FB100: #99 – Day of Wrath

This post is part of a project to watch the Film Bloggers’ 100 Favorite Non-English Films. See my progress here.

Day of Wrath cap

Day of Wrath
Denmark 1943; dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer
starring: Lisbeth Movin, Thorkild Roose, Preben Lerdorff Rye
screened: 12/18/07, VHS

Previous Viewing Experience: Never seen it.

Knowledge Before Viewing: Not too much, just that it’s a Dreyer film. I haven’t actually seen any Dreyer films, unless you count the few minutes of The Passion of Joan of Arc that Godard includes in Vivre sa vie. There’s some religious aspect to it, I think–inquisition or persecution or something.

Brief Synopsis: Anna, a young seventeenth-century woman married to a much older pastor charged with rooting out and interrogating witches, finds it difficult to escape being accused as a witch herself when she falls in love with her husband’s son.

Initial Viewing Response: I’m not sure what to write about this one, largely because I’m sort of ambivalent about it. The cinematography is pretty (and would have been prettier with a better print, I’m betting, if better prints exist any more), and the painterly framing is very evocative. Dreyer gets a good performance from Lisbeth Movin, especially, though her shift from sweet and innocent girl to someone you’d almost believe is a witch is a bit more abrupt than I would’ve liked. Yet you never really lose sympathy for her, even though she does rather blatantly cheat on her husband with his son–the accusation of witchcraft in the seventeenth century was basically a self-fulfilling prophecy, as proven by the “trial” and “confession” of an old woman near the beginning of the film (the woman curses the pastor and his family as she dies, which also complicates the motivations in the rest of the film). Apparently, the pastor married Anna when she was little more than a child without really getting her input on the arrangement (a plot point that probably would have been better revealed earlier than it was, by the way), and his mother hates her and refuses to give her any say in the household, so she’s never had the opportunity to make any decisions on her own. Not that I’m saying starting an affair with her husband’s grown son Martin was a good decision, but still. It’s a bit of a step from that to her being a witch–seemingly the default accusation for any woman who doesn’t behave precisely as the men around her want and expect.

Given that Dreyer made this film in 1943 in Denmark, I was expecting the Inquisition to be more overtly Nazi-like. They sort of were at the beginning, when trying to force the old woman to name names and take other “witches” down with her, but as the story shifted more and more over to Anna, I didn’t see it as much. Still, I think there was enough similarity to get Dreyer in big trouble, forcing him to leave the country.

Reflective Response: A week later now; I’m still ambivalent. The fact that the old woman who was burned at the stake at the beginning cursed the pastor and Anna bothers me. It almost suggests that the old woman was a witch, and though that doesn’t make the torturous interrogation techniques she was subjected to any less horrific, her vindictive attitude does waver my sympathy for her a little bit. Similarly, Anna is very sweet and demure at the beginning and becomes almost dislikable near the end. (The very end, when she realizes that there’s really nothing she can do to avoid accusation, regains any sympathy she may have lost.) It’s tempting to apply feminist criticism to the film, which would read Anna as oppressed at the beginning, subjugated into passivity by a patriarchal system; as she moves into self-affirmation and asserts her own will, she naturally appears less “sweet,” because she’s rebelling against the norms that value “sweet” women and attempting to become a strong woman instead, a move which results in an accusation of witchcraft by the patriarchal establishment. That reading makes a lot of sense, though trying to work the film’s religious background into a feminist reading makes my brain hurt.

I often judge a film’s greatness based on how well it sticks with me–how much I can’t stop thinking about it after I’ve watched it. I haven’t really thought about Day of Wrath at all since I watched it (until I sat down to write this). The only scenes that have really stayed with me are the interrogation scene of the old woman and Anna’s realization that she’s trapped by her mother-in-law’s accusation. The first is understated and yet horrible, while the second is tremendously well-played, showing up in minute shifts in the actress’s expression. Oh, wait, I forgot. One of the most beautiful and virtuosic shots follows Anna as she crosses a large, columned room to overhear the judgment on the old woman. It combines the high-contrast cinematography that Dreyer inherited from German Expressionism (and would soon be a key feature of film noir) and the deep focus photography from contemporary films like Citizen Kane.