Thursday, 27 June 2013

Vredens Dag (Day of Wrath) (1943)

Vredens Dag
Followers of this blog will know that I am following the original edition of The Book. However my copy is a Danish edition with a few alternative entries. So far the lists of the two editions have been identical, but now it is time for the first divergence. As film number 159 “The Man in Gray” is in the Danish version replaced by “Vredens Dag” (Day of Wrath).

“Vredens Dag” is made by the by now familiar director, Carl Th. Dreyer. He was the man behind the entries “Vampyr” and “La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc”. Only this time, probably due to his confinement to Denmark because of the war, he is making an entirely Danish film.

Since this film is not on the original list I will supply a short synopsis of the story.

“Vredens Dag” takes place in the seventeenth century at a time of witch hunt and harsh puritan convictions. We follow a little family consisting of a middle aged priest Absalon Pedressøn (Thorkild Roose), his very young wife Anna (Lisbeth Movin), his mother Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam) and his newly returned son Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye) of his first wife. In the opening sequences we follow the hunt and prosecution of an alleged witch (though her only crime is to know of healing herbs) and that sets the tone for the film.

The real drama however is within the little family. Merete, the old hag hates Anna. Absalon cares for Anna as a father and only late realize that maybe she is too young for him. Anna however quickly falls in love with Martin and while he returns her love he is also worrying about what would come out of their tryst. Anna on the other hand loves Martin with abandon without a care for the future.

This is one of those films where you can see 20 minutes in that everybody are heading for disaster. It is not a question of if it will happen, only of the magnitude of the disaster. Such movies are always difficult for me to see. It is like staring down the barrel of a gun and I actually had to fight my way through this one.

In another age this crisis could have been easily defused. The priest caring for both son and wife could let them have each other and be a father to both and all would be happy. But this is where the period becomes important. In this most puritan of ages the laws of life are most rigid and any deviation from the righteous path is fraught with danger. In this environment an affair between Anna and Martin is dynamite.

Everybody is to blame for the disaster, no one are innocent.

Absalon is not a bad person but he is so much a subject of his laws and religion that he forgets to think. Instead he is on autopilot as when he condemns Herlofs Marte for witchcraft. He took Anna as a wife without asking her. It was his duty and he did not question what Anna wanted and when he finally realized the error he was impotent to do anything about it. Only death could release her.

Anna herself of course ignited the bomb by starting a relationship with Martin. In another age we would say that she was following her heart and did the only right thing, but in this environment it was the very thing that could (and would) destroy the entire family. I cannot blame her for feeling as she does, but the total abandon with which she embraces it ignoring all warnings and common sense is irresponsible. She did not bewitch anybody, but in the puritan world love and lust is witchcraft and failing to realize and acknowledge that is her crime.   

Martin could have stopped the entire thing before it developed. He knew what they were doing, but was too weak to take the consequences either way. In this there are no half solutions. His betrayal in the end does not speak to his benefit either.

Finally there is Merete, easily identified as the only actual witch in the entire film. Her words are poison and she nourishes a dangerous atmosphere in their home. But even though she is a hateful being she did not cause the disaster. If anything she warned against it. She did however propel the disaster up into an entirely different and more deadly realm with her final accusation.

Guilty as they all are they are in fact not the real villains. That honor belongs to their puritan community with its laws and rigidity and zealous punishment of anything outside the narrow path.

This is a lot about guilt and sin and fear of God. The beautiful Anna with her unbridled love and willingness to break the rules is the personification of the “evil” these people try to stamp out. Evil in this respect being synonymous with witchcraft.

I am not sure if I really like this film. Dramatic though the story is I feel the inevitability of the conclusion to be a weight that makes the film very difficult to watch. I just know this will end badly. The acting and filming is as slow as a silent movie and the dialogue is so slow and articulated, theater-like, that it looks as if the characters are sleepwalking. There may be a point to this, because it supports the feeling of being trapped, but it also casts a dullness to the film. If you like the pace of “La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc” you will be quite at home here with “Vredens Dag”. The themes are not too far off either. Women crucified for their beliefs by intolerant representatives of a zealous society.

If you are different, be very very careful.


  1. It's been awhile since I saw this one, but I really loved it. The thing I thought was the most interesting was that Anna seemed to actually believe she was a witch in some way. She thought she could make things happen by just wishing it to be so. It shows how the culture can brainwash everybody concerned.

    The sleepwalking gets more pronounced in Dreyer's last two films. I love the beautiful images so much that it doesn't bother me too much but he really moves slowly.

    Did you notice anything about the language? Were the characters speaking a standard kind of Danish or was there anything unusual about the way they talked?

    1. Hmmm...yeah... I was considering that too. Maybe she thinks she has bewitching powers, but that I think is not so much the intent. What I hear her "say" is that if falling in love and caring is witchcraft then, yes, she is a witch. She is admitting she is a rebel and does not conform to the puritan norm.

      I was actually considering the language while I saw the film. It is not 17th century language but very much 1943. This is more or less what all Danish films of the era sound like. A kind of speak that often mocked for being antiquated today and is now only spoken in a small area of northern Zealand (Gammel Holte dialect). Curious how language develop over time...

    2. I think language is very interesting. I would like to ask if you thought the subtitling was accurate but realize you wouldn't need it!

    3. I actually did watch it wtih subtitles. That was the default setting and I did not bother to change it and you know how it is with old movies. Sometimes the sound quality is so bad you need the crutch of subtitles to get what is being said. As far as I could see the subtitling was really okay. It is not like watching chinese movies...

  2. Now that I have revisited the movie I have another language question. There is some debate on the IMDb board on movie about why the old woman is called Herlofs Marte. Some say it means her husband was named Herlof. Other say that Herlof or maybe Herlofs means something like weird, which would make her known as Weird Marte. Can you straighten this out?

    1. Well, Herlof was a common enough male name and I have never heard that Herlof should mean weird or odd, but then again, 18th century language was different. So, yes, I believe it refers to her husbonds name in the same way a woman may be called Mrs. John Smith rather than using her own name. You would also say it like that in a conversational situaltion: She is Herlof's Marte, not Jens's Marte.

    2. Thanks. That was the interpretation some folks had that the Herlofs tag distinguished her from the other Martes in the village. It makes sense.