Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Written by: Carl Th. Dreyer, based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssens
Starring: Lisbeth Movin, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Thorkild Roose
Black & White, 97 minutes, Danish
"You asked if I ever wished you were dead. I have wished it hundreds of times."
These are the defining words of Carl Th. Dreyer's 1943 masterpiece Day of Wrath, a film of dark provocations that, like all of Dreyer's work, will haunt you the rest of your days. The story, set in 17th Century Denmark, concerns a very small town in which an elderly woman has been accused of witchcraft. The woman passionately denies the claim, and after hours of torture, she is burned at the stake. Before she dies, she curses her accusers, Reverend Absalon(Thorkild Roose) in particular, and tells them that they will all die for what they have done to her. The Reverend pays no mind to these words, he knows the ways in which people react to being burned alive, but it's what he doesn't know that just might bring the old lady's prophecy to pass. What he doesn't know is that his very young and newly acquired wife (Lisbeth Movin), is having an affair with his son (Preben Lerdorff) from a previous marriage. This affair will have ramifications that no one, except the recently departed old woman, could have predicted.
Carl Dreyer is, quite simply, one of the four or five greatest filmmakers to ever set foot on this planet. The reason for this, besides his masterful technical skill, was that he was utterly and completely uncompromising. During his sixty years as a filmmaker he made only fourteen films, and only five of them were made in sound. In my own personal opinion, I find Dreyer to be responsible for the greatest silent film of all time, 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc (Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. is a close second), one of the strangest and most uniquely atmospheric horror films I've ever seen, 1931's Vampyr, and what just has to be the definitive film ever to deal with the Christian faith, 1955's Ordet. Now, if you can get through these heaping piles of praise, let me say that Day of Wrath is the weakest Dreyer film that I've yet to watch. That being said, and Dreyer being who he is, it's still more powerful than most of the movies you'll ever be likely to come across in your lifetime.
The power in the film lies in the performances. Unlike any typical Hollywood production, Day of Wrath contains nothing resembling "acting." Dreyer was known for doing long takes, multiple times. He wanted to emotionally drain his performers until they were no longer acting, and Wrath follows in this tradition. The acting here is extremely naturalistic, as if these people were truly living out these situations, and Dreyer captures the burning intensity in each and every pair of eyes that comes in front of his camera. This intensity carries over to the audience, raising the level of tension to alarming heights. We aren't simply watching a movie here, we're seeing a filmed record of a terrifying time period in which seemingly no one was safe from persecution, and it all plays out on the faces of the performers. All of the stars of Hollywood out there making $20 million a movie could really learn a thing or two from watching acting like this. This is what acting should be.
There are no glaring flaws here. All of Dreyer's work is filled with exceptional photography, and Day of Wrath is no exception. Karl Andersson is the cinematographer here, and he fills the each frame with layers of shadow, letting only the smallest amount of light, and hope, shine through. Erik Aaes' art direction is spare, (the interior of a house, a torture chamber, the strictest confines of a church), yet entirely believable. The problem I have with the film is not the slow, deliberate pace that's common throughout all of Dreyer's work, but in the ending. Missing is the cathartic, emotional climax that made Joan of Arc and Ordet so special. The ending in Wrath is satisfying, but it doesn't tear at your soul in the trademark Dreyer way, and it is this reason only that the film strays from masterpiece status.
My one complaint aside, this film is still essential. Dreyer's influence can be found in many great filmmakers, but it is in Wrath that I see the foundations for some of Ingmar Bergman's greatest works. The dealings with the Reverend reminded me of Gunnar Bjornstrand's struggles in 1963's Winter Light, and the burning of the old woman had to lend some inspiration to the death of the child witch in 1957's The Seventh Seal, and like those two films, Wrath defies easy convention. It is a demanding, powerful, and thought provoking piece of work. Give in and let the film work you over. You will not regret it.