Day of Wrath is set in Denmark in 1620s, a period of peaking witch-hunts, spurred by Christian IV’s orthodox Protestantism. An aging minister, Absalon, marries Anne, a much younger woman – even younger than Martin, Absalon’s son from his first marriage. Tyrannised by her stern mother-in-law, Anne falls in love with Martin. Meanwhile, an old woman, Herlof’s Marte, is convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Absalon refuses to save her like he saved Anne’s mother when she suspected of witchcraft. Anne begins to think she has inherited her mother’s occult powers. When Absalon dies shortly after she wishes him dead, she is weighed down by guilt and finally confesses that she killed him with sorcery.
The film’s sombre tone is underscored by its slow, deliberate rhythm and many quietly circling camera movements. Whether the camera is moving or still, every frame is lovingly composed, suggesting Dutch paintings (especially Rembrandt’s) in bare, whitewashed walls, black outfits and atmospherically designed shadow effects. The film depicts a world where puritan religion has such a merciless grip on people’s minds that they can only see passion and desire as the devil’s work – as witchcraft. Even those whose nature moves them to resist, like Anne, must invariably see themselves as enemies of good.
Day of Wrath premiered during the German occupation of Denmark and it’s tempting to regard this dark tale of torture and persecution as an allegory of its time. Dreyer, however, rejected any such interpretation. The film was based on a Norwegian play from 1908 and by all indications he had long been planning to adapt it for film. When the film opened, it was met with disappointment: people found it too slow, too gloomy. Only later was Dreyer’s chiaroscuro study of the psychology of self-repression acknowledged as an undisputed masterwork of Danish and international cinema.