The following, a revision and substantial expansion of liner notes that I wrote for the Criterion DVD of Day of Wrath several years ago, was written for the Australian DVD, which came out in 2008 on the Madman label — as did my essay on Ordet. (One can order DVDs from Madman’s site, and by now they have quite a collection.) My thanks to Alexander Strang for giving me permission to reprint this. — J.R.
Figuring Out Day of Wrath by Jonathan Rosenbaum
I first encountered Carl Dreyer’s work in my teens, but it wasn’t until my 40s that I started to be ready for it. I mainly had to rely on lousy 16-millimeter prints, so ruinous to the sounds and images of Day of Wrath that I could look at that film only as a form of painterly academicism, a repressed view of repression. The film defeated me with its unalleviated Danish gloom and its dull pacing, which I associated with Dreyer’s strict Lutheran upbringing. Most of this was sheer nonsense, as I discovered once I had access to better prints, information, and reflexes. For one thing, contrary to many would-be reference works, Dreyer’s upbringing was neither strict nor Lutheran, and he was born a Swede, even if he grew up in Denmark. He was born out of wedlock in 1889 to Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson, a Swedish servant living and working in a large country estate—–a woman who died horribly a year and a half later trying to abort a second child in her seventh month of pregnancy by taking a box and a half of matches, cutting off their heads, and swallowing them, which led to a painful and hideous death from sulfur poisoning. After brief stints with foster parents, in an orphanage, and then with another family, the baby was adopted by the Dreyers in Copenhagen—-a typographer named (as his adopted son would be) Carl Theodor Dreyer and his wife Inger Marie, who already had an illegitimate daughter, Valborg. Marie, who felt cheated that the infant Carl’s real mother hadn’t lived long enough to pay child support, reportedly made a habit of often complaining to her adopted son about it, and often punished him by locking him in a closet, and he grew up despising her; when she died many years later, he refused even to attend her funeral. According to his biographer Maurice Drouzy, he worshiped his real mother and hated his adopted one with equal amounts of passion, and good as well as bad mother figures subsequently abound in his films. (Gertrud, the title heroine of his last feature, is perhaps the only female character in his work who combines these two figures, mythically speaking, even though she happens to be childless herself.) Even though at the age of two he was christened in a Lutheran church, Dreyer the future filmmaker essentially had a nonreligious upbringing. (When he later went to Sunday school at a French Reformed church, this was mainly done in order to sharpen his French.) What I and many others had taken to be Dreyer’s religious beliefs were actually calculated challenges to belief and nonbelief alike. And according to what Dreyer’s friend Ib Monty once told me, he wasn’t especially religious at all. (There is some evidence, however, that Dreyer believed in paranormal phenomena as a way of explaining certain things that might be interpreted as supernatural—including the miracle that occurs at the end of Ordet.) Indeed, part of what’s great about Day of Wrath is a passionate ambiguity that leaves all major questions frustratingly unresolved yet vibrantly open, quivering and radiant with life and meaning. The slow pacing is needed for both the intensity and the sensuality under the gloom to fully register. Adapted from a Norwegian play—Hans Wiers-Jenssen’s Anne Pedersdotter—that Dreyer had first seen in 1909, Day of Wrath looks today more cinematically advanced than any other movie released in 1943. (The play, on the other hand, apparently hasn’t been available in English since 1917, and used copies of the English translation that occasionally turn up on the Internet are unusually pricey.) [2018 NOTE: SEE EMAIL POSTSCRIPT AT THE END OF THIS ESSAY.] The heroine of Wiers-Jenssen’s play is a historical figure in Norway who was accused of being a witch and was burned alive at the stake in 1590. Dreyer’s adaptation is quite free, and it appears that the main similarity between the play’s Anne Pedersdotter and Dreyer’s own heroine of that name, apart from their shared fate, is that both were married to clergymen named Absalon Pederssøn. The historical Pedersdotter was first accused in 1575 of having murdered her husband’s uncle, a bishop, through sorcery in order to make her husband a bishop, but she was cleared and managed to get a pardon from the king of Denmark. Fifteen years later she was tried again—this time for killing half a dozen people, including children, through witchcraft—and this time she was found guilty. The main transgression of Dreyer’s Pedersdotter, who had a mother burned as a witch (a fact kept hidden from the local community by Absalon), is developing a passion for Absalon’s son by his first marriage, Martin, when he returns home from his theological studies-—-a transgression that ultimately leads to her wishing for her husband’s death and then causing it with the direct expression of her hatred for him, which leads immediately to his collapse. One of the many changes Dreyer made to the play was to desexualize the figure of Absalon (Thorkild Roose)—a character who was more clearly drawn to Anne (Lisbeth Movin) for her beauty in the original—–and thus give further motivation to her becoming sexually attracted to her stepson (Presben Lerdorff-Rye). The film’s handling of period is unparalleled, achieving a narrative richness that may initially seem confusing and anticipating many of the positions held by historians today about the witch trials that were not yet widely held in 1943. Set in 1623—–33 years after the real Pedersdotter’s execution, but during a time when people still believed without any question or doubt in witches-—-and shifting the setting from Norway to Denmark, the film views that world from a contemporary perspective without for a moment dispelling our sense of what it must have felt like from the inside. Dreyer pulls off this difficult task through his singular style, part of which involves a sensual form of camera movement that he invented: the camera gliding on unseen tracks in one direction while uncannily panning in another direction. It’s difficult to imagine—a three-dimensional kind of transport that somehow combines coming and going in the same complex journey—but a hypnotic experience both to follow and to keep up with. The film’s first real taste of it comes fairly early, when we follow Anne in her sinuous progress towards the interrogation of Hertlofs Marte (Anna Svierjier) by her husband. The camera tracking with Anne around a pillar prompts our involvement in both her curiosity and her stealth in satisfying it while its simultaneous swiveling away from her establishes our detachment from both—at the same time that it suggests an anticipation of her future impulses and desire by literally racing past her.
Enhancing the strange sense of presence that results from this emotional complexity and ambiguity is Dreyer’s rare employment of direct sound rather than studio post-synching—giving scenes an almost carnal impact that becomes lost in smudgy and static-heavy prints. And, in keeping with the subsequent practice of Robert Bresson to replace images with sounds whenever he can, Dreyer uses sound to force us to imagine many of the details of the pursuit, torture, and extermination of an old woman in the opening sequences of the film rather than show us any of these things in any extended detail. There are many ways of interpreting the eerie story. We can believe that the characters, oppressed by sexual repression, conjure up fantasies about witches; or we can believe that witches really exist, and this story is showing us how one particular society, working through the church, produces them. Either way, Dreyer’s hatred for intolerance and institutions, the clergy in particular, is evident throughout, though all the characters can be said to have their own reasons, and simple hypocrisy is never an issue. The bottom line is that everyone in this society believes in witches—including the women suspected and accused of being witches, who regard many of their own passions as a form of sorcery and power. Herlofs Marte, the old woman accused of witchery in the opening sequence, who asks for Anne’s help in hiding her, never denies being a witch, and Anne never does either. And even though Dreyer’s focus throughout is on his characters’ psychology, there’s really nothing in the film that supports the proposition that either of these women is being falsely accused or misunderstood. Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), Absalon’s elderly and widowed mother, who resembles W.C. Fields at odd moments, may be the closest thing in the film to a villain—–Drouzy suggests that the very fact that her name sounds a bit like Marie may have carried some emotional weight for Dreyer. But her perception and understanding of what’s going on between her grandson and daughter-in-law as their quasi-incestuous affair develops is more acute than anyone else’s, and she’s clearly nobody’s fool. Furthermore, we accept Absalon as a good man, or at least as a sincere and honest old fogey—struggling to be responsible about his own sense of virtue and justice—at the same time that we feel complicitous with his son and wife when they’re betraying him, caught up in their blazing passion for one another. And however much we may regard Anne as a heroine for related reasons, we can’t say that Dreyer idolizes her either; believing that her sexuality is tied in some way to sorcery, she’s also as complicitous in the society that condemns her as everyone else is. Some combination of all the above is operative at every moment, lending a multidimensional impact to each gesture, word, and emotion. We bear the frightening knowledge that genuine evil resides in this confined world, but without a capacity to locate it either in literal sorcery or in particular individuals, at least with any sense of finality, we might paranoiacally find it everywhere and nowhere—in a kind of collective virus infecting a whole community. This film was made and had its premiere during the grimmest days of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, when Jews were being deported. The curfews in force that were instituted by the Germans had the effect on limiting all forms of public entertainment, including film exhibition, to the afternoons. In spite of this latter restriction, Day of Wrath ran in Copenhagen for six months, though according to Jean Drum and Dale M. Drum’s My Only Great Passion: The Life and films of Carl Th. Dreyer (Lanham, Maryland & London: The Scarecrow Press, 2000), this was mainly because the cinema playing the film wanted to find an excuse not to show German films during this period; apparently attendance was minimal, and, again according to the Drums, “Day of Wrath was almost universally condemned by the Danish critics, mostly on the ground that the action was too slow.” (The film wouldn’t play outside Denmark until after the war, when it received mixed reviews and mainly poor business in the U.S. and elsewhere in England.) So it’s a cruel irony that the leading Nazi-run newspaper at the time gave Day of Wrath a rave review, correctly implying in this case that the Danish didn’t know how to appreciate their native talent while less plausibly arguing that Germany could make better use of such a filmmaker as Dreyer. Indeed, it was the interest shown in Dreyer by Nazi officials based in Denmark, after the release of Day of Wrath, that led directly to him emigrating to Sweden with his wife for the duration of the war. How relevant is it that the film was made during the Nazi occupation? Like many other issues raised by this perpetually vexing film, this is a complex question with no simple answer, perhaps even with no final answer at all, especially because Dreyer paradoxically combines a vivid present-tense quality with a distanced historical perspective, almost as if we were watching the action simultaneously from opposite ends of the same telescope, so that we’re deeply implicated in the events yet also able to analyze them. Drouzy surmises that Dreyer may have cast a blond actress as Anne in order to avoid charges that he was making a political allegory. On the other hand, the contemporary Danish film scholar Casper Tybjerg persuasively argues that any film made in occupied Denmark that had a trace of political allegory would likely have been recognized as such by most members of the Resistance as well as most Nazis, thereby endangering the filmmakers involved–and that any political allegory we might be tempted to find is ultimately confounded by the fact that Dreyer’s portrait of a society in which everyone believes in the existence of witches finds no clear counterpart in the persecution and extermination of Jews. Tybjerg also offers the plausible hypothesis that Dreyer’s refusal to show any signs of hope for liberation among his characters probably influenced as well as inflected the film’s poor critical reception in Denmark. For many years, I’ve regarded Day of Wrath as one of the great Resistance films, but now, after brooding at length over Tybjerg’s arguments, I’m inclined to regard this description as a seductive but facile error: anti-totalitarian, yes; but pro-Resisistance? Not really, because there’s no Resistance of any kind to be found anywhere in the world of Day of Wrath—–which is part of what’s so maddening about it. Like all of Dreyer’s greatest films, this is a masterpiece that keeps changing and eluding us whenever we try to pin it down. According to the late Scottish critic Tom Milne, Dreyer “always insisted that any such political overtones to the film were strictly unintentional”—which means that Day of Wrath is the reverse of a conscious allegory like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a play which opened on Broadway ten years later and which clearly used the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in the late 17th century—–a full century after the death of Anne Pedersdotter in Norway-–to stand in for the contemporary reign of terror unleashed by Joseph McCarthy against actual and suspected Communists, including Miller himself. Yet it’s also worth stressing that Miller’s play was almost certainly influenced by Dreyer’s movie—–a fact that becomes particularly apparent in the 1996 film version of The Crucible with Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder, directed by Hicholas Hytner, which Miller adapted himself. It also seems pertinent that the American critic who wrote most memorably about both Day of Wrath and The Crucible, Robert Warshow, attacked the latter for what he called Miller’s “steadfast…refusal of complexity” in perpetrating various allegorical mismatches between the past and present; but he failed to note any contemporary relevance at all in Day of Wrath, and perhaps he was correct in not doing so. Nevertheless, Dreyer’s persistent denial that he was saying anything about the German occupation of Denmark in Day of Wrath—–apart from acknowledging in a 1950 interview that “one never knows, of course, what goes on in one’s subconsciousness”—–also suggests that some works of art ultimately know and say more than their makers do. Like one of the characters in his masterpiece, Dreyer was trapped in his own personal obsessions, yet he remained so faithful to his art that he may have wound up saying more about his own times than most direct commentators. For Day of Wrath, whatever it lacks in close or sustained correspondences between 17th century witches and 20th century victims of totalitarianism, may still be the most profound depiction that we have on film of what it means and feels like to live inside a totalitarian society. That is to say, it has an emotional authenticity even when the historical analogies don’t match up—–a defense that some critics would make of The Crucible as well. Let me hypothesize another possible reading of Day of Wrath, which could be regarded as another way of proposing a legitimate allegorical reading. If a direct political allegory would have entailed a distortion of the historical truth as well as a serious risk for the filmmakers, there’s another conscious or unconscious route that might have been taken by Dreyer and the other creative participants on the film that is worth considering. In most of the more honest depictions of totalitarian societies that have been made, consciously or unconsciously, by people living inside them, one can find a fairly systematic displacement of the theme of political enslavement and persecution to the theme of sexual enslavement and persecution. Two of the clearest examples of this trend that come to mind are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943)—made the same year as Day of Wrath, during the German occupation of France— and Juan Antonio Bardem’s Calle Mayor (Main Street, 1956), made by a Communist filmmaker working under considerable difficulty in Franco Spain. Bardem, in fact, was even arrested in the middle of his shooting, until his lead actress, Betsy Blair—-herself a Communist and a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist—–refused to resume work with any other director, even after Bardem gave her permission to do so, and thereby exerted enough economic pressure to force the Franco government to release him. The plot of Calle Mayor, concerning bored men in a provincial Spanish town who dream up an ugly practical joke of courting and proposing to a spinster (Blair) and then rudely dumping her—–an exceptionally cruel story that anticipates that of Neil LaBute’s 1997 film In the Company of Men, with its own anti-capitalist agenda—–implicitly becomes a pointed commentary of the ugliness of human behavior under totalitarianism. Much the same could be said about the plot and characters of Le Corbeau, and similar examples of political oppression being obliquely reflected in sexual terms can surely be found elsewhere, in everything from the treatment of homosexuality in the posthumously released second part of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1958) to the theme of feudal sexual enslavement in Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou (1990) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991). In the Clouzot and Bardem films, where the settings are contemporary, the absence of any political theme apart from male-female relations makes this displacement especially evident. In the two Zhang Yimou films, one could argue that sexual persecution isn’t so much a displacement of the political theme as the principal aspect of it that’s being addressed—–the sexual aspect of feudalism in contemporary China. Day of Wrath could also be considered more simply as a film that addresses the dynamics of sexual behavior in a totalitarian society. In this respect, it shares some traits with the nonallegorical treatments of an illegal abortion in Romania during the 1980s in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) and some details of everyday totalitarian life in postrevolutionary Tehran in Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated Persepolis (2007)—with the key difference that Dreyer is viewing oppression in the remote past rather than the recent past. These latter examples don’t involve any displacement of emphasis or any strategy for skirting censorship, but they nevertheless seem relevant in a more general way—by showing, respectively, how the anti-abortion laws of Romania in the 80s permitted an authoritarian and totalitarian exploitation of women by men, and how a practical joke of the heroine as a teenager—claiming to a police officer that an innocent boy looked at her salaciously, which led to his arrest—–shows how easily and thoughtlessly anyone can drift into totalitarian behavior, especially when prudish sexual mores are involved. In conclusion, I’ve had far too little to say about film’s remarkable visual style so far apart from its innovative camera movements. It’s one that creates a universe with particular spatial and rhythmic laws of its own, relating to claustrophobic interiors and exteriors where the no less threatening forces of nature often seem to overtake the social constraints. There are the evocations of Rembrandt found in some of the interiors—which Dreyer himself claimed partially stemmed from the fact that the 1623 setting was contemporary with Rembrandt. One should also mention Dreyer’s insistence that none of the actors wear make-up—an injunction which Lisbeth Movin later admitted she surreptitiously defied, by applying just a dab of rouge when Dreyer wasn’t looking—–and his effective use of authentic period furniture. Above all, one should stress the uncanny, otherworldly way that Movin’s Anne is often lit, with particular attention given to the passion burning in her eyes—–which ultimately helps to make her final speech, addressed to the corpse of Absalon, carry the cumulative tragic weight and force of the entire drama, concluding, ”I killed you with the Evil One’s help, and with the Evil One’s help I have lured your son into my power. Now you know, now you know. I see through my tears, but no one comes to wipe them away.”
Postscript: An email (2/11/18):