Day of Wrath (1943)
Day of Wrath (1943)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Thorkild Roose, Lisbeth Movin, Sigrid Neiiendam
Synopsis: The young wife of an aging priest falls in love with his son amidst the horror of a merciless witch hunt in 17th century Denmark.
Because it was made in 1943, when Denmark was under Nazi rule, there are some who see Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath as an allegory about the oppression of its people by its German masters, but its themes seem much broader than that, and are equally applicable to all situations in which one set of individuals find themselves oppressed (or repressed) by others. Dreyer himself denied the film was a thinly veiled condemnation of the Nazis, and to view it as such does his work a disservice. Day of Wrath is a deceptively complex comment upon the universal flaws within the human condition.
The film takes place in an unnamed Danish village in the 17th Century. Witch-Hunting is rife, and when old herbalist Herlof’s Marte (a heartbreaking performance from 70-year-old Anna Svierkier in her only credited screen role) is accused of practicing the dark crafts, she beseeches the local pastor, Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose) to absolve her, reminding him that she knows he did the same for the mother of his beautiful young wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin) in return for her daughter’s hand in marriage. The pastor insists he is unable to help, however, and the despairing old woman is burned to death, although not before issuing a curse or two…
Although we naturally assume Herlof’s Marte is not guilty, it’s noticeable that at no time does the old woman protest her innocence of the charge of being a witch and, to some degree, it’s unimportant. The fact that her death is brought about, in part, by an otherwise sympathetic man like the Pastor is what matters. Good and evil are never absolutes in reality, but a repressive regime built on fear and mistrust will invariably corrupt the souls of both the oppressors and the oppressed. Anne resents her kindly husband for robbing her of the carefree years of her youth and for apparently failing to consummate their marriage, and also has to contend with his domineering mother (Sigrid Neliendam) who treats her like a servant. When Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), Absalon’s son from his first marriage, returns home there is an instant attraction between him and Anne, and while their affair renews her spirit and optimism, it also lays the seeds for her own destruction.
Day of Wrath’s straightforward plot at first conceals the complexity of its characters before cruelly exposing it. Victims discover levels of heretofore unsuspected cruelty that surface as a direct consequence of a prolonged squirming beneath the thumb of their oppressor. The film sinks into despair, much like its characters, leaving us to reflect upon both Dreyer’s mastery of his art and our own shocking capacity for cruelty. It’s a bleak view, but a brilliantly realised one.
(Reviewed 8th June 2015)