Day of Wrath (1943)

Why do the wicked prosper while the weak and feeble are ground to dust? Day of Wrath takes on one of the great theological quandaries, a question that has led to much debate and also much doubt. How can people who believe in a good God deal with the persistence of wickedness all around them? And who can try to reconcile this wickedness?

In a small Denmark town, Rev. Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose) is the final voice of judgment against those who are wicked. During this time, the witch hunt in Denmark is at its zenith. After snaring an old woman, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier), accused of witchcraft, Absalon is forced to face his own past, a rather juicy secret that allowed him to marry his second wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin).

Therefore, the film brings into question if this man even has the right to condemn and judge these people to their deaths when he is guilty of a wickedness that is perhaps even more sinister than the sins commuted by those he has burned alive. Furthermore, he is unable to see the very wickedness that abides under his own roof.

While this adds to the thematic tension of the film, it’s also a great bit of drama. Each character has a limit to what they know and it creates for tense sequences as the characters try to each hid their wickedness and indiscretions from each other, creating some emotionally gut wrenching moments where everything stands upon the edge of a knife.

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer and the various actors of the film do a fantastic job at capturing some dark and depraved material in such a menacing and foreboding way without being explicit or salacious. There’s some gruesome violence and deviant sexual acts that take place off the camera, but the way the film is shot and the reaction of the characters make some revolting and sickening moment where the full wickedness of their act is felt.

Dreyer and cinematographer Karl Andersson give the film a fantastic dark and foreboding mood. One of the real powers of these two as visual craftsmen is their ability to get fantastic contrast between the light and the dark and craft lighting that feels dramatic without being visually overwhelming or distracting.

The story, theme and visuals all build around the idea that wickedness is inescapable. Here’s a society built around purging all evil from its midst, but all it has taught the people is how to deceive those around them. Acts of judgment don’t have the power to stop it and sometimes can only add to the wickedness.

The film has no hope to offer, only judgment and wrath. It’s a strong exploration of a theological issue, but it also seems gung-ho about bringing the hammer down on everyone. Is there no chance for any sort of redemption for these characters or is the coming wrath inevitable? Day of Wrath isn’t interested redemption, making it a clean separation from Ordet, it’s only interested in damnation.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing