The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Day of Wrath (1943/Denmark/dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer) appeared at #4 on my original list.
What it is • In a rigid, codified society, dominated by a theocratic order, Anne (Lisbeth Movin) doesn't quite fit in. Married to a much older pastor (Thorkild Roose), she is in love with his son from a previous marriage (Preben Lerdorff Rye). Aside from this menage a trois, she has no living family that we meet - although we do learn that her late mother, unbeknownst to Anne, was alleged to be a witch. Perhaps instinctively, Anne empathizes with Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier), an accused witch whom she hides away, vainly trying to protect the old woman from being burnt at the stake. In a society with no avenue for alternation, the slightest deviation from the central path sends one into a kind of disorienting freefall. Discovering her family history, and becoming enamored with a dashing young man so different from her dour husband, Anne no longer quite knows what to think. Perhaps she has been deceived into accepting a repressed, unhappy life. Perhaps she is a wicked sinner, disobeying God's laws despite her fortunate position. Or perhaps she is a witch, with the power to change her circumstances, an amoral force that is good or evil depending on how she perceives it. Shot under Nazi occupation (a condition Jonathan Rosenbaum, among others, considers central to the film's sensibility), Day of Wrath was initially rejected - as were many of Dreyer's films - before critics embraced it as a towering achievement. It is visually striking, between the innovative camera style and the iconographic power of its stark monochromatic imagery, the white aprons and cuffs contrasting with the deep black dress material. There are many great films about witchcraft, but this is one of the greatest, despite - or perhaps because of - its refusal to clearly come down one way or another on whether these supernatural phenomena are real, let alone if they are moral. Anne is eminently comprehensible, but the other characters are not stereotyped; each seems authentic and ambiguous. Anne's terror, delight, and curiosity are palpable, and if we embrace them we also fear their consequences, for others but especially for her.
Why I like it •
Dreyer is the only director to land two films in my top ten. This is somewhat surprising, given the qualities of many other films in this eclectic collection of a hundred. Over and over, I've celebrated works that tell grand stories, spanning years and setting up contrasts between past and present. I've often favored films with heavy editing, and those that have emphasized long takes and camera movements usually do so within an epic context (think Out 1 or Satantango). I appreciate movies that are mixtures, of genres, styles, sensibilities. Here then is Dreyer, stark, pared-down, graceful and pure in his outlook, never biting off more than he chew but preferring to savor each flavor. When he screened Gertrud in 1964, following years of hip, avant-garde New Wave films (the likes of which have populated this list and will continue to do so), it was reviled as stilted, a dinosaur that couldn't keep pace. To a certain extent, our favorite films are a reflection of our own personalities. However, there's always another element present: the recognition and response to greatness wherever it exists and whichever form it takes. And Day of Wrath is a supremely accomplished film, perpetually unsettling us with its combinations of dollies and pans, startling us with its harsh, vivid sound design (the screams of the old woman never fail to chill me), and wrapping us in a carefully-realized world of sin, dread, and suffocating custom. Then again, maybe there are personal reasons I am drawn to Day of Wrath. I love films that affect one's consciousness, and Dreyer's style encourage a trancelike state in the viewer (David Lynch, the filmmaker I've discussed the most at this site, also doesn't really fit in to the montage-heavy, rough-around-the-edges aesthetic I've celebrated elsewhere on this list). And I can't discount my first viewing. Day of Wrath is the highest-ranked film I saw for the first time in a movie theater. I attended a screening at Lincoln Center in 2006 and just sank into the world of this film as I have into few others. Dreyer held me in the palm of his hand for an hour and fifty minutes as I stirred with hope for the young couple, feared Anne's hostility to her husband (both for her sake and for his - despite his rigidity), and responded to the ending with a strange mixture of sadness and relief. When the lights came back on, an audience member grumbled, "Fuck organized religion" (or something to that effect), but while Day of Wrath certainly paints a stark picture of ecclesiastical power, this always seemed too simplistic a response to its tragedy. Anne's struggle isn't merely reducible to her resistance against outside forces - there are internal obstacles she must overcome. When I watch the film I feel that Dreyer, in addition to his criticism of authoritarian patriarchy, is concerned with Anne's individual soul. Regardless, on that first viewing I left the theater shaken...and as I recall, I soon returned for the second part of a double feature (L'Avventura?). Day of Wrath offers such an overpowering example of cinematic immersion that I found myself craving more, however different its expression.
More from me • I once shared a quote from Jonathan Rosenbaum's excellent essay on the film, and a clip appears at 0:34 in "Dreaming in Wartime", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series.
How you can see it • Day of Wrath streams on Hulu and is available for DVD rental on Netflix.
What do you think? • Is this Dreyer's masterpiece - or does he have too many to pick one as the apex? Do you recognize the affinity with Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson that Paul Schrader claimed, or do you see a different vision at work? What are the most powerful experiences you've undergone in a movie theater, particularly at retrospective screenings?
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Yesterday: The House is Black (#5)
Tomorrow: Vertigo (#3)