[This post contains spoilers about the ending of Carl Dreyer’s film, so don’t read if you plan to watch it – although you might say that the outcome seems inevitable, even fated, from the start… ]
I can’t be the only one who was a little perturbed by Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. Set in 1623, it deals with the repercussive effects of accusations of witchcraft in a small village. Characterised by Dreyer’s noted austerity in the mise-en-scene, dialogue and tone, it hinges upon the desire between a young wife Anne and her stepson Martin. We learn that Anne ‘s mother had been accused of witchcraft, but was spared execution in return for her marriage to the Absalon, the minister in charge of the investigations. The first section of the film covers the arrest, trial and execution a woman charged with witchcraft, a harrowing sequence that establishes the punishments awaiting: the weight of these scenes looms over the duration of the film, representing the threat of discovery for any transgression within the community. Haunted by the execution, which coincides with the start of her affair with her stepson, Anne comes to wonder if she has inherited the power to summon the living and the dead from her mother.
My first reaction was as follows. The film leaves things ambiguous. That is, at the end of the film, a viewer might see it as a picture of stubborn men eradicating troublesome women in line with a fiercely guarded and hypocritical religious mandate to rule and repress the people it is charged with ministering to. At the same time, it allows space for the interpretation that supernatural forces really have been at work, and that, however harsh, the punishments are at least meted out to the correctly accused. This later interpretation is allowed by the way that Dreyer piles up a series of coincidences. As she goes to her death, the old witch threatens one of the clergy that she will destroy him from beyond the grave; sure enough, he is soon lying on his deathbed. Testing out her powers to summon people, Anne whispers Martin’s name and he appears behind her as if bidden to materialise. Later, when she says she has thought about what might happen if her husband were dead, Dreyer cuts to Absalon walking outside, struck by a sudden deathly pain in his heart. Finally, when Anne reveals her affair with Martin and appears to wish her husband dead, he promptly keels over – is this the supernatural enactment of her will, or a sudden shock to an old man’s stricken ticker? By cutting between Anne’s ennunciation and the achievement of her wish, Dreyer makes an analog of her power to make things happen, and enshrines in montage the possibility of supernatural agency. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Dreyer is justifying the mass persecution of women – the scenes of torture clearly elicit sympathy for the tormented woman cornered by rhetorical systems that prevent her from offering any workable defence. But the problem with witchcraft accusations was not that they misread the evidence, but that there was no evidence. I hope it’s not hubristic to announce that, since it’s impossible to summon the living and the dead by power of the mind, there’s no point entertaining the notion that it might have been.
Then I figured it out. Sorry if I’m a bit slow on the uptake. What Dreyer is really doing is simulating the sort of mindset that might accept the existence of evil spirits – Anne herself may even come to believe that she has this power, choosing to interpret the coincidences as evidence of dark forces at work. It conveys the tortuous circular logic that constructs connections between distinct phenomena and from them builds an association (just as montage editing can do), in turn reinforcing the tortuous, circular logic that permits an irrefutable inquisition to take place. As such, the condemnation of the witchcraft trials is that much more hard-won as a result.