Day Of Wrath (Vredens Dag) Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer1943

In Dreyer’s film, we each are confronted with our own ‘day of wrath’. The heavy presence of suspicion, fear, and betrayal are also joined with the piety, righteousness, and faith. It is perhaps the mixing of all these elements that make the film so compelling and heart wrenching. We are left with the interrogating voice: “whom do I condemn?”

The story unfolds in 1623 when the fear of witches was at a fevered pitch and examines how a small dose of fear, even if justified can consume families, communities, and love. Hersof’s Marte, who dabbles in folk medicine, states as she mixes a pumice of herbs from below the gallows, “there is a power in evil.” This power has wider and wilder influence than even she can imagine because of its being clothed in terms of the highest piety. She is caught by representatives of the Church and is tortured into giving a confession of collusion with the Devil.

It is in this torture of Hersof’s Marte, which is depicted in shocking though not explicit terms, that we can find our own selves under indictment. The Church does this with the best intentions, to save her soul, to cleanse the community of a grave danger. How far do we go as people of faith, in our best intentions and highest pieties, to protect our own and seek the salvation of souls?

Absalon, the Church magistrate, father of Martin, and widower who has remarried a beautiful young Anne, visits the condemned in her cell waiting to be burned at the stake and tells her he is praying for her soul. The woman is outraged; “I fear not heaven or hell! I don’t want to die! I don’t want to burn!” There is a horrible disconnect between the Church’s worldview and the condemned. What is seen by the former as a great crime (potions of herbs), the other sees only as an innocuous tradition. What the former sees as the highest goal (saving one’s soul) the other sees as complete nonsense-she merely wants to live. As the burning is about to take place, Hersof’s Marte tells Absalon that because she will burn, so will Anne. This threat is voiced to no one else, but its seed is laid and no later than that very evening is Absalon’s suspicion of his wife stirred. His young wife’s behavior is purely understandable-she is told that her mother was a witch who had the power to influence others. Through her loveless and marriage and newfound love for Martin, her stepson, she is driven to fantasize that she can control others to the point of perhaps even believing it.

The film shows that belief has its own reality. All one needs to have is the firm commitment to a belief and it bears the consequences and reality of its own. In the end, fear and suspicion draped in custom, religion, and best intentions leave a trail of death and brokenness.

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