fredag 8. mai 2009

Day of Wrath and Dreyer

I recently watched Day of Wrath (1943), a harrowing tale of forbidden love set in 17th century Denmark and directed by the famous Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. A priest has fallen in love with a much younger woman and marries her (it is implied that he forces her to marry him in exchange of saving her mother being burned as a witch). When the priests younger son appears, the young wife and he immediately falls in love and starts a secretive relationship.

Dreyer uses long takes and spare dialogue to create a lamenting, melancholy feel along with sparse use of light, creating a heavy clouded darkness. The movie is constructed in two parts: the first introduces an old woman being accused of witchcraft. She seeks refuge with the young wife, who hesitantly agrees to hide her. When the persecutors come knocking at the door, the young wife does nothing to prevent them from finding her. The burning of the witch is very traumatic for the young wife and she is further distanced from her old husband, who is one of the priests most active in condemning the witch. The priest's son can't bear watching, and appears to dislike the whole process. The second part is occupied with the romance of the young wife and the son. But when she confess to the son wanting the priest dead and he ends up dying shortly after, he starts thinking she too is a witch, just like her mother. Dreyer does imply that she might be a witch, and that witches maybe do exist.

Earlier when the priests are interrogating the old witch, torturing her to confession, she makes a threat to the leading contortionist. Later he dies, telling the old priest on his deathbed he is convinced the witch is responsible. Dreyer took this a step further in his next film, The Word, over ten years later, where he makes the viewer believe in miracles and God. In this movie he could be perceived as violently critiquing Christians, or sympathizing with them. In "Jeanne D'Arc" made in 1926, Dreyer is quite clearly condemning the priests and believers, portraying D'Arc like an icon, a Madonna, a martyr. In "Day of Wrath" the witch dying is portrayed as pitiful perhaps, but not glorified. Dreyer further imposes the notion of evil vs. pure by having an angelic boys choir singing at the witch burning. When the son dismisses the young wife at the end, even supporting his mother's claim of her being a witch, this could be seen as him trying to repent for his own sins by betraying his love. He chooses God and his father. The young wife "confesses" of being a witch, giving the viewer a sense of her wanting to die when being betrayed by her loved one.

Overall, I will say that Dreyer clearly sympathizes with the young wife, but in a subtle way. It would be too easy to paint a broad picture of evil religious clergies. Instead Dreyer wants to explore the doubts they had and portray them as humans able to make mistakes.

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