Burning Desire

Darrell Hartman on Dreyer's Day of Wrath

Carl Theodor Dreyer, Day of Wrath, 1943, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 97 minutes.

GIVEN ALL THE EXECUTION by burning in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), it seems only natural to open a discussion of the film by asking what’s at stake. It’s not just witches. The Danish director’s 1943 tale of forbidden love during Europe’s seventeenth-century inquisition puts many things into the, er, crucible: the soul’s fate, the consequences of extreme repression, even narrative coherence. Dreyer unifies them so masterfully in pursuit of higher truth that Day of Wrath is often classified as his best work.

A reclusive type and a solitary figure in film history—no lofty predecessors to speak of, and no followers—Dreyer was not known for his edge or humor. His films are frequently described as “chaste.” Less angsty than Ingmar Bergman, the other Scandinavian auteur enthroned in cinematic Valhalla, he stubbornly played down the experimental nature of his work, which has roots in both the German Kammerspiel, or chamber drama, and the parlor magic of Vermeer. Critics have, with some justification, found nothing especially groundbreaking about the subjects of Dreyer’s fawning close-ups, wide-eyed martyrs seeking God. But his stylistically daring 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is undeniably a high point of the international avant-garde. No other movie shows such devotion to the expressive powers of the human face—“that landscape one can never be tired of exploring,” as Dreyer called it.

He drew the camera back a bit for Day of Wrath, but it is still a very unconventional film. Based on a Norwegian play Dreyer had seen performed in Copenhagen three decades earlier, it is the story of Anne, the unhappy second wife of a pastor, Absalon, who is many years her senior. When Anne and the pastor’s son, Martin, fall in love, Absalon’s mother suspects her of witchcraft. Anne uses her sorcery to kill Absalon, whose mother then denounces her. Martin, horrified by the weight of their sin, refuses to defend Anne, and she is sentenced to death by the church.

Although the religious extremists, as we would dub them today, seem to win out in the exquisitely moving finale, Dreyer’s film benefits from a highly unorthodox formal approach. David Bordwell has noted how Dreyer constructs a “circular” mise-en-scène through montage and camera movement—tracking one way, panning the other—that flout Hollywood’s code of carefully coordinated match-on-action cuts and impenetrable “fourth wall.” Space is revealed gradually, in the round. The viewer’s sense of it—in particular the rectory living room, where most of the drama unfolds—is not immediately clear, and Day of Wrath is not about cutting to the chase. Dreyer, who believed that “tension grows out of calm,” may have in fact shot and edited his films this way in order to slow them down.

It’s also safe to presume he wanted to loosen the film’s link to the natural world. The austere, somewhat theatrical set design also helps keep Day of Wrath from getting bogged down in the material. Dreyer’s nontraditional lighting schemes make the walls seem to glow, and the film’s tonal juxtapositions—a forest-idyll scene includes wood for a witch’s pyre; children sing as she burns at the stake—have an otherworldly quality. “Abstraction allows the director to get outside the fence with which naturalism has surrounded his medium,” Dreyer once claimed. You could say that Day of Wrath is tailor-made for transcendence.

The fact that Anne’s struggle does not, as in the Italian Neorealist cinema that emerged around the same time, take place against a battered backdrop—or against any sort of tangible backdrop, really—makes the intrusion of worldly suffering all the more startling. Early scenes in which an old woman is stripped and tortured by church officials, then sent plunging into the flames, haunt the rest of the film. Somewhat miraculously, Day of Wrath was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. With it, Dreyer very aptly revived the issue of social and spiritual repression. But just as the film floats somewhere between the ground and the ether, it also belongs to no one time in particular.

A newly struck print of Carl Theodor Dreyer's Day of Wrath screens at the IFC Center in New York from August 29 to September 4. For more information, click here.