#3 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.
After a decade in the cinematic wilderness where he had to give up the trade completely to go back working at a newspaper (first as a film critic and then as a court reporter), Carl Theodor Dreyer proved that he could make something on time and within budget with his informational short film Mødrehjælpen. With that under his belt, Dreyer was able to secure financing for one of his scripts, an adaptation of Hans Wiers-Jenssen’s Anne Pedersdotter, an early 20th century Norwegian play. Quiet, austere (an adjective that would, from this point on, come to define Dreyer and his work), and deeply emotional, Day of Wrath is proof that Dreyer had found a home in the talkies more than a decade after they had become the norm.
The story is about the young second wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin) of an older reverend, Absolom (Thorkild Roose) in the 16th century. The household is a quiet, pious one, run by Reverend Absolom’s mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who rules with an iron fist, dictating, for instance, that only she shall have the keys to the house, robbing Anne of her place as mistress of her husband’s own house. Two events come to cause further distress upon the house. The first is the village turning against an old woman, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier), and accusing her of witchcraft. The second is the arrival of Absolom’s adult son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), to the house.
The movie is a sea of calm waters under which there swim monsters of the past. Herlofs Marte knew Anne’s mother as well as Anne when she was younger, so, pursued by the mob, she runs to the reverend’s house and begs for a hiding spot, which Anne offers her. The hiding place is no good, though, and the mob quickly finds Herlofs Marte, but the seeds of destruction have already been laid. Merete never liked Anne, and finding Herlofs Marte in their house behind a door that Anne had been around without explanation, is just enough to turn Merete from overbearing to antagonistic. Martin, though, soon arrives, and it’s obvious that Anne is drawn more to Martin than Absolom upon their first meeting.
There’s a subtext of sexual repression running through the film. Visually, the bedroom is just off the main room where most of the film takes place, and we only see it in snippets. The dialogue is laced with sexual undertones, like when Anne reaches out to Absolom and insists that he embrace her and make her happy. The austere old man seems to have never even touched his wife, and then here comes the attractive and young Martin, and there’s room for two people of similar ages to potentially be together.
Absolom presides over the trial of Herlofs Marte, and it’s effectively just torture until she admits what the judges want to hear. This is an interesting contrast to the torture scene in The Passion of Joan of Arc. There Dreyer used aggressive editing to demonstrate a psychological effect on his female protagonist while here the torture is also implied rather than shown as we see the aftereffects of Marte’s torture, stripped and hung by her hands until she confessed. She’s given a chance to denounce any other witches she may know, but she refuses. She could, though, in a way that would destroy Absolom, but she refuses because she hopes that her act of kindness will be returned.
Herlofs Marte knows that Anne’s mother had been a witch. Anne’s mother had been brought to trial as well, but Absolom had let her off with the implied promise that he would be able to marry Anne afterwards. Absolom insists that this was not how it played out, but he eventually must admit it to Anne herself, detailing how Anne’s mother was able to command both the living and the dead.
Now, here is where I seem to split off from most of the criticism of the film because I think there’s a reading of this film where Anne is literally a witch and not just a prosecuted young woman in the vice grip of an unjust system. When given the information about her mother’s supposed powers, she immediately tries it herself to call Martin to her presence, who immediately walks into the room. I see two big interpretations of the latter half of the film. The first is the obvious one where a series of coincidences conspire against Anne to set her in the worst light, combined with her need for sexual gratification being trapped in a loveless marriage. The other is that she is very much a witch, using her powers to make what she wants happen. They are completely mutually exclusive, the sort of dual readings that simply cancel each other out like I had while watching Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but that’s some of the most interesting stuff in filmgoing.
After Herlofs Marte’s execution, a horrifying display of dropping her into a raging fire from the top of a ladder, life never quite returns to normal in the house. Absolom, eating away at himself because of the truths of himself that Herlofs Marte brought out, becomes withdrawn. Anne and Martin start spending a lot of time together with heavy implication that they consummate their relationship physically during their trips into the country. When Absolom leaves one night to administer last rites to a dying man, a man Herlofs Marte had cursed before her death, everything comes to a head. He returns, and Anne admits to him that she wishes his death all the time, making it obvious her hatred of the old man who stole her youth. He then drops dead. Seriously, it’s really easy to read this as Anne (and Herlofs Marte) being actual witches. It could also be that Anne is adding stress to an already stressed Absolom who collapses because he had just strained himself horribly.
Like much of Dreyer’s work, the film is a small scale physical production with exacting detail in terms of set design, props, and costumes. There’s also an incredibly precise focus on performance from every actor involved. The standout is Lisbeth Movin as Anne. Playing a mixture of innocent, wickedly mischievous, and vindictive, Movin is fantastic as the central character either caught up in events or manipulating the world around her. With either interpretation, though, it’s obvious that she wants to steer the events in her own direction, whether she can actually do it or not.
I love this movie for the balance of specificity in character and vagueness in action that creates this wonderful pool of interpretation. I also love it because the central character of Anne is so well written that I can both feel for her and against her at the same time, feeling like she is a woman trapped in an unjust situation that she has no escape from but that she’s also a cruel woman all at once. The precise nature of the filmmaking also creates a steady sense of unease and tension that builds over the film, in a similar way as what happens in Vampyr, so that when the final funeral scene, I’m on the edge of my seat.
It’s a quiet film that builds over its runtime, creating an incredibly memorable experience. That it was disregarded upon its original release is a shame. If it had been better received, Dreyer may not have been limited to just two more features across the last twenty years of his career.