#22: Day of Wrath
Initial release: 1943
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
In Nazi-occupied Denmark, creating a film that might be seen as an analogue to the persecution of Jews can be dangerous, and yet, here we have Day of Wrath, a Danish-language drama about a woman suspected of witchcraft in 1623.
Marte, an old woman, is on the run from witch hunters. She goes to the local pastor, Absalon, whose young wife Anne hides her, but Marte is caught anyway. Marte knows the middle-aged pastor spared Anne’s late mother (accused of witchcraft) to marry Anne, and threatens to spill. Ultimately, Marte is executed without betraying Absalon’s secret, but Absalon feels guilt over leaving her to burn. Meanwhile, Absalon’s elderly mother hates Anne, who has fallen in love with Absolon’s son martin, the two of them carrying on a relationship in secret.
Anne has grown more confident since learning of her mother’s powers, and that she has those same powers, using them to keep Martin close. Her resentment of Absalon has also grown. Ultimately, she strikes Absalon dead with a word and is eventually exposed by Absalon’s mother.
While the film is often presented as a horror film, there’s not very much in the way of scares, or even tension. Everything moves glacially: the plot, the characters, their lines. Probably the single scariest thing is a scream as Marte is lowered into the pyre.
It’s hard to tell if this is just a language barrier thing or not, but nearly every line seems to be delivered woodenly; the camera work is mostly standard shots with very little of note (I did like a panning shot in a room full of columns, though.) Only the music stands out.
Dreyer’s films are often accused of being slow-paced. It’s easy to see why, watching this film: it’s to make up for the simple plot. The meek Anne growing into a confident witch, just like her mother, based only on what Absalon told her, is something of a ludicrous turn.
This film is considered analogous to the Nazi oppression of Jews; Dreyer denied it, but left Denmark to sit out the war in Sweden anyway. But I dislike the comparison, because while in the real world witch hunts have always been tools of oppression, in the film witches are real, and villainous.
It’s the same problem as The Lancashire Witches — any negative critique of historical witch hunts, and any attempt to make analogies to more modern situations of oppression, will always be undermined by making villains out of the victims.
In the end, while I’m puzzled over the 100% fresh rating it has on Rotten Tomatoes, I will admit that if you like gloomy, slow-paced European films with metaphors that don’t stand up to any serious examination, you’ll like Day of Wrath.