The following film is certified PG. It contains witch burning and mild language.
Following this (frankly superb) warning, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day Of Wrath opens with a thundering, ominous hymn and the shadow of a giant crucifix displayed across the screen. The setting is rural Denmark, 1623. Then we hear an angry mob marching on a farmhouse where a woman has to plot her escape. The religious atmosphere of the film is in no doubt. Witch hunting is evidently a regular hobby for most townsfolk.
Much of this sounds like a Danish version of The Crucible, but made ten years in advance. Could there be political allegories for German oppression of the local, innocent population. Trade 1950s McCarthyism for 1940s Nazi-occupation of Denmark and could you have a lawsuit on your hands?
Not really. It is true that the setting is remarkably similar. The small town atmosphere, the black and white puritanical dress, and being based on ‘real’ witch-y events are strongly reminiscent of the play. But instead of political parables, the majority of the film delves into typical Dreyer-ian ideas of faith and religion.
After the raucous and gripping opening, Day Of Wrath quickly slows into a far more recognisably Dreyer style. The tempo eases and it becomes clear that the focus of Day Of Wrath is instead a Bergman-esque, bleak family drama, albeit one with the oh-so-common under-current of ‘is my wife a witch?’
Perhaps Day Of Wrath suffers slightly because it does not deliver on the expectation of political parable. Dreyer is more interested whether or not they are witches, rather than their persecution. His later masterpiece ‘Ordet’ (1955) weighed up similar issues of the supernatural. There, doubting characters are faced with evidence of a religious miracle. Coming personally from the same perspective of doubt, Ordet is remarkable as it makes you consider your own reaction in the face of events that directly counteract your worldview. In contrast, it is far harder to situate yourself in a reality where witches are taken to be real.
It is at times a struggle, but Dreyer does set up a nice aura of ambiguity and uncertainty. For example, we never see any witch-iness on screen, but when the ‘witches’ wish bad things, they tend to happen. But the knowledge that this is based on real events, and that in the real world witches do not exist, never quite escapes the back of the mind.
The film is excellent at not showing key incidents. We do not see a ‘witch’ hiding in the attic being caught. Instead Dreyer shows the reactions of the characters downstairs, and we only hear her off-screen screams. Similarly, when another ‘witch’ is being tortured on the rack, the camera focuses on the numerous emotionally-cold witnesses, with yet more off-screen screams. By not showing them, Dreyer excellently heightens both the tension and the pain.
Day Of Wrath was Dreyer’s first film for eleven years. He had previously directed ‘Vampyr’ (1932) and notably before that ‘The Passion Of Joan Of Arc’ (1928), a film where he had created his own cinematic language of harsh close-ups and raw human emotion. Again, it is clear that religion, and belief in the face of evidence, are very important themes for Dreyer.
If this review has appeared in anyway damning on Day Of Wrath, it shouldn’t do. The atmosphere and setting is superb, as is the cinematography. Perhaps I just have a twisted side and was hoping for more persecution of innocents.