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on 27 April 2017
Made by fear and ignorance, witches, ghosts, devils and phantoms populate the demon-haunted world. Witchcraft, sorcery and voodoo are the results, superstitions that satisfy the human need for understanding among some. Never mind that this understanding is flawed and worthless. It brings closure anyway.

Dreyer’s film is a complex study of the intricacies of irrationality. The people in it who come to conclusions and make moral judgements (clergymen and members of the judiciary) do it calmly and soberly. They are not vindictive, or they do not see themselves this way. They act prudently, justly, confidently, upholding the tenets of the laws, religious and secular. The problem of evil in the world is real and must have some explanation. The Devil is responsible for it, but he doesn’t act alone. He has emissaries. Many of these are witches, evil female spirits whose purpose on Earth is to corrupt, leading others to hellfire.


But the problem of madness is that the mad cannot see themselves as mad. They’re caught up in a tautology, a circularity of thought that doesn’t allow them to escape, to step outside to see the problem objectively, clearly. The situation is untenable. They have become paradoxes, enigmas unto themselves.

Women are the witches. When in doubt, blame the women. They are poor and powerless, made so by men. They may protest, but usually in vain. Who are their allies? Who can trust and support them amid so much widespread fear? Thus they face the accusations of guilt put to them largely alone.

Witch burnings raged in Denmark in the early 17th century. Dreyer’s drama takes place in 1623, based on historical records of trials from the period. He filmed it in 1943, Denmark then occupied by the Nazis, the country held hostage to totalitarian rule. Some critics see the film as veiled commentary on the sufferings of Denmark at this time. A valid interpretation. But the greater one is commentary on intolerance and injustice in general, as the Nazis had no monopoly over these human failings. Dreyer’s vision was wider. The problem wasn’t confined to 1943, or even to 1623. In the face of such irrationalities, the problem is eternal. This is what he wanted to say.

Anne is young, beautiful, pure. Or, it should be said, purity becomes her. She looks virginal, innocent, childlike in her chaste simplicity. She is perhaps 21. Her husband, the cleric Absalon, is 50 or more. Why this strange arrangement? Because Absalon took pity on her, protecting her when her mother died while Anne was still a child. Absalon, a widower, raised her and has now taken her as his (second) wife, though the marriage is platonic, unconsummated.

Anne is devout and dutiful, loyal and obedient. She serves her husband well, as all wives are expected to do. She is spotless, blameless. Or so it seems, tensions and conflicts obscured beneath the surface.

The problem is threefold. First, Absalon’s widowed mother still lives. She is Merete, an old, meddlesome, possessive crone. Abasalon, her only child, is thus a mama’s boy who can do no wrong. Second, Anne is young, nubile, unfulfilled. She serves and does well for her husband, but she has other needs too, womanly ones that need satisfying. Mild-mannered and essentially celibate, Absalon cannot or will not satisfy them. Third, Martin comes home. He is Absalon’s son, perhaps 26 years old. Martin knows from letters that his father has remarried but has never met Anne. That is, till now.

Dreyer charges their first meeting with subtle eroticism, first glances telling all. They are surprised and happy, caught in a mutual gaze of attraction and admiration. There is no doubt, either for them or us, where this will lead. Absalon guilelessly tells his son to kiss his new step-mother. Martin obeys, placing without hesitation a small kiss on her forehead. Danger begins in this simple act, the role of Adam and Eve in the garden reversed, Martin handing the poisoned apple to Anne.

Absalon’s love of Anne is paternal. Martin’s is sexual. Merete’s non-existent. She hates Anne. Anne has everything she does not: youth, beauty, appeal. Merete cannot even be sure of her son’s love for herself anymore. Anne gets in the way of everything. It’s natural she should be hated, so, out of jealousy and spite, Merete does.

Anne’s life was drab and dreary. Or it was before Martin arrived. The days seemed endless, unchanging, monotonous. Where was hope? Had there ever been any for her? Life had no purpose.

But Martin’s arrival changes everything for her. Three things she wants more than anything: intimate love, personal autonomy, motherhood. These she can have with Martin. The only impediment, a severe one, is her husband, Martin’s father. Her dream will be unfulfilled as long as he lives.

If Absalon dies, is Anne responsible? This is the question, a private one that will be made public if it comes to it. As the circumstantial evidence of adultery and incest mounts (stolen moments and kisses either observed or intuited), the stakes for Anne rise too in this dangerous game.

There is history to contend with as well — personal history. An old woman in the village (Herlofs Marte) is accused of being a witch. She has cast evil spells over others who have come to harm. She denies the accusation, and we have no reason to doubt her. Her biggest weakness is her defencelessness. She is old and poor. She has no power and prestige, no connections and influence. Her friends, if she has any, are poor too. Her family is gone; she has outlived it. She is thus expendable, a scapegoat if convenience and expedience are needed.

This need arises. Accusations resound. In fear, she runs and hides, fleeing to the home of Absalon, whom she believes will protect her. Why should she? He’s a clergyman, after all, a man of the harsh and dogmatic book. The Bible is a book of many things, of course. There are passages of beauty, tenderness, love, charity and lyricism in it. But it’s also a vengeful and vindictive book, one written in part by bullies and sadists. Herlofs Marte should be careful because she harbours a secret. Which is? Anne’s mother was a witch. Or so Herlofs Marte claims. Absalon thought so too, but he intervened in her trial to save her, contradicting what he knew or believed in his heart to be true. He double-crossed God. He did it for himself, though he told himself otherwise. He said to himself he was humane, which he was, but he is guilt wracked for having saved Anne’s mother. He did it to save Anne too, to have her for himself. That is the case now, as Anne’s mother has subsequently died (though not as a witch). Absalon used the holy scriptures, God, and Heaven for his earthly purposes, for his own selfish, self-gratifying comfort and desires. He has sinned and knows it in the eyes of God.

Herlofs Marte means to blackmail Absalon. She knows he is a hypocrite who lied to the Inquisition, hiding behind the sanctity of the cloth. He knows it too, and trembles because of it. He’s a dead loss, a hopeless failure, he feels. But he’ll keep up appearances because he must, so much riding on this glittering illusion.

Herlofs Marte is captured, tortured and tried among the learned, bearded, robed men. Absalon is among them. In fact, he is one of the lead inquisitors, bound by duty to ask her questions. Will she repent? No, she will not. There is nothing to repent, she says. She also refuses to give names — the names of other witches who have cast spells over the community, spells that have led to disease, death, foul weather, crop failures and other calamities. There are no names. The trial is a hoax. A grand mistake is being made. But all her pleas and protestations fall on deaf ears.

Instead, she blasphemes. Not only does she practice witchcraft, she lies in the presence of the holy men of God to protect herself. She spits in the face of sanctity. There is only one verdict that can be reached.

When she is stretched to breaking point on the rack she confesses. The words are put into her mouth by her inquisitors. They frame the questions and force her to say “yes” to them. They are educated, articulate men. They write edicts and know their biblical passages. They dress well in stately black robes with white ruffs. Herlofs Marte by contrast is in rags, her top torn from her. We see her grey dishevelled hair, her flabby white bare back, her tears. We hear her moans and cries.

Her agonies are watched calmly by the men, sure of the rightness of their judgement and morality, confident that God will be pleased, that his greater glory will be served. Evil has been cornered, captured, stretched and humiliated. It has been tortured, just as it once tortured Christ, their living Saviour. Evil cannot be countenanced. It must be eradicated.

It is. Herlofs Marte burns in the fire. The witch is gone. Others are sure to follow. But for now one wrong has been righted.

From an upstairs window in the vicarage Anne looks down as Herlofs Marte burns. Or not quite. She looks away as the woman is thrown onto the fire, unable to bear the sight. Anne responds for us, for most of humanity. We don’t wish to see Herlofs Marte burn, either. We would prefer to have the clerics burned, the clergy reduced to smoke and ash. Dreyer isn’t so heavy handed to say so, but that’s his private wish too. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t have made the film.

Despite the gloom and horror, there’s beauty as ever in Dreyer, as it’s what he loved. He could only make beautiful films, and only made a few of them, forced out of cinema for long periods at a time due to lack of funds, doing journalism and other jobs on the side to keep body and soul together.

The film is divided in two, into lightness and darkness.

Nature is flooded with summer light. The trees, meadows and streams are bright with sunshine. Anne and Martin run as children through it, holding hands, laughing, falling into one another’s arms, kissing in the grass and long reeds near the riverbank. All is bliss: their skin, youth, touch, warmth, breath, sunlight.

The rooms of the vicarage are cold and sombre, dark and gloomy. They reek of piety and morality, of joys and passions denied. They are strictly by the austere book, stripped of any sign of opulence and display — sparse, spartan, empty, functional. Indoors Anne is silent and subdued, her head bowed in sewing or needlework. Outdoors she is playful. She laughs and frolics. She shouts with joy and almost chants the sacred name of Martin to herself and him. She is happy. She is alive.

The film is like a dirge, a steady march to a solemn drumbeat, a medieval cart made by Bosch or Dürer that trundles toward oblivion. We know where we must go with it. So too Anne to her great sorrow. Martin needed courage, strength, conviction, backbone. But this was too much to ask. In the moments of beauty, in the touch of their lips together and feeling of his breath on her face, Anne could believe. It all seemed so close, so real and right, so destined to be. Why shouldn’t light, happiness and love prevail? Why should the darkness of the cloth, book and pious thoughts prevail?

Because the world is demon-haunted. Because people in their fears and ignorance have nightmares. Because hatred and intolerance, not love and acceptance, rule the roost. The good and innocent and pure must die. This isn’t written. It’s just drearily and depressingly enacted. We don’t burn witches anymore. We burn other things in our acts of war, the logic mainly the same.

Dreyer knew all this. His film was made to remind us of it. It’s been called the greatest Danish film ever made, and who am I to argue with genius?
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VINE VOICEon 11 October 2009
Filmed by Dreyer in Denmark under the Nazi occupation,,the atmosphere of persecution and paranoia during a witch hunt through a 1620s Danish village is well captured.The parson's wife Anne(Lisbeth Movin)tries to save an elderly woman(Anna Svierkier) from being caught as a witch.Anne is the young second wife of Reverend Absolom,who saved Anne's mother from being tried as a witch.Herlofs Marthe is tortured and burned at the stake, cursing Absolom as she is put to the stake.The Absolom household is thrown into confusion as Anne falls in love with Absolom's returning son,Martin,under the suspicious gaze of Meret,Absolom's domineering,possessive mother.Absolom's marriage is loveless and childless,preferring to talk to God than his beautiful young wife.Anne wishes her husband,out in a storm,was dead,telling first Martin and then Absolom,who dies of heart attack on his return.In declaring her thoughts,she opens herself to denunciation,believing herself to have entered a secret hereditary vocation of evil.Dreyer's Rembrandt-like compositions and lighting,his fluid camera movement,minimal lighting and shadows of the austere,claustrophobic interiors,in contrast to the pastoral escapes into the open landscape of the young lovers,above all Movin's sexually charged performance as Anne,whose desires and sensuality are equated to satanism by the narrow minded.Dreyer highlights women's plight of how men co opt religious dogma to oppress and punish female desires.There is little chance of redemption.
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on 20 March 2017
Great film. One you will want to see a second time. So atmospheric , the sense of dread really captures the neurosis of that time and it's obsession with witches. Also a love story. ..?All in all a great film. Well worth watching.
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on 13 September 2001
Carl Th. Dreyer is a director in dire need of rediscovery by cineasts and dedicated tv broadcaster alike. DAY OF WRATH and ORDET used to figure frequently on prominent critics 10 BEST FILMS EVER lists ever but lately this Danish auteur seems to have been sidetracked. Now DAY OF WRATH and ORDET are again released in glorious, restored versions. Both utterly compelling films going straight for your brain and throat. These two masterpieces are complimented by Dreyer's last ouevre GERTRUD, a work with which the darling director of the young French New Wave directors managed to split a world of critics into two shouting halves. Also included in the beautiful box is a stunning new documentary. Treat yourself, treat your school, treat your viewers. It's doesn't come better.
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on 26 October 2006
First and foremost, yes this is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Dreyer bases his story on a historical episode which took place in Norway in the 16.th century (Norway being part of Denmark then). As far as I remember, the priest's widow was acquitted of witchcraft and thus escaped the fire - the young woman (Lisbeth Movin) in the film is not so lucky.

It was said of Dreyer, that he made his actors do their uttermost to become the caracters they were supposed to play. The priest (Thorkil Roose) and his mother (Sigrid Neiiendam)were both actors at the Royal Theatre, the young people, the wife (Lisbeth Movin) and the priest's son (Preben Lerdorff Rye)had just started their careers. Preben L-R became a distinguished actor both at the theatre and in films - he often played villains! Lisbeth Movin withdrew early - her role in "The Day of Wrath" was the climax of her career. The scenes between her and her elderly husband are touching, he knows, that he is losing her but gives her what happiness he can - hoping she will respond in some way.

The film is beautifully photographed, the scenes in the torturechamber resembles a dutch baroque painting (the statist were artists, hence the beards!).

I hope, that many will see this film - it (and Dreyer) deserves it.
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on 19 April 2007
Stark spellbinding religious tale by the great Carl Dreyer is not quite as good as Ordet but comes pretty close.

Set in 17th century Denmark,Herlofs Marte ( a superb Anna Svierkier)is sentenced to death for witchcraft ;she curses her chief accussor Absalon Pedersson ( Thorklid Roose)before being burned .Needless to say things do not turn out well for poor Absalon as his wife betrays him setting off a chain of events that destroy his family.To say more would spoil it.

Filmed during the Nazi occupation of Denmark the theme of individuals trapped in a repressive society was a pertinent one.Carl Andersson's luminous photography is a major asset in this marvellous film as is the performance of Lisbeth Movin as the "villain" of the piece- an intoxicatingly sensual portrayal of a woman denied.
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on 20 October 2011
Day of Wrath is an intense film in which 3 very different female characters both dominate the story and leave us with a queasy sense of moral uncertainty. First there is the persecuted but innocent old 'witch' (Anna Svierkier), a role that is more shocking today than it would have been back in 1943. Second, the central character of Anne, Absolom's wife, offers a profound sense of ethical unease for the audience. Finally, the mother-in-law, a role easily overlooked as it comes the closest to caricature ... but the way she spits 'shameless' at her son and her hatred for Anne is utterly convincing. These characters combine to forge a compromised and uncertain moral landscape which leaves the viewer with no easy options.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 July 2016
Dreyer’s 1943 film, based on the play by Norwegian Hans Wiers-Jenssen, is first and foremost a stunningly powerful piece of cinema addressing, as it does, Dreyer’s recurring themes of the strictures of religious faith, the power of love and humanity, guilt and the ‘supernatural’ (here, witchcraft). Of course, Day Of Wrath’s narrative trajectory is signposted by the film’s portentous opening, as an ornate scroll foretells of apocalyptic developments, accompanied by Poul Schierbeck’s disturbing, thunderous score. The film’s (almost exclusively) sombre mood is conveyed perfectly by Day Of Wrath’s mise-en-scène, with cinematographer Karl Andersson’s brilliant use of lighting and shadow, slow pans and extended takes being complemented throughout by Schierbeck’s sparse, but beautifully judged music and the deliberate, minimalist acting on show from Dreyer’s outstanding cast.

The film’s central narrative theme of a witchhunt in a 'devout’ 17th century Danish village is used to accentuate the prejudices and barriers that have been driven between the film’s 'previous generation’, Thorkild Roose’s mild-mannered, dutiful priest, Absalom Pedersson, and his tyrannical mother Sigrid Neiiendam’s Merete and ‘youth’ represented by Lisbeth Movin’s mysterious young wife to the priest, Anne, and the eventual object of her affections, Preben Lerdorff Rye’s son to Absalom from a previous marriage, Martin. Even without the witchcraft theme, Dreyer’s film would still work well simply as a drama contrasting dogmatic, stifling belief with youthful innocence and love, but Movin’s remarkable, increasingly intense, turn in which she mixes tenderness, joy, fear, apprehension, mischief, seductiveness, defiance and a sense of mystery ('To think that a human being can possess such power’) serves to add another layer of intrigue and ambiguity to the film’s take on the occult. This adds a flavour of something like Jack Clayton’s ghost story The Innocents to Day Of Wrath’s more obvious comparators (a metaphor for Nazi occupation, Bresson, The Crucible, etc). Dreyer also gives us a skilful juxtaposition of the brutal treatment meted out to a suspected witch and the life-affirming, rural frolicking of new lovers, Anne and Martin (Andersson’s treatment of these latter scenes calls to my mind Murnau’s Sunrise in terms of their poetic beauty). There is a particularly macabre moment as the pair of lovers spy a cart laden with wood only to discover that this is fuel for a witch’s funeral pyre.

Whether viewed as an allegory for life under a totalitarian state or as a condemnation of religious bigotry, Day Of Wrath succeeds disturbingly well and similarly it is a masterful depiction of character transformation for each of Absalom, Anne and Martin. The set-up for the denouement is also superbly done and gives a nod to Dreyer’s later Ordet.

The BFI DVD also includes a commentary by Dreyer expert Casper Tybjerg, the Dreyer shorts The Fight Against Cancer and A Castle Within A Castle (both essentially public information films) and an illustrated booklet on Day Of Wrath.
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on 26 August 2012
Dark and brooding, so sensual at a subliminal level, the pace is that of a ticking metronome, will leave a lasting impression.
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on 30 April 2014
Carl T Dreyer is, along with Ozu, Welles and Renoir, THE supreme film-maker of the 20th century. This film demonstrates his stripped-down, rather austere style and yet again features a group of people undergoing severe spiritual/moral/existential upheavals; although this movie features more "action" than later films like Gertrud and Ordet.

As ever, the lighting and composition are exquisite, the camera movements subtle. Along with The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of his more accessible films if you want to know what the fuss is all about.
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