Thursday, September 22, 2011

Day of Wrath (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943)

Predating Arthur Miller's The Crucible by a decade, Carl Theodor Dreyer's own witch hunt allegory is not only politically braver—he managed to get away with making it under Denmark's Nazi occupation—but more morally complex. Its scathing view of institutions goes beyond any one target, even one as pervasively evil as the Third Reich, to indict the pettiness and paranoia not overcome by objective rule but given a focal point for the mob. By the same token, Dreyer also visualizes the presence of unfathomable evil (a redundancy, as all true evil is on some level insoluble) and how our understandably fearful reaction to such evil leads us to create such harsh, inhuman institutions. Nevertheless, as the first shots of the film move down an illuminated text of the titular hymn, its portentous, almost bloodthirsty revelry in Judgment Day matching the force of the score. The shadow of a cross descending with the camera only makes the moment more uncomfortable, and for those who found Dreyer's tribute to Joan of Arc religiously uplifting, here he makes clear his disdain for organized religion.

Then, he complicates matters. The signing of a glorified execution notice of a suspected witch moves to the woman in question, Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier), giving concoctions to a village woman. The old crone claims the herbs she used for her drought have power because she picked them under the gallows. "There is power in evil," she tells her suspicious customer. But just as Dreyer inserts the possibility of actual witchcraft, the sound of an encroaching mob brings back the fear of witch hunts as the old woman flees out her pig trough. Then she makes the mistake of hiding out in the home of the local, persecuting pastor. Or is it a mistake after all?

If The Crucible framed its parable around the clear and insidious lie of Abigail and its effects on a community too scared to dissent, Day of Wrath acknowledges that the hunted in question might be guilty of the accusations thrown at them. Then, Dreyer asks the relevance of such guilt, particularly given the response of others. And as his cultural analogy here alludes not to abstract anti-Communist fear but the very tangible danger of rounding up Jews, the collusion Dreyer illustrates runs far deeper.

Inside the home of the pastor, Absalon, Herlof's Marte runs into the man's wife, Anna, a woman far younger than her husband and whose narrowed eyes communicate a resentment of having been swiped from the cradle. Herlof's Marte begs to be hidden, alluding to some skeletons she knows Anna and Absalon keep in their closet before guards burst in and find her before Anna can do anything to honor the agreement. The constables find her in the attic, but the camera remains back downstairs with the couple as her shrieks of pain and fear fill the air, the imagery of Nazis searching hideaways for Jews unmistakable and chilling. But by implicating Anna's own past, Dreyer calls to mind the genetic suspicions that ran through the Holocaust, the fear that beset a family with even the tiniest drop of Jewish blood in the line. Herlof's Marte, though tortured and terrified, has the wherewithal to taunt both Anna and her husband with the knowledge she has of Anna's mother, information that could harm their standing in the community, even get them put on the rack or on a stake as well. The orthodox collar Absalon wears, a ludicrously oversized wing that makes him look like a hunchback, becomes a glaring symbol of guilt both religious and personal as it weighs down on his old, frail shoulders, wracking him with shame and fear of being exposed.

As such, the film is less about whether Herlof's Marte is truly guilty—though Dreyer inserts enough coy coincidences regarding and, later, Anna, that keeps open the possibility of witchcraft—than how a community invents demons even where they might exist, how religious fervor and complicity combine into a guilt that redirects in savage fashion onto others. It's no coincidence that Herlof's Marte resembles a more unkempt version of Absalon's strict orthodox mother, Meret (Sigrid Neiiendam), suggesting how close she really is to the image of blameless Christendom the family likes to project as they torture the old woman in a chamber for confession.

Dreyer films that scene with his usual grace, his camera looking away from the poor woman as is tracks past the aligned faces of patriarchal authority. But Dreyer eventually makes his way around to Herlof's Marte, the vague aura of power around her now gone as she lies partially nude and exhausted from pain, the stern, even eager looks of the men not matching up to the wretched sight of someone old enough to be a grandmother panting for air with sweat-matted hair pasted to her scalp in ribbons. Whether or not Herlof's Marte is truly guilty, this punishment is inhuman, and as the clergymen compliment each other on the confession they extract from her, the ascetic conditions of the dungeon grow yet colder and darker.

Dreyer uses shadow to magnificent effect here, and throughout the film. Inside, artificial lighting recreates the look of candles, providing a steady source of illumination, but one that only raises a few feet, leaving the ceiling above in inky blacks. In a film where characters take their motivations from aspirations to heavenly salvation, the void over them is doubly disconcerting. Amusingly, the only real brightness in the film are exterior shots of Anna and Martin, Absalon's grown son from his first marriage, engaging in a romantic tryst. In the film's depiction of visible sin (at least sin without religious justification the way torture is "permitted"), Dreyer uses idyllic exterior interludes with bright sunlight, though he tellingly filters even that through obscuring canopies of leaves. Rather than generate a mood of ambiguity, Dreter suggests universal evil of some level, whether it's Anna's vindictive, quasi-incestuous affair to spite her husband or Meret's twisted manipulation or burning an old woman at the stake.

The film's attitude toward human sin and the exacerbating, not alleviating, presence of church dogma explodes in the final act. Absalon, cognizant of his wife's newfound happiness and suspicious of the reason, makes his own confession, one as hollow and bitter as the one he forced out of Herlof's Marte. He apologizes for stealing his wife's youth and joy with all the sincerity of a person saying "This is all my fault" with the expectant pause inviting the other party to cry out, "No!" and gather the penitent to her comforting bosom. Instead, Anna's pointed gaze somehow sharpens further into diamond quality hatred, and Absalon's uncontrollable shaking reveals just how thin his apology really was. The webs of personal and institutional evil converge in what happens next, and Dreyer ends on a note of utter hopelessness.

By not assigning clear blame, either to genuine witchcraft or a repressed religious society looking for outlets for sexual aggression, Dreyer applies his disgust to everyone, yet he never lapses into outright nihilism. The grace of his ascetic framing and movement, and the modicum of sympathy he affords to characters when they are trapped by the system, deepen Day of Wrath into a more probing study of human sin, sin outside religious dogma yet perhaps as ingrained in us as so much religious teaching says it is. Dreyer's greatest work, The Passion of Joan of Arc, ends on a similarly bleak note of Pharisaical triumph, yet neither communicate utter hopelessness. Dreyer doesn't frame this as theatrical symbolism, and even in his allusion he frames the story with uncomfortable reality. You learn too much about his characters to view them as tragic props or emotional cues, and while that makes the results that much more hard-hitting (emotionally with Joan, morally with the people here), one cannot retreat into despair the way one can with Bergman. Only Dreyer could make that unending bleakness seem the easy way out.

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