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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Review: Day of Wrath (1943)

* * 1/2

Director: Carl Theodor Dryer
Starring: Lisbeth Movin, Preben Lerdorff Rye

I think that Carl Theodor Dryer's The Passion of Joan of Ark is one of the best silent films ever made (top 5, definitely) and probably one of the best films ever made period. Fifteen years - and only one film, 1932's Vampyr - later, Dryer made Day of Wrath, filming during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The two films explore similar themes, so similar that it's almost impossible not to think of the first film while watching the second, which is somewhat unfortunate since the second film lacks the impact of the first.

Set in a Danish village in 1623, Day of Wrath focuses on the paranoia and fear that prompted witch hunts. At the beginning of the film an old woman named Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier) is accused of being a witch and flees to the home of Anne (Lisbeth Movin) and her much older husband, Absalon (Thorkild Roose), a pastor who is one of the men involved in conducting the witch trials. She goes to them because she knows that Absalon saved Anne's mother from being tried for witchcraft - in exchange, essentially, for Anne - and now she begs him to do the same for her. He refuses, however, and she's burned at the stake.

Meanwhile, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), Absalon's son from his first marriage returns to the village and it isn't long before romantic feelings have developed between him and Anne. The two begin an affair, which Abaslon's mother (Sigrid Neiiendam) suspects, and Anne admits to Martin that she wishes Absalom was dead so that they could be together. Not long afterwards Absalon does die after Anne reveals the affair to him and at the funeral Absalon's mother denounces Anne as a witch. Prior to the funeral Martin had promised to stand by Anne no matter what, since if they've sinned they've done so together, but when the time comes to actually defend her, he abandons her instead, leaving her to face a fate which will certainly be horrible and painful.

Given that the film was made during a period of Nazi occupation, there are obviously a few allusions to that woven into the fabric of the film, mostly with respect to the Herlof's Marte sections. The scenes of her being questioned and tortured are fairly brutal (at least in terms of the time in which the film was made) on their own, but become doubly so when you realize just how unnecessary they are. The simple fact of being denounced as a witch is enough to seal one's fate since even if one were to denounce others while being tortured, execution would still be the result, yet the questions are framed in such a way as to suggest that denouncing others will yield leniency. What Herlof's Marte experiences is what Anne herself will likely endure and all it takes to make that happen is a simple, unfounded accusation from her mother-in-law.

Day of Wrath moves fairly slowly and its two plot threads - Herlof's Marte's trial and death, and Anne's relationship with Martin - feel just a little bit disjointed. I think that individual parts of it are really great - the scenes between Anne and Martin, in particular, are beautifully constructed and executed - but taken as a whole, the film doesn't quite work as well as it should. The characters are all complex and well-drawn (with the exception, perhaps, of Absalon's mother, who just seems hateful for the sake of being hateful) and most of the conflicts feel natural and organic. The problem, like I said, is with pacing and construction. It's a beautiful looking film and the right elements are all there, it just isn't quite put together in the most engaging way.

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