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Dreyer's Day of Wrath (1943) (1 Viewer)

Darren H

Second Unit
May 10, 2000
Recently, I've begun jotting down personal responses to the films I'm watching. They're part review, part diary response, and filled with spoiler. I'd be curious to hear other responses to Day of Wrath.
Title: Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag) - 1943
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Nationality: Denmark
Images: Elegant, slow tracking shots, often in combination with pans in the opposite direction. Three times during the film, the camera tracks along the row of accusers, as in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Bodies are often half-hidden in shadows while faces, particularly the eyes, remain exposed. Favorite image is high-angle shot of Martin and Anne in a rowboat. Much of the frame is devoted to the water passing underneath, a Tarkovsky-like image of nature.
Viewed on: October 2 , 2001
I can't imagine how it must have felt to sit in a crowded theater, watching Day of Wrath during its original release in 1943. Set in 17th century Denmark, when rising religious fanaticism gave church leaders the authority to execute those of "questionable" morality, the film must have mirrored, much too closely for comfort, the Nazi atrocities being waged just outside the theater door. In his liner notes of the Criterion DVD release, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests that Dreyer cast the blonde actress Lisbeth Movin in a deliberate attempt to diminish the allegorical implications of Anne's plight, thereby diffusing a potentially dangerous situation. As with Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), however, it's nearly impossible to separate fact from fiction here. Day of Wrath is a damning critique of hypocritical authoritarian power told in very human terms, a modern fable that interrogates faith and sin, love and family, desire and its consequences.
As a fan of Arthur Miller, I must admit that comparing his play to Dreyer's film pains me. The former was written for more directly allegorical purposes — an attack on McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee. As such, its characters are comparatively two-dimensional. With rare exceptions, they operate, rightly or wrongly, as stock mouth-pieces for Miller's political and social commentary. Dreyer's characters, by comparison, are afforded a more recognizably human complexity and moral ambivalence. For instance, we sympathize with Herlof's Marthe (Anna Svierkier), the old woman accused of witchcraft in the film's opening scene, not because she is a pious, honorable, and innocent martyr (like Miller's Rebecca Nurse), but because of her human failings. She has experimented with witchcraft, she does lack Christian faith, and most importantly, she genuinely fears her death — the pain and suffering awaiting her at the stake — rather than her eternity. Dreyer stages Herlof's Marthe's scenes in a manner reminiscent of many in Kubrick's Paths of Glory: they are stark, honest, and completely free of easy sentiment.
The family drama at the center of Day of Wrath is likewise composed of characters with whom we must sympathize despite their obvious moral lapses. Reverend Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose) is, by most standards, a man of admirable faith and conviction. His piety, however, is cooled by intellectual distance. He respects his family and his God, but is incapable, until the very end of the film, of understanding the human cost of his actions. Anne, Absalon's young wife, is his most obvious victim. She has been robbed of her youth, of joy, and of children by a man who has never even considered her need for love. Yet, despite her victimization, it is impossible to take any vindictive pleasure from her murderous curses. When she takes Absalon's son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), as a lover, we are again forced to balance our own sympathies for the young lovers with the troubling moral consequences of their symbolically incestuous act.
Day of Wrath's brilliant final scene must have offered little hope to those first audiences. Even Martin has turned from Anne, leaving her resigned to a fate that has always remained beyond her control. It's a stunning image — the young widow leaning against her husband's coffin, whispering a confused confession to her accusers. The critical (but superficial) question of Anne's guilt or innocence is left unanswered, which makes a fitting conclusion to a film that brutally interrogates our lives, but refuses to offer trite solutions.

Rich Malloy

Senior HTF Member
Apr 9, 2000
Darren, your review is excellent. Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts on paper!
Day of Wrath is the first Dreyer film I ever saw, and I was simply blown away. Since then, I've come to like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet even more, but I'll always have a very soft spot in my heart for the film that first introduced me to this master.
If you're interested in a formal dissection of the movie, http://www.mhhe.com/socscience/art-film/bordwell_6_filmart/instructor/olc/analysis_day.mhtml
Link Removed
[Edited last by Al Brown on October 03, 2001 at 01:02 PM]

Pascal A

Second Unit
Aug 2, 2000
Darren, a very thoughtful and well written critique of Day of Wrath. The film is my second favorite Dreyer after Ordet. I hope that you weren't expecting too much analytical discussion because, quite frankly, you've summed up my own feelings perfectly. :)
Dreyer manipulates our sentiments ever so slightly, perhaps to illustrate how gullible we are as human beings to abandon our faith and integrity for the sake of convenience and conformity. While all the characters in the film are morally flawed, it is only by their circumstances, the collective intolerance of their environment, that they are either spared or damned.
The Drum book discusses the parallel of Day of Wrath to the Nazi occupation of Denmark. As a profound humanist, he saw the hypocrisy of the way the Nazis treated the Danish people (who were essentially left alone) to the persecution of Jewish immigrants who were fleeing Russia.
A brilliant film, and a courageous human being.
Strictly Film School

Jim Rankin

Stunt Coordinator
Jan 31, 1999
Darren, great review, it sums my feelings for this film exactly. Like you, this is my first experience with a Dreyer film, and it has haunted me for the last two days now. I rented this from Facets, and was going to order Ordet next, but instead I just placed my order to purchase the box set (Gary - Passion of Joan of Arc is next ;)).
Lisbeth Movin gives one of the finest female performances I have ever seen, although I suspect that the lead in Passion of Joan of Arc will be great too. One question from the film I have concerns a scene between Absalon and Anne:
I believe Anne reaches out to Absalon one last time, when she asks if he has ever considered loving her, he consoles her more like a father than a husband. The camera focused on them both, then panned left to concentrate on Absalon, when it shifted right - Anne was facing away from Absalon instead of towards him- I think right at that moment she knew there was nothing to be salvaged out of this union.

Would anybody else agree? Also my vote for best performance of a bitchy mother-in-law definitely goes to the actress who played Meret, now that lady was the real Witch! Regards, Jim

Pascal A

Second Unit
Aug 2, 2000
Jim - you're absolutely spot on with your observation of Dreyer's camerwork and how it was intended to convey Anne's emotional struggle.
There is also that first scene when Meret scolds Anne for retaining the house keys. Anne turns longingly to Absalon when he defends her actions and argues that she is entitled to keep them as his wife, then turns away visibly upset when he gives her an almost patronizing, fatherly peck on the cheek.
When you do have a chance to watch Ordet, pay close attention to the amazing seamlessness and framing of the continuous scene when Inger and Morten are in the dining room, then Johannes appears into the living room, lights the candles, says a prayer, places the candles by the window and leaves, then Inger retrieves the candles, and returns to the table to serve coffee.
Visually, Dreyer tries to convey that Inger is the only character in the Borgen household who "connects" the mentally ill Johannes to the rest of the family. It is something to keep in mind when realizing the powerful ending of the film.

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