not in our stars, but in ourselves
It’s been a bit botched in popular imagination, after numerous incorrect citations and then more incorrect citations (xeroxes of xeroxes), but the Margaret Atwood-attributed aphorism is as true now as it was in the seventeenth century: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
In a small Danish village in 1623, the clergy and townsfolk are actively hunting witches. Reverend Absalon Pederssøn (Thorkild Roose) is the last resort for these accused women: if they don’t confess upon being imprisoned, they’re tortured; if they don’t confess after torture, they’re sentenced to death; if they don’t confess when they’re tied to the stake, their souls aren’t pardoned by the Reverend. In other words, there’s no hope for a woman who’s been denounced as a witch – except in one case. Absalon’s young wife, Anne (Lisbeth Movin), is the daughter of one such accused witch. Because Absalon wanted to marry Anne, he spared her mother’s life, even though her mother had the power of “invocation”: capable of calling up the living or the dead, capable of sending Death to take anyone she pleased. Anne had been unaware of this, but she learns when one of her mother’s friends is accused of witchcraft herself. Old Herlof’s Marte (Anna Svierkier) had helped to hide Anne’s mother, and she begs Anne to return the favor now. Herlof’s Marte is found all the same, imprisoned and tortured and put to death – all while she vows revenge against Absalon for not helping her when he’d helped Anne’s mother. Meanwhile, Absalon’s son from his first marriage, Martin (Prebon Lerdorff Rye), arrives home. He and Anne are approximately the same age, and the spark between them is instantaneous (and nearly visible on the film itself). As Anne thinks more about her mother’s supposed power, she becomes more brazen in pursuing Martin – who doesn’t put up much of a fight. Absalon’s mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), sees just what’s happening and disapproves heartily, but she’s not able to do much about it until it’s all over for all of them.
As is true of every Carl Theodor Dreyer film I’ve ever seen (and all the rest, no doubt, which I’ll get around to seeing), there’s a hell of a lot to unpack here. There is, for instance, the time and place he made his movie. Denmark in 1943 was occupied by Nazis, and they were hunting and deporting (i.e., sending to concentration and death camps) Jews. It’s hardly a stretch to read the clergy as occupying forces, the “witches” as persecuted Jews – but Dreyer himself always maintained that such resemblances were coincidental. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes:
We bear the frightening knowledge that genuine evil resides in this confined world, but without a capacity to locate it in literal sorcery, we paranoiacally find it everywhere and nowhere—in a kind of collective virus infecting a whole community without ever being clearly traceable to a single individual.
This film was made and premiered during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, when Jews were being deported. […] Yet according to critic Tom Milne, Dreyer “always insisted that any such political overtones to the film were strictly unintentional”—meaning that Day of Wrath may be the reverse of a conscious allegory like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (almost certainly influenced by Dreyer’s film). But this only suggests that some works of art ultimately know and say more than their makers. Like one of the characters in his masterpiece, Dreyer was trapped in his obsessions, yet he remained so faithful to his art that he may have wound up saying more about his own times than most direct commentators.
In some sense, of course Day of Wrath is informed by the historical moment in which it was made, despite being a period film; but in another sense, it’s far too rich – emotionally, texturally, erotically, psychologically – to be mere allegory.
To that end: without being an explicitly feminist film (did such things exist in the 1940s?), Day of Wrath is a piercing exploration of what all that witch-hunting was really about. It’s about the male fear of female power. The first scene in the film is a seemingly innocuous one. Herlof’s Marte has an herbal brew, made from the herbs that grow under the gallows, that she’s about to administer to another middle-aged woman complaining of pain. We never learn what the pain is, specifically, but it’s probably not all that crazy to imagine that it’s related to menstruation or menopause or some other physical problem of the cis female body. Herlof’s Marte is helping another woman to live free of pain. The men in their little village – like many men in many other little villages – rely on their women continuing to live in pain, fear, and submission. For women to realize that they needn’t live that way, that they deserve their own bodily autonomy, that they can pursue things they want and not simply wait to be pursued – that’s all entirely too revolutionary for these dour little men.
The most revolutionary of all is Anne, obviously. When we first meet her, she’s a meek little wife. Her husband seems kind, in his way, but it’s clear that he simply chose to marry her, and that was that. His feelings for her don’t even seem to be all that sexual; they err much more on the side of fatherly. Anne is a beautiful young woman who wants to love and be loved. What’s so wrong about that? In a more sane world, in a world where she would be permitted to have her own say in whom she marries, there would be nothing at all wrong with it. No one should be forced into a loveless, sexless marriage, but that’s where she is. Absalon is fond of her, in his fashion, but fondness is no substitute for getting properly fucked once in a while. And make no mistake: Anne and Martin are properly fucking. Unlike his classical Hollywood contemporaries, Dreyer leaves us in no doubt of just what’s happening during his ellipses. The crackling electricity between Anne and Martin when they’re onscreen together is proof enough.
Humanist that he is, however, Dreyer isn’t merely giving us a tidy little domestic melodrama about a stepmother and stepson having some dangerous liaisons. Even on that level, he provides a full spectrum of human emotion and pain. Absalon, despite his complicity in the brutal deaths of however many accused witches, is a man who wants to do the right thing. When it occurs to him that all this witch-hunting is wrong, that his marriage to Anne is wrong, that putting Herlof’s Marte to death was wrong, he’s horrified. Martin loves his father, hates the witch-hunting, adores Anne, and feels torn asunder by all these equally powerful forces pulling him in different directions. And Anne, for her part, isn’t some sort of feminist hero for daring to take what she wants. She believes she has the same power – emanating from the Evil One, rather than from herself – as her mother. She deserves a better life than the one she has, but she deliberately sets out to enthrall (enslave) her stepson. She thinks about how much easier everything would be if poor Absalon died – and, during an argument/confession, she (thinks that she) makes it happen. If the voices around her weren’t telling her that everything she wants and feels were evil, perhaps she would have acted on those desires and emotions in a less hurtful way. Since she’s told she’s evil, she decides to be evil. She’s not, really, but she believes that she is. What a horrible world.
In other words, no one is innocent. No one is really evil, either. They’re all humans, struggling to make sense of an apparently senseless world. Masculinity attempts to impose order via the church and other ideological institutions. Femininity is presented as natural, unknowable, uncontrollable except through torture and death. Without those chains, without that binary, wouldn’t we all be much better off?