Carl Th. Dreyer is a director I both love and hate. When I watched the Passion of Joan of Arc, I fell in love with the tight angles and the expressionist camera movements. Everything about that movie demonstrated the genius of the director. I followed up that viewing with his last movie, Gerturd. I had the exact opposite reaction to the movie. I couldn’t stand the slow-moving action, the lack of diversity in the setting and the insufferable protagonist who does nothing but complain. I couldn’t believe that the man who made Passion also made such a slog of a movie. It took me a couple of years to get over the reversion I felt for Gerturd and give Dreyer another chance. I am glad I did.
Day of Wrath on the surface is about 16th century Denmark and a witch hunt. What makes this movie interesting is what is going on below the surface. Having been made in during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Dreyer chose to make several allusions to this oppressive regime. Dreyer essentially made an anti-Nazi movie without actually making it anti-Nazi. However to see this movie purely from this light would boil the plot down too much. Instead what we get is a great glimpse at a time where witches were a real threat, torture was accepted along with burning at the stake and real people thought they colluded with the Devil. A Lutheran priest is married to a much younger woman. Anne, the second wife of this Lutheran priest, became betrothed to him after the priest absolved her mother’s accusations of witchcraft in exchange for her. She had no say in the manner. (Somehow a marriage between a woman who is easily half the age of a man who is going to marry her is seen as perfectly acceptable.) One day a woman on the run from a witch hunting mob shows up at their doorstep. After this woman (named Herlof’s Marte) gets caught, she tries to bargain with her life by talking about Anne’s mother accusations of witchcraft. As she is being tortured and ultimately killed despite asking the priest many times for help, she puts a curse on him. The same day Herlof’s Marte shows up at the doorstep, an expected visitor also comes by. The son of the priest from his first wife is now a handsome adult man. Anne and the son are immediately attracted to each other. As Herlof’s Marte is being executed, their affair with each other begins. Anne’s passion for life is ignited by the son and extinguished the moment she comes back in the house under the oppressive regime of the priest’s mother. The priest bears the weight of the curse and his guilt throughout the rest of the film, fighting to throw both off. But the curse and the consequences of his actions get him in the end.
Dreyer uses the camera as well here as he did in Passion. In one magnificent scene, he slides the apparatus past a group of priests in a dungeon. They are watching Herlof’s Marte get tortured, but we don’t see her. We only hear her and see the reactions that these priests who seemed to be hardened to her plight by experience. We hear the main interrogator tell her statements. There was never once an actual question come out of his mouth. This is interspersed with agonizing moans and declarations from Herlof’s Marte. This scene illustrates the institutionalized nature of this practice and the justification of the reasons by just showing these priests’ composed faces. They seem like they just couldn’t be bothered. This scene is also one of the major scenes that film scholars point to when making their case about the anti-Nazi themes. It is clear from the grouping of these gentlemen and the brutal torture that doesn’t produce anything but what they want to come out of it, that he was accusing the Nazis of the same practice.
Just like in Passion, Dreyer was able to take a time and a place so remote from our own and use it to comment on timeless aspects of human nature. Although I may have painted him this way, the Lutheran priest is not a bad guy. He is just trying his hardest to be a virtuous and moral human being. But because he is a human, he makes mistakes. But the restrictions of the time force him to live up to impossible goals. Just like the Nazi officers tasked to enforce the new law in Denmark during its occupation weren’t necessarily bad people. They were just forced through a series of decisions and circumstances to become monsters. Anne in a way can be seen as the embodiment of the Resistance movement during the occupation. She is forced to live under the oppressive mother who lords over a house that she doesn’t want to be a part of. This oppression is manifested in the type of head garment she wears. At the beginning, you see in a restrictive all black hat that flattens her vibrant blonde hair. As she begins to rebel against the system manifested by the priest, she becomes a live with the spirit of doing something she wants to do. The rejection of her oppression is made physical by seeing her hair slowly be less and less restricted by bonnets. At the end she is completely free of her shackles and her hair is wild and free. The people who make up the Resistance can only become alive once they are rebelling against the system. Her complete lack of sorrow for her misdeeds during the final scene echoes what a caught Resistance fighter might exhibit. So in other words this film has layers! Yay Layers! Go Layers!