Day of Wrath (1943)

Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer; Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Mogens Skot-Hansen, and Poul Knudsen

Whose love lights the way?

Believers call on God’s love to see them through tough times. Others put their faith in people, making it vulnerable to the sudden impulses of the all too fickle human heart. In Day of Wrath, both groups walk a fine line with fatal consequences in a story that touches on all of Dreyer’s favorite preoccupations of faith, morality, and love.

It’s the 17th century and witch hunting is in vogue. The film opens with a woman serving an ailing woman an herbal brew to help with her pains. Out of a sense of common kindness, their chemistry suggests. Her patient is not long gone before the woman hears calls for her name, and death at the stake. She escapes and seeks the help of Anna (Lisbeth Movin), a woman newly wed to a local priest Absalon (Thorkild Roose), a man much older than her. Anna lets her hide in their attic, but the woman is soon found, tortured and burned.

Anna is left shaken after hearing rumors she was part of a deal to save her mother from a similar fate, complicating an already uneasy union. There to add to the turmoil is Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), the priest’s son. Handsome and alluring, he catches Anne’s eye. But he’s also her step-son, despite him being her senior in years. 

Watching over all this is Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), capital M Matriarch, who has it out for her young daughter-in-law, partly because Anna is a bit too fresh with her, but also because of what she feels is the shameful age discrepancy in her son’s union to Anne. You can’t disavow your priest son, so… 

Dreyer’s favorite themes of religious morality, hypocrisy and virtue are all treated with the same famous compassion, clarity and humane poise, both in text and cinematography. Dreyer’s knack for vivid portrayal of his characters and their motivations is second-to-none, as he manages with minimalist dialogue and long installments to include almost the entirety of the human heart, from cruelty and charity, in a single scene. His long takes and wandering lens give the film an unadorned presentation to a point where it rivals theatre, but Dreyer’s visual direction elevates the drama and emotional touchpoints.

Although very preoccupied with interpersonal politics and relationships, Dreyer draws on a public craze to emphasize the individual’s vulnerability within it. Absalon, although a priest and therefore vested with certain authority, is still one among other priests. Martin, despite what his heart feels, is still his father’s son. Merete, however much her son’s actions shame her, cannot turn her back on her grandson. So it goes: from person, to family, to society, and anywhere along that chain can your life be undone.  

It makes for affecting storytelling that is lit up by beautiful writing wherein Dreyer’s otherwise utilitarian dialogue is adorned with poetic exchanges to describe the revelations of newfound love or pains of fresh grief. Moving in themselves, they shine all the brighter in the tense subject  matter.  

Evocative and piercing, Day of Wrath is proof of Dreyer’s dramatic mastery, and a tragic argument that real death is not to be found at the stake, but in the loss of those we give our heart to.  

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