Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Day of Wrath

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

DAY OF WRATH

7/10

Vredens Dag : Denmark 1943 : Carl Theodor DREYER : 98 mins

As a film about the persecution of (so-called) witches in 1620s Denmark, made in that country during the Nazi occupation, Day of Wrath was never likely to be a barrel of laughs. And, indeed, its as stark, austere, grim, downbeat and intense as youd probably expect. The pace is by no means fast, and there’s a staginess to some of the performances and direction – the script, by Dreyer and Poul Knudsen, is based on a play. But this is probably an accurate reflection of how life did proceed the best part of 400 years ago as much as its a result of how film-making styles have evolved over the past six decades.

Dreyer has been notably influential on other directors over the course of those decades, both in terms of the spiritual/psychological complexity of his concerns, and also in more mundane ways: the way the witches are lowered onto the flames suggests that Michael Reeves was aware of this film before making Witchfinder General, while the creepy chorus of children joyfully belting out the hymn Day of Wrath as the flames consume their victim foreshadows Robin Hardys The Wicker Man. Lars von Trier, meanwhile, has seldom missed the chance to pay tribute to his countryman: the sternly disapproving village elders from his Breaking the Waves are close kin to the similarly forbidding figures in Day of Wrath. And the final twist in which love proves to be far from enough prefigures the Tom/Grace relationship in von Triers Dogville.

Like von Trier, Dreyer subjects his heroines to daunting physical and mental trials most famously in his 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc. Here its Lisbeth Movins Anne who goes through the wringer: trapped in a loveless marriage to a much older man, Reverend Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), she seizes her chance of happiness when the pastors son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) arrives home after several years travel. But things start to go awry when elderly Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) is tried as a witch and burned alive the repercussions of this event will have dire consequences for all concerned, bringing to light certain uncomfortable facts about Annes late mother…

Though the second half of the film drags a little in its concentration on the sappy Anne/Martin romance, the first hour is a compellingly intense experience as the sexual tensions in the Pedersson household mount in parallel with the harrowing trial and execution of the seemingly-benign Marte. Seventysomething Sigrid Neiiendam is the dominant presence as Absalons indomitable mother, a glowering battle-axe who scarcely bothers to conceal her contempt for her wanton daughter-in-law. Filming almost entirely indoors and (with cinematographer Karl Andersson) often deploying slow tracking-shots through the house, Dreyer crafts a powerfully convincing tale of claustrophobic family life – lit by candle-light that illuminates but casts very dark shadows.

Its a heady mix of jealousy, guilt, hypocrisy and suspicion, full of repressed private emotions which we see surfacing in public in the form of the witch-hunt hysteria. But while the Christians methods are horrifyingly barbaric, Dreyer makes it clear that there are witches at work here indeed, in this world witchcraft is a much more powerful and effective than orthodox religion. We see two instances of witches casting spells (both, interestingly, against holy men) and in both instances, the result is death, although their success brings no happiness to the witch. Then again, pretty much everyone ends up burning, either physically or psychologically and in this society witchcraft seems to offer women their only real opportunity of power. Anne, were told, wasn’t even consulted about her ill-advised marriage to Absalon.

In terms of the specific political situation under which the film was made, however, the subtext of Day of Wrath isnt quite so straightforward. While Denmark under the Nazis was obviously an environment marked by paranoia, suspicion and denunciation, Dreyers film doesn’t really hold up as a specific allegory for wartime events. Arthur Miller, of course, often denied that his play The Crucible was principally intended as an allegory of McCarthyism. Both Dreyer and Miller, although writing at a particular juncture in history and looking back to another, are making universal points about human fallibility, ones that transcend the grim particulars of their own dark decades and ours.

28th February, 2004
(seen 17th February : Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal)

by Neil Young