On the Dark Side

In general, my tastes in movies run towards pictures with an uplifting theme, either in their general tone or as portraits of people overcoming challenges. Occasionally though, I find it interesting to watch a film with a darker theme, like the 1943 Danish drama Day of Wrath at the Detroit Film Theatre on April 24, 2010.

From time to time, it helps to peer into the abyss, to help us appreciate the better moments of life, be on alert for the more evil parts of the world, and not take ourselves too seriously. This impulse to confront our fears and lesser natures has spawned a wealth of films, from horror movies like Frankenstein and Dracula to Holocaust dramas like Schindler’s List.

I first heard of Day of Wrath about 30 years ago, in the fourth edition of The Filmgoer’s Companion (1975), in which author Leslie Halliwell described this movie as “Carl Dreyer’s horrifying drama of a medieval witch-hunt, uncannily photographed by Karl Andersson so that every scene looks like a Rembrandt painting.”

About 10 years later, in the late 1980s, I got to see this movie in the Lecture Hall of the Detroit Institute of Arts, as part of that great Afternoon Film Theatre series that the DIA used to have. I fondly remember those screenings, and the comfortable, intimate setting that it provided for different thematic series, like the tribute to Dreyer that included Day of Wrath.

Since then, I’ve seen Day of Wrath several times on video. Its gloomy, perverse tone makes it a perfect movie for riding out a bad mood, which I did one afternoon after a particularly trying day at work. It pulls you down right away, opening with the haunted singing of the Dies Irae hymn over images of ancient script.

I was very curious to see how DIA film curator Elliot Wilhelm would introduce this movie as part of the DFT 101 series that has run since March 20. The other films in the series—The Last Laugh, 8 1/2, and The Baker’s Wife—have all had humorous, upbeat endings that have left smiles on the faces of audience members. I also wondered how the crowd would react, in this era of moviegoing that includes films about vampires, witches, and strange magic.

Elliot first talked about how Day of Wrath was “one of the great films on the subject” of witch-hunts, and compared it to the Arthur Miller play The Crucible. He then talked about the filming technique of director Carl Theodor Dreyer. “The art of cinema, in his mind, depended on the human face.”

Elliot pointed out that Dreyer focused on the eyes of his characters to show not only the surface of a person’s actions, but also their intent. Dreyer also used as little dialogue as possible, and in Day of Wrath, did not allow actors and actresses to wear makeup.

Elliot also noted that Day of Wrath was filmed in Denmark after Germany invaded that country during World War II. “This was a great subject for a country under occupation.”

Haunting Images

Leslie Halliwell’s observation about the pictorial power of Day of Wrath was well-founded. The photography was remarkable, with its somber, shadowed detail. The faces were carefully lit to draw our attention to the different personal reactions to events. The most Rembrandt-like images occurred when the camera panned across the line of well-dressed men who would be passing judgment on the woman accused of being a witch.

The music played during outside scenes had tenderness and melancholy, similar to the works of Aaron Copland. The stillness and quiet spaces in the film also gave more emphasis to isolated sounds, like doors closing and footsteps.

As the plot thickened, it struck me how much was set in motion by the actions of a lonely, widowed middle aged pastor. And although the general impression of the film was that the accusations of witchcraft were unfair, there was ambiguity in how the two accused women in the film responded to the charges. At times, these women seemed to take advantage of the fear that people had of witches.

In Elliot Wilhelm’s introduction, without giving away too much of the plot, he asked the audience to ponder the meaning of the scene at the very end of the movie, when a young woman accused of a being a witch accepts her fate. Was it an admission of guilt, or was the woman just giving in to the pressure from the masses?

The faces and voices of the young boys singing during the public burning of a witch near the beginning of the movie had a piercing, revealing quality about the community’s conviction that this woman was a witch and she must be executed. At times, this movie reminded me of that human impulse to look for something or someone to blame when something mysteriously goes wrong.

I had expected some people to walk out of Day of Wrath, because of its deliberate pace and depressing subject, but surprisingly, most people stuck around for the whole movie, perhaps taken in by its compelling power. In the lobby afterwards, I heard someone say something about “those Scandinavian movies.”

After the movie, enjoying some vegetarian chili in the Crystal Gallery Café, I tried to draw some meaning out of this film, here in the year 2010. I thought, movies like this sharpen your senses, add an edge of seriousness to every action, make you wonder how you’ll feel the next time you step into the outside world.

But if there was any danger of Day of Wrath plunging a visitor into a spiral of depression, the DFT quickly came to the rescue with its next movie. Mid-August Lunch was a delightfully human Italian comedy about a middle aged man who’s forced to share an apartment with four elderly women.

And next week, the DFT wraps up its Winter 2010 season with a batch of comedies. Mid-August Lunch continues its run, while the DFT also screens the zany anarchy of the Marx Brothers in Horse Feathers (1932) and the comic chaos of French comedian Jacques Tati in Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953).

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2010 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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