Anne lives a drab life with her gentle but overly serious, much older pastor husband, and her husbands stern, cruel mother. On the day when Absalom’s son from a previous marriage, Martin, is to arrive, a witch hunt causes kindly Herlofs Marte to ask Anne for sanctuary. Anne hides the old woman in the rectory, though Herlofs is subsequently caught and tortured. She attempts to win her freedom by threatening to reveal how Absalom let Anne’s mother free though she too was accused of witchcraft and had confessed. It does her little good, and she is burnt, though it does have an effect: Absalom spends much of his time dwelling on his past action. Anne finds comfort in Martin, and the two quickly are drawn into a noticeably un-graphic affair. Everyone is pretty much doomed from the opening credits.
Day of Wrath is a slow and solemn look at repression in society and the failings of humans. It isn’t shocking, nor is it likely to get anyone angry or energized to fight for change. It displays the worst acts of our species not as things of true horror, but simply as depressing. To summarize the theme cavalierly: People suck and there’s nothing you can do about it. Yeah, don’t look here for hope.
God is front and center in 1620s Denmark and is at the heart of most everyone’s crimes. The elders torture and murder the innocent without the slightest feeling of shame. Hey, since God is on their side, why shouldn’t they be proud of their barbaric behavior?
But director Carl Theodor Dreyer isn’t condemning religion. It’s hard to say he’s condemning anything. He’s shining a light on the sad reality of that time, and of all times. People cause pain and oppress each other because they do. They use religion as an excuse, but without it there would be something else. I find this overly simplistic and it lets Christianity off the hook for the witch trials, but Dryer was no atheist. A fatalist, yes, so we never see a shining loving God running about. There’s no sign of any happiness brought by either the deity or by faith.
While the movie is all doom and gloom, it isn’t a painful-but-important viewing experience like The Magdalene Sisters. It is too emotionally distancing for that. Nor does it say anything that dozens of inquisition-themed films haven’t covered with more immediacy. None of the characters are believable as complete human beings. That is not necessarily a problem by itself as Dreyer creates a high contrast, beautifully stylized look for the film that takes us far away from reality, but then something else must pull us in. Nothing does. Day of Wrath may engage your intellect (in which case it would be handy if it had more to say), but never your emotions. It is a formal film based on a formal play. The only affecting moment comes when the children sing their hymn to God’s majesty as Herlofs is burned alive.
The film’s greatest success is in presenting the different ways that humans fail to be worthwhile. The elders are self-righteous. Absalom is a distracted hypocrite, which makes him more likable than most. The villagers are thoughtless, willing to follow whatever they are told. Absalom’s mother is jealous and domineering without an ounce of humor or empathy. Martin is weak. Anne is foolish, lacking any form of judgment. Even Herlofs Marte, the only individual who actually helps people (as opposed to Absalom and the elders, who claim to help) is dim and short sighted, unable to see what should have been obvious. This, says Dreyer, is a portrait of mankind; Is it any wonder that torture and the destruction of whatever spirit may exist is the norm?
Many critics claim Day of Wrath is about Nazi Germany. After all, Dreyer made the film in 1943 in occupied Denmark, so it is hard to imagine that he could look at repression and ignore what was going on around him. But Dreyer claims that’s exactly what he did, and it is difficult to find anything in the movie that can be mapped directly to then current politics. The desolation felt by a conquered people might be in the movie, but little else. Stranger, some reviewers want to add a layer of evil by asserting that Herlofs Marte, Anne’s mother, and Anne herself were real witches with powers from the Devil. There’s absolutely nothing on screen to back that up, nor does it make much sense when looking at the theme of the picture, but I guess it is a way to fill out a brief review.
Day of Wrath is a good looking, highly artificial film that shows Christians in all their glory. Dreyer may have wanted the blame for history’s evils to rest on man’s corrupt soul, but his finished product leaves plenty of it with religion.