“There is nothing so quiet as a heart that has ceased to beat”
The Latin hymn “Dies Irae” has been highly quoted musically throughout the centuries in myriad compositions, its words a medieval tale of judgment day wherein the souls of the good are summoned to Heaven and the rest cast down to Hell’s eternal flames. It makes sense then that Carl Theodor Dreyer would include it as the centerpiece of his film dealing with that exact divide between the righteous and damned. His Vredens dag [Day of Wrath] borrows from the 1909 Norwegian play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen about the real-life case of a priest’s widow accused of witchcraft. The adaptation deals with persecution and perception, its creation within a Nazi-occupied Denmark a fact augmented by its cinematic metaphor of murder under the auspices of fear and power.
It begs the question of which came first: the witch or her accusers? We never see what Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier) did to earn the village’s desire to burn her at the stake, only that it takes but one accusation to render her guilty until proven innocent. She’s run to the single place that may take her in—the house of Reverend Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose) and his new, young wife Anne (Lisbeth Movin). Her plea for sanctuary comes from the memory of forgiveness wherein the pastor granted Anne’s mother absolution after she too was labeled Satan’s concubine. Absalon’s reasons weren’t pure as his eventual marriage to the girl attests, but the knowledge of this secret and the potential of it revelation might be enough to strong-arm lenience.
Unfortunately her trial of coerced confession via torture comes at a trying time. Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) has returned, causing a mix of emotions and drama thanks to his family situation. Absalon’s mother Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam) hates Anne; Anne’s age equaling her stepson Martin holds the opportunity for awkwardness, and Herlofs Marte’s talk of Anne’s mother puts guilt and sin in her judge’s heart rather than compassion and self-preservation. The memory makes Absalon question his actions, realizing he’s imprisoned Anne inside a marriage she didn’t want, forcing her to lose the best years of her life in service of an old man. He’s obliged to tell her about her mother and their arrangement, thus planting the seed that she too may possess dark magic herself.
It’s with the introduction of Anne and Martin’s love for one another that Dreyer begins to play with expectations and motivations. The reveal comes after Absalon’s confession to his wife, the idea that her mother could control the actions of men’s lives and deaths one that piques her intrigue straight away. Is it therefore her desire for Martin that draws him to her or had they fallen for each other long before and his arrival simply rekindled the flame? Has she always wanted freedom from Absalon or does the knowledge that coercive powers may exist inside her to provide it plant the seeds of his death? Or is everything coincidence? Are witches real or the communal manifestation of a frightened populace seeking answers? And when does the “witch” trick herself into believing she’s to blame?
This is the beauty of Dreyer’s story construction. Everything occurs in a meticulously drawn order to allow what follows. Had Herlofs Marte not been accused, Anne’s mother’s history never would have been revealed. Had Absalon not been entrusted to oversee both women’s “trials”, Herlofs Marte wouldn’t have weighed on his conscience to admit the truth to Anne and she may never have thought his death an escape. There’s an intense duality too where normal occurrences like a demeanor change through love can be attributed to bewitchment. Dreyer renders a simple laugh on behalf of Anne to simultaneously become a flirt towards Martin, evidence her love for him is true, a sign to Absalon that she’s finally happy, and the smoking gun to Merete’s plan for her demise.
The auteur demonstrates his mastery of the cinematic form with carefully composed pans, memorable performances, and powerful suspense. So prolific at the start of his career, you have to wonder what he might have done in the eleven years between box office failure/critical classic Vampyr and Day of Wrath considering he obviously lost nothing creatively in the interim. To get the stirring emotion from Svierkier—whose Herlofs Marte recalls Maria Falconetti‘s amazing turn in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc—isn’t an easy feat. She is heartbreaking and emboldening, the tears of horror at the knowledge she will be lowered into flames replaced by a stern acceptance of death and rage-filled vehemence. We hear her screams off camera and instead watch Movin’s Anne shuddering in fright.
I’ve always found witch-hunt stories odd because an actual witch should be able to stop her accusers and survive. Death then verifies her innocence too late. So one must accept her fate, realizing death is inevitable the moment someone points his/her finger. To be marked is to be reviled. Maybe pointing your own will grant you some time, but the damage is already done. It’s therefore crazy how certain both Herlofs Marte and Absalon are about Anne’s mother’s witchcraft since you’d imagine the rest of the village also knew. Why would her admission of his cover up be so fresh a discovery? Maybe Herlofs Marte realizes the village knew or maybe she realized condemning Anne to the same fate awaiting her would strip her own innocence away.
The question posed is whether or not to believe witches exist as more than a paranoia-infused excuse for bloodlust. There’s definitely evidence supporting both and Dreyer refuses to give a definitive answer. He and his co-writers painstakingly render it ambiguous to ratchet up the suspense and force us to decide ourselves. They make Anne decide too—a wry smile when a wish comes true signifying the shrewd surprise of uncertainty, her scream in response to the climactic death fear at being complicit. Her final declaration therefore proves less an admission to the room as one to herself. Is there cause to agree? Perhaps, but it’s circumstantial at best. All it confirms is that it’s difficult to retain faith in your own innocence when those you love look upon you with horror.