Though ruff collars and blackened stakes might seem like relics of a past laden with hysteria, the deep spiritual anxieties they illustrate transcend time. In few works of art is this as well demonstrated as in Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 film Day of Wrath, a stark story of shuffling power dynamics that smolder into tragedy. The film, with a singular narrative strikingly framed by the absence of credits for any actors involved, tells the story of Anne (played, research tells us, by one Lisbeth Movin), a young woman married to Absalon (Thorkild Roose), a time-worn pastor in a Danish village during the early 17th century. Together with Absalon’s ascetic mother, the mismatched couple live during a time of constant witch-hunts, a strange condition of life tolerated without clear purpose. When Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) returns home from a long absence and meets his father’s new wife, trouble brews as a mutual attraction is conjured between the newly introduced step-mother and son—all under the mistrustful gaze of Absalon’s mother. This doomed romance unfolds beautifully against a backdrop of wide-open skies blotted out by black magic and burning flesh.
Following a tepid reaction upon release (common complaints bemoaned the film’s languid pace), Day of Wrath would be more warmly received in the years after World War II, when audiences and critics alike could ascribe an allegorical treatment of Nazism to the film’s themes of persecution and misdirected fury. (Dreyer persistently denied these likenesses, always intent on loosening the interpretive constraints imposed upon the film.) The film’s driving action sprouts from Anne—unsatisfied with her loveless marriage and longing to salvage her fleeting youth, she faces intense pushback when she attempts to move beyond her inhibited position of a doting housewife tethered to an old man and his cruel mother. With this basic narrative in place, Day of Wrath can be read as an account of the panic that ensues when marginalized individuals actively seek agency—a threat to established power remedied with vehement accusations, forced confessions and, ultimately, death.
Day of Wrath benefits from its sparsity, a quality that aligns it with the rest of Dreyer’s masterful oeuvre. Austerity permeates the entire film, with few characters, a focused, non-digressive plot, and minimalist visuals. This bare presentation of the narrative material renders it all the more open to a wide range of interpretations. Even the fact that the actors go uncredited lends the tragedy an ambiguous applicability—this story, perhaps not with these particular events, but always with these larger social operations, can play out in anybody’s life, including yours. This is one of the most appealing qualities of Day of Wrath: it manages to feel relatable, despite the narrative coming directly from a 1908 Norwegian play that documents the seemingly esoteric matter of Norway’s infamous witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries. The historical and cultural specificity of the source text dwindles through its presentation as a series of events that can develop under any circumstances wherein power is questioned and redistributed. Films that address the cataclysmic tremors of challenged authority are often anchored to the particulars of the histories from which they draw their narratives. Day of Wrath, however, surmounts these temporal confines because its placid aesthetic, like that of Dreyer’s iconic 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc or his 1955 Ordet, seems so clearly detached, even mythological.
Yet Dreyer’s elevated artistry does not divest the material of emotional impact. In a moment of dreadful certainty, Anne remarks that “I see through my tears, but no one comes to wipe them away,” evoking the isolation of those, past and future, who brace the brunt of a hostility deeply embedded into their very society. Like a less overtly allegorical relative of The Crucible, Day of Wrath relies on its restraint to deliver the same blunt look at an entire community’s obsessive need to create and maintain order. In this way, Day of Wrath is an enlightening experience that uses its own subtle witchcraft to ward off the mistakes of the past.
Day of Wrath is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on February 29th as part of their series Witches’ Brew, and is available on Hulu.