by Jay Seaver
There were no credits on the print of "Day of Wrath" that screened at the Brattle, and if that's the way it originally played in 1943, well, that makes a certain amount of sense. If you were a European filmmaker who had made a film about the evils of intolerance and persecution, it's probably a good idea to keep a low profile.Day of Wrath opens with an old woman being hunted for witchcraft. She has, of course, been doing nothing more dangerous than dispensing some herbal remedies, but it's not a tolerant time and many people in this small village are willing to use the church as a way to lash at out those who have angered them. Presiding over what passes for a trial is the Reverend Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose). Pedersson has a young second wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), who is attractive and good-natured; she aided the old woman, hiding her in Pedersson's basement. Pedersson also has a harpy of a mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who doesn't much like Anne, and a good looking son, Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye), just back from sea and meeting a stepmother several years his junior for the first time. I suppose there are movies where this sort of family dynamic does not lead to trouble, but Day of Wrath isn't one of them.
"Not all it could be, but, hey, there was a war on."
The comparisons to the Nazis are simple enough to make, though probably not blatant enough to cause real trouble when the war was on: The community targets people with a different faith, playing on old prejudices. Friends and neighbors inform on each other; fear keeps people in line. The leaders whip the people into a furor, leading to a "day of wrath" to purge the village of unwelcome elements. Sure, they're talking about the church rather than a government, and the roots of the conflict are clearly more personal than political, but the ultimate message is the same: Witch hunts aren't really about finding witches, but about eliminating enemies, witch or no.
I imagine there wasn't a lot of money to make this film (after all, there was a war on), and it sometimes shows. The sets are small, dark and cramped, and in a movie about a community turning on itself, there seldom seem to be enough people around to amount to a really threatening lynch mob. None of these things are really crippling by themselves; the dim candlelight is period authenticity as well as a cost-saving measure, and it's easier to make a small space feel crowded. The static sets that don't really seem to add up to a whole environment because we don't see them connected betray the work's origins as a stage play.
The actors, too, seem to come from the stage, or at least are instructed by writer/director/producer Carl Theodor Dreyer to give those types of performances. Everyone remains very stationary, waiting their turn to give their lines rather than overlapping dialogue. Ms. Neiiendam gets the most mileage out of her role; sure, the bitter old woman who doesn't approve of her attractive daughter-in-law is something of a stock role, but she does nicely with it. Lisbeth Movin is appealing as Anne, managing to exhibit poor judgment without ever making us disdain her. One gets the impression that her life has been shaped by her beauty and sex appeal, but she doesn't really understand it; rather, she just goes where it takes her. Roose and Rye are fine as the father and son, blank enough in their passivity when they accuse Anne of being a witch who has ensorceled them, the audience isn't inclined to believe them, but may give them enough benefit of the doubt to think that they believe it, even if coming to this conclusion is convenient in terms of allowing them to save their own skin.
Dreyer's work is unpretentious, for the most part; the style and setting are stark, but nothing ever feels like it's outside the realm of ordinary people. There's no philosophizing merely for the sake of looking intelligent. That's almost a negative, because this film is trying to tell a story using the rhythms often used in film for philosophical reflection; it comes off as a little unnatural, like an amateur production. The end also threw me a bit, until I recognized that being persecuted didn't make Anne any more defiant or less a product of her environment than her neighbors; the same "evidence" and superstition that worked on them would affect her, too.But that scene did leave me initially dissatisfied, which is not a great way to come out of a theater. It's better than my initial impression, but that's got to count for something.
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originally posted: 02/10/06 12:05:38