You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Ivan Cerecina looks at Carl Th. Dreyer‘s 1943 film Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag).
I chose Carl Th. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath for this column not just because of my love for the Danish director, but also because of its relative under-appreciation in his filmography. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) has comfortably sat near the top of lists of Great Silent Films for decades now, and a film like Ordet (1955) is a similarly well-established classic of the European art house canon. A film like Day of Wrath, which has lacked this support from the critical canon, seemed like the perfect candidate for a You Have to See… as it exhibits some of the strongest elements of Dreyer’s wonderful filmmaking craft.
Set in Denmark in the 1620s during a period of stern orthodox Protestantism under the reign of the witch hunt-happy monarch Christian IV, Day of Wrath is framed by the condemnation of two women as witches. The first, Herlof’s Marte, has her fate sealed in the third shot of the film: a close-up of a hand spelling out a decree summoning her to be tried for witchcraft. The second, the young Anne, is the wife of the minister Absalon, a senior member of the local church charged with condemning witches to the stake. Unhappy in her forced marriage to the pious Absalon, Anne falls for her husband’s son, Martin, and meets her demise after being accused of using witchcraft to ensnare her lover.
Day of Wrath was Dreyer’s most popular film in terms of tickets sold, though it received a mixed critical response in Denmark, 1 and some praise amongst a generally middling reaction overseas after WWII. The charges levelled against the film of being slow, tedious and humourless were to be voiced again in response to his next two features, Ordet (1955) and especially Gertrud (1964). These films are often collectively referred to – sometimes positively, sometimes negatively – as belonging to Dreyer’s late period, in which the director’s preference for the long take and austere set design produced films indebted to the Scandinavian naturalist theatre tradition of the late 19th and early 20th century. Rather than reinforcing this division of Dreyer’s work into discrete periods, I’m interested in the continuities between Day of Wrath and his previous films.
Day of Wrath was released just after the halfway mark of Dreyer’s directorial career. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the culmination of a decade’s work in silent film, is famous for its extensive use of the close up, populating the frame with little more than a face against a stark background in a remarkable number of its 1500+ shots.2Space is flattened and abstracted in favour of the face, “the land one can never tire of exploring” in Dreyer’s words. Vampyr (1932) feels very much like an experiment – albeit a riveting and successful one – negotiating a new conception of cinematic space. The disorientation one feels when watching it comes from Dreyer’s frequent movement between subjective vision and a kind of impossible vision, creating an uncanny atmosphere that is always threatening to obscure its loose plot.3We are constantly made to readjust our bearings because the basic formal cues that designate where an action takes place – eyeline matches, establishing shots – are either absent or purposefully inverted when used. The director is worth quoting here reflecting on what he wished to achieve in Vampyr:
“Imagine that we are sitting in a very ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. Instantly, the room we are sitting in is completely altered. Everything in it has taken on another look. The light, the atmosphere, have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. This is the effect I wanted to produce in Vampyr.”
We might take this reflection on the room that has “taken on another look” as a statement about the broader challenges in editing Dreyer poses to himself in Vampyr in terms of linking spaces together. He creates within the shot an association – an image, an idea – that extends beyond the frame, which in turn redoubles our focus on its contents. This is achieved not just in the relationship between shots (see the suggestive intercutting of a man with a scythe multiple times at the beginning of the film), but also through the experimental use of sound. Both montage and sound extend our perception beyond the space in the frame; we are both here and elsewhere.
The three final major films of Dreyer’s career – beginning with Day of Wrath and followed by Ordet and Gertrud – take up this challenge of creatively linking spaces often to more symbolic ends. These spaces are fewer in number and are clearly demarcated in their dramatic function. There is a progressive retreat indoors in these films: Ordet saves its exterior scenes to highlight the distance (figurative and literal) between two types of faith, Gertrud’s three sole exteriors are the privileged place for the two lovers to discuss their fate.
In Day of Wrath one could identify a similar interior/exterior dichotomy: indoors, the church philosophises on and imposes its rigorous moral code for the continuity of order in human life, outside these walls is the domain of nature, sin and death. Twice in the second half of the film, Dreyer makes this division explicit by cross-cutting the pastoral scenes of Martin and Anne together first with Absalon the minister brooding alone in his study, and later with Absalon and the stern family matriarch in the family home.
Within the family home, Dreyer handles the complex relationships and power struggles with a slow-building intensity, thanks in part to the pinpoint precision of the editing. Take the sequence where the family reads from the bible at the midpoint of the film, just after Martin and Anne have consummated their love for one another. Anne, seated next to her husband, coquettishly asks to read a passage from the Song of Songs about the beloved and the apple tree (a recurring refrain in the film).
There’s a two shot of Anne and Absalon (above), with Martin sitting just out of frame and Anne furtively glancing and slyly smiling at him in between lines. The film is full of shots of characters alone looking out of frame, Dreyer preferring to isolate them when tensions between them come to a head. There are subtle differences to the way these interior dramatic sequences may have been handled in Hollywood in 1943: most often, they are pictured in medium shot (rather than any closer), and the distance between characters is often unclear, creating a gulf between them that is difficult to mentally process as occurring within a fixed space.
I couldn’t go through this without mentioning Dreyer’s famous long takes either, which would become an even more central part of his craft in his final two films. I will point out two, both involving Anne. The first sees her cross the sacristy to listen in on her husband torturing Herlof’s Marte. Dreyer’s camera tracks alongside Anne before distancing itself slightly and moving around a pillar, revealing the immensity of the space that dwarfs her with the most elegant of manoeuvres, speaking to the oppressive power of the church in a striking fashion. In the second, Anne attempts to summon Martin using powers of invocation she has just learnt her mother had. Blowing out a candle and slowly stepping across the room, she moves through several pools of light and darkness that illuminate and obscure her features before closing her eyes and reciting her lover’s name. Two of the most beautiful sequences I’ve ever seen.
If this piece has so far tended mostly towards formal analysis, that’s in order to shift the focus away from the purely spiritual readings that usually accompany Dreyer’s films. Of course the pervasiveness of the church and its influence in Day of Wrath lends the film to this kind of reading, but this is much a work about the physical realm and the everyday interpersonal tensions that govern relationships. Besides, Dreyer’s relationship with religion (organised or no) is one that has been overplayed a little in order to allow for readings of his film as commentary on religious the individual.4 It is a difficult film to read because of the ambiguities present in the characters’ actions and what they provoke in us. On the one hand, there is a fairly clear criticism of the strictures of religious dogma, yet the actions of each individual in turn show a willingness to impose their own will almost systematically on those around them too. Power and control are not just the instrument of the oppressive apparatus of the church, but also the basis of the relationships by those subjugated by it.
Brad Mariano: I feel even among the milieu of European arthouse directors, Dreyer has a particular reputation for being dull and austere (Carl Theodor Dry, amirite?). I’d only seen Passion and Vampyr previously, and was pleased to find that Day of Wrath is really a pretty gripping film. The first third is pretty thrilling in Herlof’s Marte and her accusations of witchcraft, but the slow-burn final hour is no less satisfying. There’s some profound human moments in this drama, perhaps none more affecting that Absalon’s guilt where he realises the selfishness as an older man marrying a younger woman in depriving her of something that he once enjoyed, and it puts a peculiar moral complexity over what otherwise would be simple characterisations. But the lasting mystery of this is Anne herself; approaching a film about witchcraft you expect a certain playing field between characters and audience – victim protesting innocence, modern audience shaking head disapprovingly at the clearly absurd and barbaric practice for some obvious satire on some contemporary context. But that Anne herself believes, nay, relishes in her witchcraft suggests deeper psychological and societal issues, perhaps stemming from an inability to reconcile her own impulses with the customs and laws of the time, a guilt for her own needs that even her husband knows aren’t unreasonable, or even self-identifying with one of the few accepted patriarchal roles for women – as neither mother nor happy wife, perhaps witch is the only narrative she can fit into.
There’s a maturity to the treatment of these characters combined with a real sense of poetry (the outdoor scenes recall something like Renoir’s A Day In the Country juxtaposed with the harsh chamber drama of the interior scenes) that make this a special film. Not the wildest film we’ve chosen, but neither is it a real Film School classic (I’m now eager to see his other, more acclaimed films) but it is a film that in the truest sense of the words, you have to see.
Jess Ellicott: What I find so impressive about Dreyer is the talent he has in imbuing an economy of detail with a wealth of meaning. I see him as a master of effective communication, eliminating that which is unnecessary or inauthentic without compromising depth of meaning or uprooting action from reality. This approach engenders moments of incredible potency, images that are indelibly etched in one’s memory. For me such moments mostly involve people, and faces. The extreme close-up of Falconetti’s face immortalised in negative space in The Passion of Joan of Arc. The spirit parting from his body in Vampyr. The old woman’s scorned expression in The Master of the House. Now, having seen Day of Wrath, I have Herlof’s Marte being plunged into the flames as she is burned at the stake, an image of such absolute horror that it makes Saw II look like Play School (especially given the context of the film’s production – made in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of Denmark). Dreyer denied any explicit intention of making a political parallel between the persecution of witches and the persecution of Jews, but the parallel is there to be drawn nonetheless.
No one has mentioned the oppression of female desire in Day of Wrath, which I see as one of its salient themes. Ivan mentioned the Bible reading scene which acts as a clear manifestation of this theme. Anne’s recitation of a passage about a young woman in love is abruptly cut off by Absalon’s mother, who sees Anne as a “wretched woman”, an evil seductress who has corrupted her beloved son and grandson – a witch, just like her mother. It had earlier been revealed that Absalon married Anne when she was still a child, without considering whether she loved him or not. This allows the audience to look more sympathetically at Anne’s affair with Martin, as it the only time she has acted on her own desires. However, this desire is forbidden by society and by God, and her love and trust is finally, crucially betrayed by the guilt-tormented Martin, which (I think) leads to her death.
There is much to be made of this and the other ideas that run through the film, and like Rosenbaum with his essay on Dreyer’s Gertrud, it could take me a year to write about properly, at the end of which I may still sit here withered at my computer, defeated by Dreyer, as I am now.