Like the esteemed film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, I discovered Day of Wrath in my teens. One of the local PBS stations was showing Carl Theodor Dreyer's film about 17th century Danish witch trials (adapted from Anne Pedersdotter by Norwegian playwright Han Wiers Jenssen) late at night. I stumbled across the film already in progress as elderly Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) was being stripped and tortured in order to force a confession: Was she or was she not in league with Satan? Could she name other servants of evil? An hour or so later, I was still riveted to my seat, watching another, younger woman accused of witchcraft stare out at nothing as she contemplated the tortures awaiting her and the image dissolved to a blunt final condemnation written on a scroll. I was all messed up. What kind of inhuman order could put a harmless old woman and a vivacious young one on such a senseless conveyor belt to doom? Shortly thereafter I saw Schindler's List, and these two very different films about persecution fused in my mind.
Watching Day of Wrath for the second time at age 35 (in a crisp new digitally restored print at IFC Center), I now see much more E.T. than Schindler's List: There are no villains, no evil—just weak and fearful individuals either hiding from or within a system that provides the cruel certainty and definition of wrathful law pretending to justice. Everyone in Day of Wrath is only trying to be as human and honorable as he/she can be within the limits of a paranoiac theocracy. What appeared to my 19-year-old eyes to be a dour, cold-eyed vision of corrupt power destroying innocents in the name of God now appears as delicate and wise about human drives as that scene in E.T. where Elliot, so used to having no one to really talk to or play with, shows off his toys to the extra-terrestrial and prattles on like no tomorrow. As in the scene of the old woman's torture, the toy reverie is lit from above and behind. The torture episode doesn't sport the aggressive shafts of backlight in E.T., but in both cases the light approaches from somewhere north of God; bounces back onto the subjects timidly, empathetically—a light that understands. The shadow areas are just as wise. This lighting describes not only a torture chamber's grim oppressiveness, but also the torturers' suffering and soldierly purposefulness.
They're all more or less attempting to do the right thing—even the influential pastor Absalon (Thorkild Roose), who remains silent with evidence that could save the woman. Despite his power and rank, his silence is not malevolent. It is cowardly. The corrupt priest fears losing Anne (Lisbeth Movin), his beautiful wife half his age, because he once saved her mother from the witch trials. He never revealed that his young bride's mother, in fact, practiced what their society considers witchcraft. The mother lived out her life and went to her grave with the secret. But given the opportunity to intervene similarly for Herlofs Marte (who also kept mum about the former subterfuge), he remains silent. The remorse is in every line on his face.
In a scene where Herlofs Marte begs Absalon for her life, the light strikes her peasant garb but falls away somewhere below her face. This "negative fill" conveys her desperation better than any jump cut, snap zoom, music cue, or handheld camera spasm contemporary filmmakers use to mask their lack of film sense. After Marte's trial, torture, and ritual burning at the stake, the film's balance deals with the folks who betrayed her and their attempts to co-exist despite crisscrossing fear and resentments that refuse to rest. Again, at 19, I couldn't see the moments of grace for all the intimations of doom. If Pauline Kael called Day of Wrath a fusion of Hawthorne and Kafka, I guess my fight-the-power mentality was stuck on the Kafka. Now it's impossible to miss the love that flows between Absalon, his mother (Sigrid Neiiendam's bulldog mug resembling a vicious Laurence Tierney one moment, radiating motherly concern the next), and his returning adult son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye); and (scandalously) between Anne and Martin. Herlofs Marte cursed Absalon and Anne just before her death on the pyre, and now their impossible domestic situation comes to resemble the devil's handiwork.
When Anne openly seduces Martin (with the intense gaze and fluid gestures a porn starlet could learn from) she's exercising a natural female freedom long denied, ever since she was forced to be Absalon's child bride. She is breaking free. But in an atmosphere where urges and frustrations condense into mists the shape of gods and monsters, she starts to look exactly like her mother's daughter—a witch.
Dreyer's camera tracks interior and exterior spaces to convey his characters' sensitivity to this nightmarish climate as well as what I take to be his own sense of the divine. In billowing fabrics and whispering winds, God or Satan or the dead menace the living, yet the way the light falls on suffering and ecstatic faces suggests a higher, more clement power. But far more chilling than this spooky expressionism are the simple pans down scrolls invoking God's word and the state's judgments. It's as if Dreyer was at war with words, answering their punishing certainties and limitations with the humanism of light and shadow delicately applied. Dreyer invites you to find in his flesh and blood friezes something a lot closer to God than those murderous texts. It's the only religion I ever wanted to join: the church of cinema.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.