DAY OF WRATH
From the Carl Theodor Dreyer Box Set
Review by Michael Jacobson
Thorkild Roose, Lisbeth Movien, Sigrid Neiiendam, Preben Lerdorff Rye,
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: Stills Gallery, Interview Footage
Length: 97 Minutes
Release Date: August 21, 2001
is power in Evil…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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!