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Monday, 18 September 2017


Carl Dreyer, known to horror fans for his striking 1932 horror Vampyr discussed on this site earlier, spent the next ten years out in the wilderness. The commercial failure of that film (only later reappraised a classic) after the same reception for La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc (1928) forced him back to his original profession of journalism. World War two proved to be a benefit to him rather than a hindrance as his native Danish film industry suddenly found itself needing internal product after 1940 when the Nazis’ military occupation of Denmark blocked the import of any foreign movies. He first had to endure the humiliation of having to prove himself all over again by making a short documentary for the war effort Mødrehjælpen (Good Mothers) in 1942 that dealt with a humanitarian organisation’s aid for unmarried mothers.

Maternal influence, for better or worse, would also feature within the family torn apart in the eventual full-length film he was allowed to make – Day of Wrath (1943). The screenplay, written by a team of five headed by Dreyer, came from Anne Pedersdotter (1909) a stage play also adapted into Respighi’s opera La Fiamma in 1934. For a man not inclined to religious belief in real life, Dreyer was immensely drawn to the work which deals with the oppressive public affirmation of their faith by a 1623 Puritan community while in private all manner of self-serving agendas are darkly carried out into inexorable tragedy.  

Modern viewers may find its themes and setting very familiar from Arthur Miller’s monumental 1953 stage play The Crucible. Miller’s play drew much of its devastating impact from using the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 as a metaphor to covertly attack the House Un-American Activities Committee that had turned his 1950s America into a society riddled with hypocritical tyranny and paranoia. Dreyer claimed that his film, also vividly centered around literal witch persecution, was innocent of a similar allegorical parallel with the monstrosity of 1940s Nazi genocide, but as the DVD’s BFI notes point out: “was persuaded by friends that it might be wiser to withdraw to Sweden for the duration of the war”.

Day of Wrath is deceptively simple on the surface, much like the Puritan sect it depicts. Aside from a few cameo appearances, the plot focuses on the machinations of five and then just four principal characters over the last two acts. This along with its deliberate slow pace focuses our attention on a deliberately claustrophobic building of tension. It’s a film that also continually presents us with clear contrasts. For example, for non-Danish viewers the natural inclination when not reading the subtitles is to glean impressions from the actors’ faces and in the physical casting Dreyer gives us a marked difference between presumed virtue and apparent evil. At the beginning, Anna Svirkier looks the very picture of a sweet, plump-faced Grandma as Herlof’s Marte, an elderly local lady targeted as a witch by the pinch-faced, cadaverous ascetics who condemn her. She seeks sanctuary with young Anne (Lisbeth Movin, whose career would span the years 1942 to 1987’s notable Babette’s Feast) who gives her up rather than protect her, and thus begins the slow-rolling momentum to doom.

Anne is the (possibly devilishly) pretty young second wife of Rev Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose), the community Pastor. He may be a man of the cloth but he is a sinner, guilty of colluding in the past acquittal of Anne’s mother on witchcraft charges. There’s ample anecdotal gossip that she had the demonic ability to make people obey her, and judging by the flashing eyes of her daughter Anne may have inherited that Svengali-like power. This suggests itself in the way she gazes with secret lust on first meeting Martin, Absalon’s much more age-appropriate son. Unwittingly, the Pastor (finished by Martin) recites a poem foreshadowing the possible Eve-like temptation he’s brought home:

“A maiden sat in an apple tree/Reaching for an apple she could not see/
Beneath, a boy was taking a nap/She slipped and landed in his lap”

At this point, despite the low-simmering scheming that we can see in her, she is still the Parson’s wife, testing her allure. Other eyes boring into her with undisguised malice belong to Absalon’s mother (Sigrid Neiiendam), the archetypal battle-axe mother-in-law whose splendid glower of purse-lipped disapproval represents the affronted piety of the whole community at her son’s scandalous harlot of a wife.

The consequences of Herlof’s Marte’s capture leads us to unmistakably stark contrasts between the light and dark of good versus evil shown in the lighting by Swedish cinematographer Karl Andersson.  Bright white walls form a glaring backdrop against the shadows cast by black-clad interrogators busy stretching the poor old dear into committee-approved confessions of guilt on the rack: “A beautiful confession” - “She’s a hard one”.

Amidst this appalling cruelty Andersson creates masterful painterly images worthy of the Old Masters in how he composes groups of actors as well as dual character two-shot scenes, varying their respective heights in the frame to emphasise dramatic status. In counterpoint to this shadowy dungeon of torture, we are plunged into blazing sunshine to spy on the youthful optimism of Anne and Martin frolicking merrily through the idyllic cornfields as they begin an illicit courtship.

However, Dreyer’s films are frequently stereotyped as gloomily Scandinavian in outlook, much like Sweden’s celebrated Ingmar Bergman; an understandable label as no matter what dastardly deeds Day of Wrath’s protagonists do to privately better themselves, they know the fetid breath of the Grim Reaper is breathing down their necks. The picturesque adulterous romance of Martin and Anne is clouded over by the sight of the funeral pyre wood-cart and his guilt-racked musings, while back home Pastor Absalon is on his own self-imposed rack, not only for concealing incriminating evidence against Anne’s mother but ironically imprisoning Anne herself in a loveless marriage to his old fuddy-duddy self.

Not all of the action is confined to off-screen punishment or restrained brooding; while the scenes of desperate soul-searching are mainly played in a very measured, slow-burning pace for impact, one sequence sears itself with an explicit horror brand on the memory: the burning of Herlof’s Marte. Her screaming body, lashed to a wooden ladder, appears to topple face-first right into the heart of the pyre flames in full view of the audience - with no cut-away. (Allegedly Dreyer left Svierkier tied to the ladder while the crew broke for lunch so she’d be bathed in realistic visible sweat).

The language of the script adds a grisly literary barbarism to the on-screen writhings. The earlier salivating description of the old lady’s torturing is surpassed by the document recording her punishment: “On this day, which was exceedingly fine, Herlof’s Marte was burnt happily”.

Inevitably, as with modern politicians who boast of their commitment to pure old-fashioned values, the ostentatious barricades of self-righteousness piled up by our villagers intensify before inevitably crumbling to expose their greater sin. Anne is fully seduced by her dark side – marvelling at instead of judging her mother’s supposed occult gift – “To think that a human being can possess such power…” She even uses exactly the same words to plead for emotional support from her husband and step-son. After her treachery fatally stops Absalon’s heart, even the cornfields can no longer provide comfort, the sun-bathed crops now obscured in a sombre mist.

At last the threatened retribution that has bedevilled the living ever since Herlof’s Marte delivered her
pre-execution curse comes to pass. The rope drawing together the surviving threesome ever tighter finally settles as a noose around the dainty neck of Anne - the only positive being that she belatedly grows a conscience over the open casket of her husband.

Dreyer’s uncompromising style of film-making, his penchant for long-takes and an almost glacial pace of exposition meant that Day of Wrath didn’t gain recognition until it was seen by post-war international audiences.  His approach was never going to endear him to the box office or producers looking for a commercial hit, meaning that he only directed two more feature films, the critically-acclaimed Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964) whose more alienating slowness than before repelled many reviewers.

He is an acquired taste, yet one that rewards undisturbed concentration to fully appreciate the absorbing atmosphere of his work, particularly in the field of psychological horror.

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