Written by Sean Rogers
Carl-Theodor Dreyer had not completed a feature film for over a decade when he undertook production on Day of Wrath; another decade would pass before he finished his next major feature. These long pauses in his career feel as loaded with ineffable significance as those in his films: small shifts in meaning and purpose seem to have occurred, but only in retrospect might we discover them. In 1932, Dreyer released Vampyr, a fever dream of a movie soaked through with the uncanny, while 1954 would see his Ordet, a film fundamentally concerned with faith. 1944’s Day of Wrath mingles the two modes. Less overtly weird than Vampyr, and having less to do with Ordet’s crises of faith than with faith’s very structures and strictures, Day of Wrath is a strange hybrid: a deceptively humdrum melodrama, insidiously inflected.
The film’s depiction of a society that conspires to control and defeat its own members is lent resonance by the fact of its creation during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. Today we can place it alongside other records of discreet insubordination, roughly contemporaneous films like Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, which Godard called the “one true film of the resistance,” or Sergei Eisenstein’s Stalin-baiting Ivan the Terrible, Part II. Day of Wrath, however, like the character of Anne in the film, was cultivated by and within the very system it would seem to threaten. Wartime Denmark, under German control, barred international cinema from its screens, depending instead on increased production by domestic filmmakers to fill the considerable gap that was left. Dreyer’s past cinematic experience, along with a more recent documentary short he’d made for the government, won the confidence of his producers, allowing work to begin on Day of Wrath. Adapted from a now mostly forgotten play – 1908’s Anne Pedersdotter, by Hans Wiers-Jenssens – the film is imbued with some sensibilities of turn-of-the-century Scandinavian theatre, which Dreyer to some degree took up as his own. Ascetic, domestic, proto-feminist, avowedly psychological, but fundamentally melodramatic, Day of Wrath combines these characteristics in search of some inner truth, Dreyer professed. Remarkable, then, that the film is so relentless in its exteriority.
True, we know Dreyer as one of the foremost practitioners, along with the likes of Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky, of what has been vaguely put forward as a spiritual cinema. We might understand why there has been this championing of his films’ spiritual dimensions when we consider their gray and otherworldly lighting, their deliberate and distended pacing, or their thematic concerns with strange forms of life that lie beyond the life we know, whether they be saintliness or vampirism, Satanism or resurrection. But for all their vaunted transcendental qualities, there remains a surprising physicality to Dreyer’s works.
Indeed, Day of Wrath is at its most corporeal at precisely those moments when we experience its most unearthly camera movements, when our vantage point becomes unhinged and spirals around the room – that is, when Laurentius lies dying, when Absalon lies dead, when Herlof’s Marte is tortured. This portrayal of the torture and burning of Herlof’s Marte, like that of Joan of Arc, is at some times suggestive, at others explicit, and always very visceral. Even the existence of Herlof’s Marte testifies to a blunt physicality the film’s grim society would rather shame and repress. Compare, for instance, the earthiness of her shack with the sterility of Absalon’s chambers, or the starkness of her nudity with the severe collars that the elders wear. But while Herlof’s Marte occupies a world whose reality is a physical one – as does her successor, Anne, who frolics by riverbanks, seduces young men, and dares to wear her hair unpinned – the world of Absalon and the elders is one of records and processes, of form and structure, of a spirituality violently divorced from the body.
The spiritual and the physical circle each other all film, as in those spiralling tracking shots, only to confront each other in the final sequence. There is as tangible a sense of separation here as there is, in Ordet, a sense of reunification. There, bodies come together; here, they part, framed and cut into isolated units. But the division is not only a physical, but also a spiritual one, for as far as Martin pulls himself away from Anne – siding with his grandmother, with the church, with society – Anne pulls herself even farther from him. Anne, in confessing (lying?), moves toward Herlof’s Marte, and death, and a supernatural allegiance that can’t ever be proven but only suspected, and feared, and punished. A day of wrath is it, indeed, when nowhere can there be an acknowledgment, like Mikkel’s in Ordet, that “I loved her body, too” – that the corporeal and the ethereal coexist, and can no more be sundered than the tree Anne sees and its reflection in the river. Dreyer’s films may preach transcendence, but they are rooted in the messy stuff of the everyday.

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