‘Day of Wrath’: Dreyer’s Tyranny of the Heart
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
It’s easy to argue that, quality-wise, new movies are spinning their collective wheels as summer draws to a close. But the old ones just keep getting better and better. This season’s repertory riches have been extravagant: News in July of the discovery of lost sections of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” briefly but soundly drowned out the trumpeting of lumbering blockbusters as they immodestly squeezed themselves into multiplexes.
This summer’s crop of digital restorations and new prints of old films has also helped exonerate the viewing value and sheer pleasure of canonical works by the likes of Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu, and other former staples of international film festival competition and art house exhibition. Likewise, IFC Center’s five-day engagement of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Day of Wrath” will be a revelation to anyone who, like myself, has only seen and heard the 1943 film via a foggy 16 mm print.
Yes, “Day of Wrath” is available in a characteristically pristine DVD transfer from Criterion, but Dreyer’s peculiar and timeless cinematic gifts need to be appreciated via projector, not monitor. I can think of few other movies whose central creative voice is at once so modern and yet so archaic. Confining that voice in any way — including reducing it to living-room casualness via video — sells Dreyer’s medieval modernist vision short.
Set in Denmark in the 1600s (and shot there during the Nazi occupation), “Day of Wrath” builds a singular beguiling and austere narrative out of a love triangle that includes an aged, devout minister, Absalon (Thorkild Roose), his considerably younger wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), and Abaslon’s unmarried son (and Anne’s stepson), Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye). What would be a complicated situation under any circumstance is in this case potentially deadly, as Absalon and his fellow clergymen are in the midst of purging their town of witches. The minister’s learned fellows remain unaware that Absalon conspired to release Anne’s late mother, an accused witch, in return for Anne agreeing to marry him and play May to his December for life.
“I fear neither heaven or hell; I am only afraid to die,” cries out Herlofs Marte (Anne Svierkier, whose performance owns the movie almost as much as Dreyer does), a quite guilty, quite unrepentant, and quite damned member of the same coven as Anne’s mother. Her blasphemous disinterest in her soul’s immortality and her attempt to blackmail Absalon into saving her from death by bonfire ultimately come to represent the true morality binding this corrupt society together and, by inference, every other society that tortures and kills for the sake of belief.
Dreyer’s polite but relentlessly snooping camera courts melodrama, historical re-enactment, magic realism, and romance among nature’s pagan beauty, with a nearly uniform lack of clumsiness or corn. The director’s skillful use of off-screen sound (rendered in spectacular detail via this restoration) is also remarkably powerful.
Outside of the horror genre, few movies move forward with as much anxiety and intensity on the strength of unanswerable questions as “Day of Wrath” does. Is Anne a witch or a woman, and are the two the same thing? Is a wish a spell? Does romantic love have a place in a world ruled by the church’s dogma and not by nature’s law? Is truth a worthy prize if it does harm? Dreyer wields ambiguity with such commitment and in such a meticulously well-tended character environment that simply considering the ideas and experiencing the emotions behind these questions is somehow answer enough.
While it’s tempting to attribute the powerful sense of latent paranoia in “Day of Wrath” to the fact that it was made during one highly contentious period in Scandinavian social and political history and portrays another similarly desperate moment in time, Dreyer’s obsessive accomplishment remains timeless because it is so innately personal and stealthily intimate. The remarkably open-ended view on witchcraft, persecution, romance, and the spiritual poles of heaven and earth in “Day of Wrath” is ultimately more a disturbing assessment of the ongoing battle between the sexes than a diatribe directed at any comparatively short-lived war on tyranny.
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