Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag) 1943
I find it interesting that so many popular depictions of the witch trials of centuries ago portray witches with supernatural powers. Quite recently the Marvel/Disney show Wandavision had a flashback to the Salem witch trials, but instead of innocent citizens dealing with charges of black magic, we saw a supernatural battle between powerful witches. Television shows like Bewitched, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch and movies such as I Married a Witch, Bell, Book and Candle, Hocus Pocus, and The Lords of Salem all featured the Salem witch trials along with “real” witches.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a surprisingly rare story where accusations of witchcraft are completely unfounded. For the most part, the same can be said of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1943 film, Day of Wrath. Rather than taking place in New England, this film is based on witch trials in 16th century Norway. Though the charges of witchcraft are assumed to be without basis, witches' curses in the film to tend to be carried out.
Day of Wrath was produced in very difficult, even dire, circumstances. After the completion of Vampyr in 1932, Dreyer was unsuccessful in raising funds for a film adaptation of Madame Butterfly, a work about Mary Stuart, or a documentary about Africa. Dreyer worked as a journalist and was unable to work as a filmmaker for over a decade. Day of Wrath was filmed in Denmark while the nation was under Nazi occupation, and some were concerned that the witchcraft theme in the film would be perceived as a critique of the Reich’s treatment of the Jews, but the film was completed and released. Dreyer took the opportunity of the film’s foreign distribution to travel to neutral Sweden, where he lived for the remainder of World War II.
The film is set in a small Danish village in 1623 where Rev. Absalon Pedersson (Thorkild Roose) lives with his young wife and his mother. The Reverend is old enough to be his wife’s father -- which becomes all the more apparent when his son returns to the village. His wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin, who bears quite a resemblance to Elizabeth Montgomery of Bewitched fame) and his son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), are the same age and the attraction between the two is immediate. The attraction is noticed by the pastor’s mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who already dislikes her daughter-in-law.
One night an old woman, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier), comes to the parsonage, and Anne answers the door. The woman asks Anne to hide her, saying she is being pursued by some who wish to kill her. Anne hides her, and others from the village come to the door saying they are looking for a witch. They break in and find Herlofs and take her to the local church where she is imprisoned as a witch.
Rev. Pedersson is sent to talk to Herlofs Marte and seek her confession. Herlogs Marte is naked from the waist up, due to her recent torture by other church authorities. Pedersson asks Marte whether she has been dealing with the devil, “Did you sell your soul for eternity?”
The pastor tells her she must confess to the Lord to be saved. Marte looks with disdain at the pastor, “Stop your prattle! I fear neither heaven or hell! I fear only death. If I burn at the stake, so will Anne!” Marte says that Anne’s mother was accused of being a witch, and she knows that the pastor intervened so that he could marry Anne. She begs the pastor to save her as well.
The pastor claims to be only interested in saving Marte’s soul, “Have no fear, God is merciful! He will forgive you for your sin!”
But Marte, denounced by three worthy citizens who claim she cursed people who died, is sent to the stake to be burned to death. As she burns, Marte cries out that Anne is a witch. But the roar of the flames drowns out her accusation.
But the curses Marte made in life seem to continue to have power after her death. She cursed the Bishop who sentenced her to death. That bishop becomes ill, and Reverend Pedersson is at the man’s bedside as he dies.
Things grow worse for the Reverend. The attraction between his son and wife grows into an affair. He confronts his wife who admits to the affair, and she verbally attacks her husband, accusing him of stealing her life, even failing to provide her with a child. She tells him she had long wished him dead. And following her words, Absalon seems struck by a heart attack or stroke and dies on the spot.
Absalon’s mother accuses Anne of being a witch, so she too must go to trial. One assumes her fate is the same as Marte’s: torture and death at the stake. Anne won’t even deny that her curse caused her husband’s death.
The church in this film tortures women and burns them at the stake. That alone would likely lead to a poor Movie Churches Steeple rating for the clergy and church of Day of Wrath, but one other detail insures the lowest rating of One Steeple for the church. When Herlofs Marte is burned at the stake, a choir of young boys is brought to stand near the fire to sing a hymn (“Day of Wrath”) as the flames engulf the old woman. That has to be the worst Christian Education program we at Movie Churches have ever seen.