Pedersdotter was prosecuted for killing six people, including children, while in the play and film Anne (Lisbeth Movin) is embroiled in a love triangle between her old minister husband Absalon (Thorkild Roose) and her stepson Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye, Ordet). Anne is Absalon’s second wife, married off while still in the bloom of youth. She has had to repress all her dreams, hopes, and desires for the stable life offered her by Absalon and his mother Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam). Merete despises Anne for her cursed lineage. Anne’s mother was a practicing witch whom Absalon pardoned in an attempt to tie Anne closer to him. Anne’s mischievous witch spirit is not awakened until the arrival of Martin, whose youth and beauty entrances her. As Martin responds in kind, they escape from Absalon’s spartan home to the fecund woods, away from God and into nature. Anne is filled love and lust and power, and begins to openly wish for Absalon’s death.
Dreyer modeled many of his compositions on Rembrandt group paintings from the period, like The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) and Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (1662). These offer era-specific clothing and a certain filtered quality of light, but also how to orchestrate a line of pompous learned men, seekers and slackers both. The Anatomy Lesson comes through in Dreyer’s shots of the sober bearded men putting kindly old crone Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) on trial, in which they invoke the light of God while threatening to tear Herlofs limb from limb. Dreyer gets closer with his camera than Rembrandt chooses to on his canvas, and every face that Karl Andersson’s camera glides by in these intricately composed sequences is hiding some secret shame. Dryer wrote that in, “Day of Wrath, I attempted to restore to the visual the priority which it is due. But I did not introduce scenes for their pictorial beauty, merely to delight the eye. I adhered to the rule that unless a sequence advances the action it is detrimental to the picture. No matter how beautiful it may be.”
This is a composed film, one as controlled as its characters; the film is almost suffocating in its quietude and construction. Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer valued this aspect of Day of Wrath, as he wrote in Theory of Film: “When the Inquisition tried and burned witches, the world was stationary rather than dynamic, thinly populated rather than crowded; there was not yet the sensation of dizzying physical movement and the amorphous masses were still to come. It was essentially a finite cosmos, not the infinite world of ours.” Their world lacked plenitude, so it was sought with God or with the Evil one.
Anne becomes intrigued with the concept of witchcraft when she hears about her mother’s powers from Absalon, how she could “call both the living and the dead.” You can see the sparks lighting behind Anne’s eyes, and Lisbeth Movin’s performance deserves more comment than I can give her. Her elfin face is a powerful instrument that Dreyer takes full advantage of, from her natural sullen pout, to a narrowing of brow that indicates an accumulation of power. And it is power that Anne clearly seeks – over her own desires especially. She is attracted to Martin, probably the first time she has been so sexually charged, and finds the strength to pursue that lust through the guise of witchcraft. She never performs any rituals or spells, but you can see in her eyes that she is searching for her mother’s demons inside of herself.
Absalon is not equipped to deal with a self-actualizing sexually assertive woman like this, but he tries. He admits to her his guilt over stealing her youth, taking her on as though she were hired help rather than as part of a fully functioning marriage. But by this point it is far too late. She has lost too much, and the aging minister does not have much left to give. With shadows dividing Anne’s face, lending her a demonic energy, she admits to her romance with Martin, and spitefully tells him that she wishes his death. Soon, he dies, and Merete accuses Anne of witchcraft. At first Anne denies the accusation, reassuring Martin that she had nothing to do with it. And she probably did not, the stress of her revelation probably cracked Absalon’s heart. But then she changes her mind, or simply states the truth: “I did murder you with the Evil One’s help, and with the Evil One’s help I lured your son into my power.” It is an assertion of independence and the signature of her death warrant.