Day of Wrath (Denmark, 1943, Carl-Theodore Dreyer)
Prior to making The White Ribbon (2009), if Michael Haneke didn't watch this film, oh I dunno, once, twice or a hundred times... The line from Day of Wrath (1943) could not be more direct. The same debt is owed by Arthur Miller's play, The Crucible (1953), although as a man of the stage, Miller may have reached past Dryer's film to the original Norwegian play, Anne Pedersdotter (1908). In any case, we are mining in the mother lode of paranoiac patriarchal authority laid in the rough rock of theocratic domestic terrorism, of which the most jagged stone is the witch-hunt.
And just as Miller recalled the Massachusetts trials at the end of the 17th Century in order to address McCarthyism in his own day, Dreyer's film about witch persecution in Norway at the end of the 16th is an allegory about his own Denmark under Nazi occupation and the pressure of Quisling collaboration in Norway. Or consider a comparison with another film from 1943 made in another occupied European country. Observing the distance separating Day of Wrath from Clouzot's The Raven would probably go a long way in describing the difference between the Scandinavian and the French temperaments in general. Be this as it may, they are definitely worlds apart as expressions of resistance to absolutist state repression. Clouzot's film is a critique of unprincipled conduct resulting in societal self-sabotage, clandestinely covered over with sarcastic jokes. Dreyer is dire, and Day of Wrath is just that; austere honesty about societal self-sabotage resulting from what are supposedly the highest principles. What is rotten in the state of Denmark is rotten because the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The accusatory inquisitors in Day of Wrath are not sinister sadists. They are fine fathers and husbands trying to do the right thing, however hypocritical and ultimately wrong they are.
But of course, this boils down to the difference between a modern sensibility that has long ago departed from any concept of sin and Dreyer's ongoing orbit within the gravitational field of old-time religion. In regard to this, seeing Day of Wrath now substantiates for me what I claimed about Haneke's The White Ribbon in my review of it previously. There is no perversion of the Platonic Good, no egotistical falling away from God's Love, no abomination of human nature, no metaphysical snake eating it's own tail, no sin. The White Ribbon is systemic secular sociology. It doesn't matter who committed the crimes because the message is that in effect everyone did. In this framework, all the children are of the corn a la Stephen King. So to speak, there's no need to fear that a witch-hunt will happen because everyone in town is a witch anyway.
Day of Wrath is not open to this specifically modern dreadful option. Dreyer dreads the witch-hunt for all the appropriate liberal reasons but still centered on sin as he is, he also dreads the possibility of witches; again, so to speak. Just as he presents a miracle in no uncertain empirical terms in Ordet (1955), in Day of Wrath he presents in very uncertain empirical terms an act of black magic. Very, very uncertain. There is no way to resolve the ambiguity at the core of the plot. It is possible that the wife - so attractive and sympathetic a character in the main, whose adultery is understandable and even forgivable - it is possible that she really did cause the death of her husband by conjuring sorcery. It is just as plausible that he was done in by a coincidence of physical collapse and psychological trauma, with some pathetic fallacy thrown in for theatrical good measure. The jury is still out. But that's the point. She might be a witch.
This possibility is plainly put forward in the film; in both the acting and the cinematography. Of course, Dreyer is not a headcase who thinks it's Halloween every night of the year. The point is that he takes sin seriously and sees it at work in ostensibly innocent human words and deeds. Watching Day of Wrath reminded me of reading St. Augustine on the manifestation of original sin in the behavior of infants, whose self-centered screaming he saw as the sign of nasty pride. It has a more scientific spin when Freud calls it primary narcissism but the fact remains and Dryer goes to what he considers to be the Christian heart of the matter. Personally, I am having none of it philosophically but Dreyer's theological orientation is nothing if not consistent.
This makes him one hell of an artist. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is one of the greatest films of all time. It must be ranked among the top ten. Ordet is an absolute masterpiece. Day of Wrath is not as outstandingly powerful. But it's pretty goddamn powerful! When the son/lover makes the wife/lover fall to her knees beside the coffin of the dead father/husband to swear to God that she did not kill the man, and Dreyer draws a black shadow across her eyes for just an instant - Jesus have mercy on my soul. Christ, the scene of the naked old woman being tortured alone... Here's hoping his vampire movie is a comedy.
You can watch the whole film online, if you've got the nerves for it. Here's part one: