Day of Wrath Review
Following 1932’s Vampyr it would take the Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer another eleven years before he produced his next feature. The result was Day of Wrath, a film which shares some of the horror elements with this previous venture, yet also fits in seamlessly with the Dreyer oeuvre as a whole. Set to a 17th century backdrop of witch burning, this is a work which never quite exists as a genre piece despite the potential sensationalism of its material, rather it operates more fully as another of its director’s small scale domestic dramas. Indeed, for all of the possibilities of this subject matter Day of Wrath is much closer to Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels, say, than it is to Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General; a character piece told within the confines of a particular turbulent period in history.
Dreyer’s primary focus falls upon a priest, his beautiful but much younger second wife, and his son of a roughly similar age. The illicit affair which develops between the latter two occupies much of the screen time, but then it’s important to consider how Day of Wrath uses its broader canvas as a means of intensifying the drama. Essentially, the witch burning becomes almost a parallel narrative, a means of commentating on the action. The early scenes, in particular, of an elderly woman being first persecuted and then burnt at the stake contribute to a highly palatable sense of paranoia and guilt. Furthermore, the period setting allows Dreyer’s characters to become repressed to an even greater degree; oftentimes it appears as though they can barely move, let alone display their emotions.
For Day of Wrath isn’t the hokey old potboiler rife with overly melodramatic impulses which it could have become in another’s hands, but rather a simple, low-key and considered affair. As would be the case with Dreyer’s two later masterpieces Ordet and Gertrud, the director here strips the drama down to its very essentials. Whilst the setting undoubtedly adds a great deal, it is perhaps also true that this intensity of focus (especially towards the smaller details) means that Day of Wrath effectively transcends such concerns. What we have is a tightly plotted, very concise film which never allows our attentions to wander too far – as with the later works everything is keyed in towards the director’s concerns so as to create an almost inescapable logic to proceedings. As the plotting develops it becomes increasingly clear how everything fits into place just so and the results are suitably intense. Admittedly, the impact isn’t quite as strong as it is with both Ordet and Gertrud - and neither does Day of Wrath quite compete with these films on a purely technical level, though of course to do so would be a remarkable achievement – yet it’s fascinating to see Dreyer move towards the stylistic and dramatic concepts behind these later works. Moreover, it remains a fine work in its own right and had Ordet and Gertrud never existed, would rank amongst its director’s most regarded efforts.
Another of the BFI’s Carl Theodor Dreyer releases (following Master of the House and Ordet, and hitting the shops at the same time as Gertrud), Day of Wrath follows the pattern of the other titles insofar as it offers both an excellent presentation and a worthy collection of extras. Certainly, the print may not be in the greatest shape, with intermittent instances of flicker and damage being present, yet it provides the necessary contrast and clarity levels and remains never less than watchable throughout. Furthermore, the print would appear to be identical to that used for the Criterion edition albeit without the cropping which affected that edition. In other words, this may very well be the definitive Day of Wrath currently on the market.
As for the soundtrack, here we find the original Danish mono (with optional English subtitles) in superb condition considering the film’s age. The dialogue remains crisp and clear throughout, the occasional bursts of music (surprisingly heavy for a later Dreyer film) are sufficiently intense, and it’s also possible to discern all the tiny background details – birdsong, etc. – which the director had no doubt introduced with the utmost intention.
Furthering the disc’s essential nature is the fine array of special features content. The main attraction is likely to be Casper Tybjerg’s agreeably full commentary (the only one of the BFI’s Dreyer discs to date to receive such a treatment), one which proves pleasingly wide-ranging in its discussion as the academic switches from background detail to analysis and back again whilst remaining scene-specific throughout. The fact that he’s clearly reading out his thoughts means that this track is perhaps lacking in spontaneity, but it’s an excellent listen nonetheless.
Elsewhere the disc also plays host to a pair of Dreyer’s public information films from the forties, The Fight Against Cancer and A Castle Within a Castle. As with the other shorts (present on the other BFI discs) these pieces are primarily of owing to Dreyer’s involvement – and the certain amount of perversity which results from them being variably acted and somewhat slipshod – but then that still results in a high degree of fascination. Be warned that The Fight Against Cancer comes from a very scratchy print, although both shorts are present with optional English subtitling.
Rounding off the package we also find a 20-page booklet complete with liner notes both old and new, full credits for Day of Wrath and the two shorts, plus numerous production stills throughout.