Cowboys, witches, and thieves— oh, my!
Neil Marshall's latest film is timely, reckoning with the violent abuses of a patriarchal past that isn't actually past at all.
Day of Wrath. 1943. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Screenplay by Dreyer, Pol Knudsen, & Mogens Skot-Hansen; based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen.
Starring Thorkild Roose, Lisbeth Movin, Sigrid Neiiendam, Preben Lerdorff Rye, & Albert Hoeberg. Palladium Productions.
Not Rated. 97 minutes.
History allows us to look back on films and compare them to the times in which they’re made. When there’s a war or a big event happening, people don’t necessarily have the chance – not all of them anyways – to step back from it all and admire the artists creating during times of oppression and turmoil. In 1943, Carl Th. Dreyer made Day of Wrath, and though likely intending it to carry a message more contemporary than its plot, audiences didn’t receive so well. Not only is it a slow paced film, the darkness of the witch hunts and the terrible persecution of so many women for supposedly being in league with the devil makes for heavy viewing. All the same, the witches become a direct parallel to the Jewish people being persecuted at the time of filming under Nazi rule. Of course Dreyer himself denies the film is about the Nazis. Yet artistic intent is not everything. As the witches stand in for the Jews, morbidly fitting is the element of fire existing parallel between the two, this film takes on an even more grim tone than already exists. But even without assuming Dreyer uses the witch hunts as a symbolic way of talking about the Nazis, the Holocaust, Day of Wrath is beautiful as it is difficult, and the importance of this film cannot be undone regardless of interpretation. It only helps cement Dreyer as a significantly powerful filmmaker in the history of moving pictures.
The cinematography is steady, often using long takes. For an early ’40s film, Day of Wrath draws us into the story and its characters almost simply by forcing us to spend so much time in their space. Many would come to identify this technique with Dreyer as part of his style in subsequent works. Coupled with that, the actors never go into overly melodramatic performance. This is perhaps one of the hallmarks of his directorial style. In a time where overacting was most definitely common, in part due to the expressiveness previously needed in the solely silent picture era, Dreyer’s actors manage to express restraint. Their abilities make the characters much more believable. Instead of feeling like a stage play (based on a play called Anne Pedersdotter by Norwegian playwright Hans Wiers-Jenssen in turn based on the woman of the same name), despite well blocked scenes, the film plays out in a more reality driven fashion. There is certainly melodrama in Dreyer, particularly here. The character of Anne is an embodiment of melodramatic elements, as her personal and sexual stifling comes to represent a whole other aspect than the witch hunt plot element.
The terrifying witch burning early on turns up in a later cult film about similar themes, The Witchfinder General, in a scene with a witch strapped to a ladder then dropped into a fire is all but literally ripped from Dreyer. Much more effective here, in my opinion. Especially considering it was 1943. The editing and the timing of that shot is absolutely incredible. Very impressive work all around.
Above Dreyer’s style or anything else it’s the themes here which drive his film. Shadowy and eerie almost constantly, Day of Wrath gets at the fear and intolerance of a society bent on creating the type of citizens it wants, and not being created as what its citizens want/need. The religious cruelty of the plot is a smothering, suffocating force, which is symbolic of the religiously driven (albeit maniacally so) rhetoric and belief of the Nazi Party during the time this film was made.
At face value, though, we can also interpret Dreyer’s movie as one with aims of examining early feminism. The danger a man faces here is much less corporeal, more of the spirit and to do with shame. Whereas a woman is not only subject to shame, she is also in physical harm’s way, often to a fatal point. And ultimately that burning of witches, as well as the final burning, or expected burning, of Anne herself, is way of denying and literally cauterizing the wounds of the male ego. In those final moments after Anne is betrayed totally by Martin, the hypocrisy of the witch hunt is at its most chauvinistic.
The performance of Lisbeth Movin is a knockout. She gets more intense as the film gets going. There are such affecting looks on her face, as the camera captures her perfectly drenched in shadow, half covered by darkness in the flickers of candles, looking both innocent and sinister at once. One reason why the film works is because she offers up such a dual feeling role that makes Anne epitomize the way witches were perceived. Even the audience at times can’t be sure of her attitude, as Movin keeps people guessing. It is an emotional performance that makes the romantic elements, and the briefly sexual elements, work so well. The long takes Dreyer uses are suited to her, as she lets us become part of the character’s world and allows our eyes a peek into her psychology.
While Vampyr is my favourite of Dreyer’s films, Day of Wrath is a loaded bit of cinema that on the surface explores the jaded days of witch hunts, while plumbing the depths underneath and serving as the direct parallel for Nazi power and the plight of Jewish people during the latter days of World War II. The cinematography and style is what goes on to be known as recognizable Dreyer. Here, it takes the audience into a repressed and quiet space where the intolerance of religion, all the fear it creates boils up into a mess of forbidden love, anger, and so much more.
Dreyer is a titan of cinema. If you’re at all serious about your love of film he is someone that absolutely needs to be explored. So if you dig this, keep digging. He has a lot of wonderful work and showed how possible it was to make engaging, exciting, unique cinema even during the early decades of the industry.