Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: 'Day of Wrath'

Day of Wrath (1943) is an odd duck; powerful for sure, but eliciting ambivalence because of its ideological haziness. Indeed, director Carl Theodor Dreyer was a conservative, which becomes apparent by the film’s conclusion. Yet, Dreyer was also a staunch opponent of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, a matter alluded to in this film, and despite the film’s seemingly Christian conclusion, the director was not religious. How all this information is digested is up to the viewer.

Initially, sympathy lies with Anne (Lisbeth Movin), the pretty young wife of Absalon, a creepy old pastor, who essentially purchased Anne to spare her mother from being burned as a witch. When Martin, Absalon’s attractive son from a previous marriage, arrives, the extramarital writing is on the wall. Anne’s disgust with Absalon reaches a head when she tells him that she has wished his death hundreds of times, and if we are to believe her mother really was of the witchly persuasion, the events that follow take on a supernatural air.

Once Anne begins to betray Absalon and execute some well-deserved vengeance against the crusty bastard, Dreyer shifts empathy to the old coot. Absalon displays genuine remorse for what he did to Anne’s mother, and Anne is constantly shot in deep shadow, grinning nefariously, peering through beady eyes. The film’s denouement finds her confessing to playing footsy with Satan and Dreyer laying some pretty heavy-handed martyr symbolism on Absalon’s doorstep. The idea that a “witch hunter” responsible for however many women’s deaths is some kind of Christ figure is pretty hard to stomach.

Lisbeth Movin looking shady.
At the same time, Dreyer seems to draw a correlation between Absalon’s witch hunting and the Nazi’s search for Jews, particularly in a scene in which Anne secrets a fellow accused-witch in her attic. So are we supposed to side with Anne after all? I’m all for ambiguity, but Dreyer’s wooly treatment of this particular material is disconcerting, and a potentially powerful pro-resistance allegory falls flaccid. Granted, the film would have been quashed by the Nazis had that allegory been made more explicit, assuming Dreyer even intended such an allegory (some sources claim he always denied he was making a political point of any kind with Day of Wrath). In any event, there is no justification for the film’s victim-blaming conclusion, and the final image of a crucifix might require some serious suppression of the gag reflexes.

All this being said, Day of Wrath is a beautifully shot film full of the eerie atmosphere and expressionist shadow design that was Dreyer’s forte. Lisbeth Movin is fabulous as Anne, flawlessly sliding from meek innocence to heroic selflessness to seductiveness to righteous anger to remorse without sacrificing consistency. The sound design is also exceptional; particularly on the windy night Anne extracts her revenge. Too bad that all this aesthetic splendor might support an ugly defense of witch hunts.
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