Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Day of Wrath (1943)

Danish director Charles Theodor Dreyer returns to motion pictures after an eleven year hiatus to produce one of Denmark’s finest features in this dark, melancholy film about witchcraft and theocracy. It is a slow moving picture, heavy in drama with a deliberate message about society, religion, and corruptibility. For many the picture’s pace and delivery of subject matter would make for a dreary motion picture, but on the whole its compelling statement and beautifully artistic composition would make it one of the most heralded films in Denmark’s history.

Day of Wrath is a Danish drama about the new young wife of an elder village pastor as she becomes tied up in the trail of a woman accused of witchcraft. Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose), the village pastor in charge of the recent string of witchcraft trials come to yet another sentencing of an old woman, Marte (Anna Svierkier), when he is confronted by a painful truth. In the past he had once spared another woman with the hopes of marrying her daughter, his second, more youthful and innocent wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin). Anne learns of this information from the condemned Marte and begins to see the hypocrisy and corruption in her husband realizing she is not in love with him, even stating she hates him, while at the same time she begins an affair with Absalon’s grown son of Anne’s age. Due to the untimely death of Absalon after some harsh words from Anne, Anne herself is denounced as a witch, accepting her fate after feeling she had lost everything, her husband, her lover, and her good name.

With the theme of this picture being paranoia and exclusion, Day of Wrath has a creative way of executing its message with its tale of accusations and witches, however is does suffer from its long, deliberate pace. Assembled with beautiful black and white cinematography and lengthy shots, one can easily tell Charles Theodor Dreyer put great care put into the production. The film could have perhaps been a product of its time with what was taking place in Europe, and depending on how one puts this picture into context will allow the picture to be admired or found tiresome.

In 1943 Denmark was under Nazi control and Europe was in a far different place than it was when Dreyer last directed a feature film. For years Dreyer was wishing to produce and adaptation of a play entitled “Anne Pedersdotter” and it was not until many other failed film projects during the 1930s and early 1940s that he finally got around to the production.

Dreyer’s style had always tended to be rather slow and deliberate, but that tended to be a choice he made even more prevalent in this production. In watching many of his shots great care is seen in the lighting and composition. Very little movement is made with the camera, but with the few moments it does it is absolutely perfect and beautiful even in this dull, stark world created for the picture. He tended to plan out long shots with great exposition and composed in a way that can almost be compared to a gothic painting.

Released in Denmark in November of 1943 most critics and audiences found the feature to be entirely too slow paced for most tastes. Dreyer would defend that his film was not a slow story, but rather the acting pace was slowed to add to the tension and drama of the story. As the picture was released during World War II in a Nazi occupied country many would believe Dreyer was making a statement about the Nazis and their treatment of the Jews paralleling the church and the witch hunts in the picture. Dreyer would deny claim that the picture was about the German ruling party, but he would heed the advice from some of his friends soon after the release of the film for the possible anti-Nazi statement as he sought refuge in Sweden thereafter through the remainder of the war.

After the war the picture found a wider release international. Many viewers remained within the similar thought of the picture being entirely slow of pace with little exposition. However, with the war, Nazis, and Hitler in the past, audiences as a whole found an entirely new perspective on the film, further tying its meaning to the historical treatment of Jews by the Nazis. Steadfast in his beliefs Dreyer continued to deny this claim, but the picture found its way into more cinematic conversations because of this perspective. Some critics found the Day of Wrath one of the best movies ever made, but they were overwhelmed by the general negativity of the film’s pace.

Looking back Day of Wrath by many is considered one of the finest films to ever be produced in Denmark. Some believe that American playwright Arthur Miller was inspired by this feature in writing his famed play “The Crucible” which was about the Salem witch trials. From a contemporary point of view Day of Wrath is a difficult watch for the casual film fan, but for classic film historians the picture remains a piece of cinematic art in black and white, complete with dramatic writing and message to share.

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