From the Carl Theodor Dreyer Box Set

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Thorkild Roose, Lisbeth Movien, Sigrid Neiiendam, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Anna Svierkier
Director:  Carl Theodor Dreyer
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Stills Gallery, Interview Footage
Length:  97 Minutes
Release Date:  August 21, 2001

“There is power in Evil…”

Film ****

Day of Wrath is a film of opposites in conflict…there is death against life, there is evil against good, there is age against youth.  In fact, you could almost group the formers and the latters together in terms of how they seem diametrically opposed.  This movie, by Carl Theodor Dreyer, takes place in the days of the witch trials of the 1600s, where paranoia and fear ran rampant over compassion and understanding.  Considering he made the picture under the Nazi occupation of his native Denmark, one can’t help but assume parallels.

Dreyer claimed he intended no such parallels, but much like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible would always be more associated with Senator McCarthy than with Salem, it’s hard not to consider the state of his country when we watch a picture about extreme repression of basic happiness, which was carried out in the name of fighting evil.  Seems to me in such a case, the devil has already won.

The principal characters are Absalon (Roose), a pillar of the religious community and an aged man.  His duties involve participation in the witchcraft trials, in which he takes no pleasure.  We sense him as man yearning to do good but caught up in the emotional vacuum of the time.  His first wife had passed and he has since taken a second, the much younger Anne (Movien).  So young is she, in fact, that she’s even younger than his son Martin (Rye), a fact that will bring about complications when he returns from the wars.

Anne is a beautiful creature surrounded by ugliness and a young one surrounded by age.  Not only does she live with Absolon, who is far too old for her, but his even more ancient mother Meret (Neiiendam), who eyes Anne with striking disapproval (jeaolousy, perhaps?).  It’s no wonder she takes to Martin when he returns home…he may be the first vital person to enter her life in some time.

As the picture opens, Absolon becomes involved in the “trial” of an accused witch named Herlof’s Marte (Svierkier).  Anyone who knows their history knows exactly what kind of trials these were; basically, torturing confessions out of those accused, then burning them.  “I am not afraid of Heaven or Hell,” she defiantly claims.  “Only death.”  She knows a secret about Absolon:  Anne’s mother was an accused, and by all accounts, a real witch, whom he spared in order to marry her daughter.  But the secret doesn’t come out.

Meanwhile, Martin and Anne have entered into a secret affair, one that given the nature of their times can only end tragically…for all three, to be sure, but much more so for Anne, who has three horrendous strikes against her:  she’s young, she’s beautiful, she’s a woman.  Her romance with Martin seemed to momentarily free and empower her, but when it came right down to it, she was a victim of her time and circumstance…when the best was brought out in her, she could only assume it was for the worst reasons.  How else do we account for her inexplicable confession at the conclusion?

Dreyer, whom I first experienced via his remarkable and influential silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (also on DVD from Criterion), sows similar seeds here, but manages to reap different crops.  He paints his pictures of cruel piety not with leering judges smacking their chops over helpless girls, but with societal indifference, which is probably the biggest indication that his movie was more about his own times than he’d care to admit.  The witch trial injustice is only a symptom of the problem here…the real issue is the dull acceptance of things as-is, which amounts to quite complacency.

His visual style is in full effect here, one that I can only describe as expressionistic humanism.  In other words, the power of his images come not so much from lines and angles and lights and shadows, though all are significantly interwoven, but by the strength of his characters and the actors portraying them.  Who could ever forget Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc?  Here, almost equally impressive, is Lisbeth Movin.  The camera closes in almost intrusively on her most painful and introspective moments, which create the film’s impact.  The visuals merely accentuate what her and other characters’ eyes convey to the camera.

Oddly enough, unlike most depictions of the subject matter, Dreyer seems a bit ambiguous on the subject of religion and its involvement with the trials.  Maybe because what was happening in Denmark at the time had less to do with religion and more to being blinded by a certain kind of ideology, which can be so powerful that even victims seem to participate in sealing their own fate.  It’s the only viable explanation for Anne’s inexplicable actions at the end.

These are the kind of ideals that made witchcraft trials, Nazis and McCarthyism possible, which is what makes Day of Wrath such a striking work of genius.  Circumstances may indeed be cruel, but they are never so overpowering as when we blindly submit to them.

Video ***

Kudos to Criterion for rescuing more of Dreyer’s work from deterioration hell!  Much like with The Passion of Joan of Arc, Criterion has brought about a presentation of Day of Wrath far beyond what film fans might have imagined possible, given the shoddiness of prints over the years.  It’s not flawless, nor can it ever likely be, but it is so improved as to constitute a revelation.  The black and white photography is beautifully restored to crisp, expressive imagery with good levels of detail, and the print, though showing a bit of age effects here and there, is much cleaner than you might expect for a 60 year old film.  I’m surprised the disc didn’t come with a restoration demonstration, as this is one the studio should definitely be proud of.

Audio ***

Despite being a simple mono mix, the soundtrack is quite dynamic and expressive, both in music and spoken words.  Effects are crystal clear throughout, and though there is a slight bit of unavoidable background noise owing to age, it is barely noticeable.  The powerful moments come through with shocking strength and punch…a commendable effort!

Features **

Each disc in the Dreyer box set comes with its own features; Day of Wrath includes a stills gallery and interview footage with actors Lisbeth Movien and Preben Lerdorff Rye…two apiece, each filmed about 30 years apart.  You see the actors age dramatically right before your eyes!


Film fans can rejoice:  Criterion has worked their magic once again in bringing the best looking version of Day of Wrath ever produced for home viewing.  As part of the Carl Theodor Dreyer four disc set, this important and potent classic is definitely a treasure for true cinema buffs.