August 28, 2008


Before Bergman and "The Crucible": Carl Dreyer's erotic witch-hunt drama "Day of Wrath," made in Nazi-occupied Denmark, resurfaces with shattering clarity after a digital restoration. (Andrew O'Hehir, Aug. 26, 2008, Salon)

I watched "Day of Wrath" all by myself, early on Saturday morning, at an impromptu screening arranged by the IFC Center, and it was an electric, unforgettable experience, something like the first time I saw a Bergman or Kurosawa or Tarkovsky movie and felt the full expressive, aesthetic and emotional power that film can achieve. I mention Bergman by design; if you're a fan of the late Swedish master, you absolutely need to see "Day of Wrath," which strikes me as a pivotal influence on and presence within Bergman's greatest films, including "The Seventh Seal," "Smiles of a Summer Night" and "Fanny and Alexander." Let's put it this way: This picture features a clergyman anxious to please his God, but tormented by doubt; an elderly husband cuckolded by his own son; a woman unjustly accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake; and a plot that involves the murky borderlands between erotic passion, magic and pure accident. ("Day of Wrath" was also reportedly an influence on Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible.")

Unlike Bergman, Dreyer was not raised in a devoutly religious family, and he views the spiritual and personal struggle of Absalon Pederss√łn (Thorkild Roose), an aging clergyman married to the young and beautiful Anne (Lisbeth Movin), with something like dispassionate sympathy. Absalon is not a cruel or indecent man at heart, but he lacks moral clarity or courage. He has taken Anne's girlhood from her and participates in the horrific persecution of Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier, in a wrenching performance), a local widow condemned as a witch. Dreyer shows us the village notables, dressed like the guys on the Dutch Masters cigar box, standing around calmly while the witchfinder tortures this half-naked old woman into a confession. It's nothing personal; in fact, they're trying to save her soul. It's the most disturbing scene I've seen in a motion picture in years. (Although Dreyer remained in occupied Denmark until 1944 and made this film under the Nazi regime, the Danish public, and underground resistance, understood where his sympathies lay.)

Before her burning -- another shocking scene -- Herlofs Marte calls down a curse upon Absalon and the rest of her persecutors.

So she was a witch, just like Arthur Miller was a Stalinist.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 28, 2008 5:54 PM
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