In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that without the capability to love, a believer, even one martyred for the faith, cannot be a real Christian. “If I give away all I have,” he wrote, “and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In his 1943 film Day of Wrath, which was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Carl Theodore Dreyer dramatizes Paul’s arguments, demonstrates what happens to Christians who have given up on the idea of love for the idea of control.
Set in the early 17th Century, Day of Wrath is divided into two parts. In the first half, an old woman named Herlof’s Marte is accused of witchcraft, tortured into a confession, and found guilty by a tribunal led by an elderly Pastor named Absalon Pederssøn. In a last ditch effort to save her life, Marte threatens to denounce Pederssøn’s much younger wife Anna, a woman in her 20s played by Lisbeth Movin. Several years before, Pederssøn had intervened in the trial of Anna’s mother, who had also been accused of witchcraft, because he wanted to possess her beautiful young daughter.
Pederssøn, who lives with Anna and Merete, his domineering mother, is probably in his 40s or his 50s, but he appears much older. Indeed, Thorkild Roose, who plays Pederssøn, and Sigrid Neiiendam, who plays Merete, are both in their 70s. His marriage to Anna, which was founded on coercion, not love, has always been barren. They have no children. Anna is timid, glum, takes no joy in her young life. Pederssøn, a well-respected senior clergyman, lacks self-awareness, seems to enjoy nothing more than the power he has, not only over his wife, but their fanatically religious small town. Herlof’s Marte knows he could save her if he wants. He chooses not to.
On the day Herlof’s Marte is burned alive, Pederssøn’s son from an earlier marriage, a handsome young man in his 20s named Martin, returns home to his estranged father. For Anna, who has apparently been immune to all of the other young men in the village, it’s love at first sight. Martin, in a sense, completes his father, rolls back the clock to the days when the old Pastor had the kind of youth and vitality that could have given Anna a happy marriage. In a long monologue Anna speculates about what could have been, a dream of a happy ending that conjures up the image of her as Mary, Martin as Joseph, and the child her elderly husband has been unable to give her.
Dreyer has always denied that Day of Wrath is a political allegory about the persecution of the Jews, but it’s impossible not to see Anna as the kind of person who’s dangerous to a totalitarian government. Anna loves Martin so completely and so passionately that she would have probably become the center of attention at Woodstock, or in San Francisco during The Summer of Love, let alone in the stark, black and white world of Protestant Scandinavia in the 1620s. Yet Dreyer, who was not a religious man himself, takes religion seriously. Anna is not so much a heroine as she a heretic, a young woman who reduces the idea of “love” to the idea of “sex.”
Before she died, Herlof’s Marte had remarked that Anna’s mother had the ability to call up Satan at will and kill a man by wishing him dead. Denying any consolation of religion — she lost her faith and any belief in the afterlife years ago — she reminds Pederssøn that, since Anna has inherited the same ability, he will die a painful death, not at the hands, but at the thoughts of his young wife. She will wish him dead, and he will die, painfully. On the night of a violent storm, while Pederssøn is out administering the last rights to a dying man, Anna begs Martin to swear that if she’s ever accused of witchcraft, he will stand by her side and deny it. Marete, well aware that the two young people have fallen madly in love, hovers over them like the Gestapo, hoping to catch them in an unguarded moment. While Day of Wrath may not be a political oligarchy, it is certainly a powerful dramatization of what it’s like to live in a police state, a social order that transforms youthful sexuality into a death sentence.
Authoritarian governments rarely fall when they’re young and vital, able to stomp out any sign of dissent quickly and efficiently. Like Polish communism in 1980, or Portuguese clerical fascism in the 1970s, they tend to give up the ghost when they grow old and soft, whey they allow the people space to protest and express themselves, when they admit mistakes. When Absolon Pederssøn returns home to his young wife, he is still shaken, not only from having administered the last rights to a dying man before walking home in a violent storm, but because he senses his wife’s hatred, feels his imminent demise. So he apologizes, confesses that he’s never loved her and that he took her youth, not out of any dirty old man’s lust, but out of a desire to repress and control.
For anyone who’s ever felt the kind of uncontrollable rage you feel when your oppressor finally apologizes far too late to make any difference in your life, Anna’s violent reaction will seem all too familiar. The beautiful young Lisbeth Tovin turns into Satan himself, if in fact you could imagine Satan before he rebelled, when he was Lucifer, the bringer of light, the most beautiful angel in heaven. Her answer to her elderly husband, who asks her if she had ever wished him dead, becomes a blasphemous prayer, a rhetorically perfect incantation of hatred pulled out of a dark, Satanic hymnal. Yes, she says, I’ve wished you dead, hundreds of times. I’ve wished you dead when you were away. I’ve wished you dead because you couldn’t even give me a child to hold in my arms. I’ve wished you dead when you were at my side. But never have I wished you dead more than when I realized you denied me the life I could have had with your son. I wish you dead now.
Absalon Pederssøn, who had expected the confession of a guilty woman, not a passionate call to rebellion by an avenging angel, promptly does exactly what she wants, takes one step upstairs to go to bed and tumbles back down, dead of shock. Anna, who knows perfectly well that Merete will denounce her as a witch and that she is going to be burned at the stake, doesn’t care. As long as Martin stands by her side, she will go to a martyr’s death, perishing in the flames as happily as the early Christians, who sang as the Roman lions tore them limb from limb. Alas poor Anna. While she understands bitter, sexless old men, she does not understand young, vital, handsome, but mentally and spiritually weak young men. Martin, not surprisingly, denounces her at her trial. For Anna, her execution will be no different from Herlof’s Marte. She will go to her death only after she’s lost her faith in God, the Love so eloquently evoked by St. Paul in his epistles, but which in her narrow minded point of view, she had heretically reduced to the promise of a good fuck.
I’m not exactly sure how Scandinavians, the most secular people on earth, manage to explore the religious impulse so well in their art, but Day of Wrath is a masterpiece on the level of The Seventh Seal.