Tuesday, April 10, 2012

DAY OF WRATH (Vredens Dag, 1943)

The Nazis couldn't kid themselves the way Communists did sometimes. You could get away every so often with making a movie about witch-hunting in a Communist country as long as the authorities could tell themselves it wasn't about them, but about the supersitious bourgeois past. But when Carl Theodor Dreyer made a film that superficially concerned with witch-mania in old Denmark, the country's Nazi occupiers apparently assumed it was about them. Thought they apparently let the film play, they gave Dreyer enough grief that he fled to Sweden. On one level, you can see a Nazi's point. Vredens Dag describes a society where people are put to torture and compelled not just to admit ridiculous charges against themselves but to denounce others for equally ridiculous offenses. That touches a sore spot with fanatics everywhere. But Dreyer's film isn't exactly The Crucible. It isn't about a heroic refusal to make false denunciations. It's about the double standards that spare some while sending others to the stake, and it ends with someone making an uncoerced confession of a ludicrous crime.

Absalon (Thorkild Roose) is a middle-aged widowed pastor who has married again despite the disapproval of his elderly mother. He has a grown son, Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye), who has a hard time thinking of Anne (Lisbeth Movin) as his mother. Once Martin is back from school, however, he has a hard time not thinking of Anne. Anne has an easy time thinking of Martin; the lad could give her the happiness Absalon doesn't seem capable of giving. The old man may be too preoccupied with his responsibilities as a minister to accused witches. He comes under pressure when the authorities catch an accused witch, Marthe (Anne Svierkier), hiding in his own house. The old hag had been picking herbs for Anne, who offered her shelter. Marthe thinks she has leverage on Absalon because he had once intervened to spare an accused witch who happened to be Anne's mother. Marthe insists that he intervene on her behalf or else she'll denounce Anne. Absalon refuses to comply but Marthe never follows through on her threat -- not under torture and not as she's sent to the stake. Not that you get much chance to rant there; in Denmark they drop you face first onto the bonfire. Meanwhile, Absalon's mother, who probably figures that Anne put some sort of spell on her son, now sees her working the same wiles on her grandson. All this stress is likely to drive poor Absalon to an early grave. If it happens, how much will Anne be to blame? And how do you characterize her offense in the idiom of 17th century Denmark. Could you call it anything else but witchcraft?...

While The Crucible focuses on the injustice of witch trials and builds up the background of accused and accusers to underscore the procedural injustice, Day of Wrath probes the intimate anxieties, rivalries and hatreds that must have seemed to simpler, superstitious generations like the devil at work in their hearts and minds. In its emphasis on overpowering urges and mortal consequences it resembles an American film noir, with Lisbeth Movin a worthy rival to Hollywood's femme-fatale specialists, more closely than it resembles a political allegory. Dreyer films the proceedings in an austere yet fluid style; his camera moves frequently without calling attention to its mobility. He doesn't fetishize the tortures of witchfinding, but the mere sight of fat old Marthe stripped topless for forceful interrogation is appallingly suggestive. Overall, Dreyer succeeds in creating a sense of lived-in antiquity and lets the actors do the rest. This is a film of memorable faces, with Movin, Roose and Sigrid Neiiendam as Absalon's mother making indelible impressions. Movin may have the more flamboyant role but Roose made the strongest impression on me. In many ways the image of a puritanical patriarch, he effectively embodies the contradictions and hypocrisies of his roles as confessor, counselor and comforter, spiritual leader and lonely man who's lost track of his longings. Nevertheless, the big moment and climactic mystery belong to Movin. Is her ultimate confession merely acquiescence to the inevitable once the wheels of injustice are set in motion, or is it a spontaneous confession of guilt, a revelation to herself of feelings she hadn't acknowledged for someone she'd wronged? Does she actually suddenly see herself as a witch, and what does the label mean to her? These questions transcend politics and elevate Dreyer's film above mere allegory. They remain relevant even when we don't call each other witches anymore, as long as we still seem capable of cursing each other merely by coexisting.


Sam Juliano said...

Love your alternate approach to this film classic Samuel, especially the broaching of film noir via "moral consequences" and "overpowering urges." To your superlative discussion (including the differentiation of this film and THE CRUCIBLE and that fascinating idea of "lived in antiquity" I'd add: that DAY OF WRATH was shot in gloomy and claustrophobic interiors with thin rays of light punctuating the dark shadows, a scenario that showcases the superlative black and white cinematography of Carl Andersson, which was surely an inspiration to Ingmar Bergman a decade later. The tranquillity of the film in many sequences never diminishes and oppressive sense of doom, which is a reflection of humorless characters, a society with little room to breathe, and visual allusions to death, including the short journey of a horse cart passing by carrying branches for a burning.

It is worth noting that outside of Herlofs Marthe, whose inner character is more ambiguous, no character in the film is even remotely likeable or endearing, a further thematic commentary on the society at large, which discourages free-spirited contentment. The performances in the film, hence are extraordinary in conveying this dire estimation of humanity. The contributions of art director Erik Aaes and composer Poul Schierbeck are considerable, even though the latter’s score was spare in keeping with the serenity of the film.
Few films in cinema history are as disturbing as Day of Wrath, fewer still are as extraordinary. Among Dreyer’s select but brilliant output, only THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is in the same category.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, Dreyer definitely strikes a sharp contrast between bright nature and the dark indoor world of church and family, and credit is due to Andersson for that. Odd that daylight and nature are where the "femme fatale" flourishes when, as you pretty much acknowledge, she gives off as much of an "evil" vibe as anyone in the picture. Those glowering eyes will stick with anyone who watches this film.