Doodad Kind of Town

A "Day of Wrath" Arrives…
November 8, 2008, 11:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“Day of Wrath” opens with the ominous shadow of cross projected onto the slowly scrolling printed lyrics of a grim and gloomy hymn.

“Day of wrath, dreadful night
Heaven and earth in ashes burning
And the sun beset by dead of night

The Day of Wrath, that sulfurous day
When flaming heavens together roll
And earth’s beautiful castle shall pass away.

Day of Wrath that judgement day
Then shall be heard with universal dread
Sins revealed as they are read.

Day of Wrath, O see them stand
Before His Throne, small and grim
Clad in shame and rancid sin.

And so on, in like manner. It sets the tone pretty effectively for what is to follow. Throughout the film, that dirgelike hymn will be repeatedly intoned – sometimes by an angelic-sounding boy’s choir – to underscore the film’s themes of piety, sexual repression, persecution, and cold-eyed moral rectitude.

Set in 17th century Denmark, the film centers on a aging clergyman named Absalom Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), married for the second time to a much younger and very beautiful woman named Anne (Lisbeth Movin.) An old woman in their village is denounced as a witch; Pedersson hears her confession and has the power to save her from being burned at the stake, but stolidly refuses to do so. His reasons have less to do with any actual bewitching activity the woman may have been up to (the most we see is her dispensing a medicinal potion brewed from herbs that “grow under the gallows”) than their shared, guilty knowledge that Absalom previously pardoned Anne’s mother from the same fate. When Absalom fails to extend the same mercy to the old woman, she tells Absalom sternly “If I burn at the stake, so shall Anne !” and calls down a curse on all her persecutors. Then she is executed in a particularly harrowing, if not explicitly violent, sequence.

The woman may or may not have been an actual witch, but there is soon no doubt about the efficacy of her curse. Absalom begins to feel the weight of his guilt, finally acknowledging to himself that he pretty much helped himself to Anne in her youth, without ever bothering to ascertain whether she loved him in return. In his brooding, Absalom fails to notice that his wife and his grown son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) are spending more time away from the house, slipping away for long walks, long rowboat rides, and long afternoons of whispered endearments and stolen kisses.

It all leads to a climatic sequence of events on a wind-stormy night, the details of which I won’t reveal here.

“Day of Wrath” represents my first experience with the work of legendary Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. I’d read that it wasn’t the most accessible film for a Dreyer newcomer to start with, but you couldn’t tell that by me. I was enthralled by it. For a film made over 65 years ago, it is far more shocking and powerful than most of what passes for groundbreaking cinema these days.

The photography is amazing (and the Criterion DVD I got from Netflix most certainly has to be the newly restored print). Scenes of leafy trees and verdant fields visited by Martin and Anne in their afternoon trysts are lush and glorious in their details, more beautiful than you’d ever expect any black-and-white nature photos could be, and these scenes have a vibrant sensuality. By contrast, the scenes in Absalom’s home and offices are filmed and staged with chilling severity. A sequence in which the old woman is tortured before a panel of intensely interested clergymen is particularly disturbing, even though the actual torture takes place off camera.

Lisbeth Movin is stunning and brilliantly effective as Anne. With the smoldering good looks and sultry bedroom eyes of a Hollywood siren, her presence is immediately incongruous in this village where the other female characters can be best be described as grim, pious and sturdy. She’s initially a compliant and docile wife; in her early scenes she is shy and wears tight little bonnets that almost entirely cover her hair. As her passion for Martin awakens however, she visibly changes – and not just by switching to lacy little bonnets that let most of her lustrous locks show through. She brightens, she moves more freely and quickly, she even laughs out loud. On the night of the big windstorm, she actually removes her headgear entirely, and that simple act of letting her hair down delivers a palpable erotic charge.

Anne’s vibrancy and sensuousness is utterly at odds with the coldly pious society in which she lives. It isn’t necessarily sinister behavior, but it begins to feel so when seen against the stern correctness of Absalom’s household, and we almost buy into the notion that Anne really is a witch. (Never more so than in a scene where she glides around a room, casting seductive, sidelong glances at Martin and beckoning him into a chair, while ferocious winds howl outside the windows. One gets the sense that Anne herself is a force of nature, that she may well have conjured the storm into being through her own powers.) And I think it’s instructive that nearly all of Anne and Martin’s love scenes take place in nature as well. Ann’s spirituality is organic and tied to life force in everything around her, just as the other villagers’ spirituality is essentially a denunciation of that same nature. As such, we begin to foresee a tragic end for her.

The film’s final image is extremely subtle (subtle enough that I wasn’t entirely sure I had gleaned the full meaning until I watched it a second time), but chilling.

“Day of Wrath” was made in 1943 in a Nazi-occupied Denmark, and the political climate most certainly informed its take on torture, persecution and repression. It’s a challenging film, but a powerful and important one, and one I would strongly encourage any film lover to experience for themselves.