Day Of Wrath – What Is A Witch?

Thoughts On: Day Of Wrath (Vredens Dag, 1943)

A young girl, forced into a marriage with an old reverend, falls for his son amidst accusations of witchcraft.

Day Of Wrath

There are few auteurs that represent their own form or niche of cinema, and Dreyer is one of the rare few who embody their own personal corner of cinema. With Day Of Wrath, we have then been given yet another masterpiece, one that is seemingly as profound and complex as films get, moreover, one that is rich with subtle, yet piercingly beautiful, cinematography and cinematic language. And despite the criticism that this is a slow and mundane movie, I was wholly immersed into this film thanks to its mature pacing – which, admittedly, isn’t as fast as Mad Max: Fury Road. It is the narrative of Day Of Wrath, however, that is the crux of this monstrously brilliant movie, and I stumbled into its depths with a silly question: does Dreyer actually believe in witches?

Whilst I asked this to myself satirically, questioning what cinema may look like in the hands of 17th century artists and how it would be received by modern audiences, it soon became clear to me that Dreyer has not made a simple film that just critiques witch hunts, nor does it seem like he has constructed a narrative that is particularly reflective of his context. After all, despite being made in 1943, Dreyer denied that this film was about the persecution of Jews – even after critics had interpreted it as such. Day Of Wrath is then quite far removed from works such as The Crucible by Arthur Miller, which both critique the phenomena of a witch hunt and used it to comment on (what was) contemporary topics, namely, McCarthyism. Dreyer’s film is much more complex as it transcends its historical roots, manifesting itself as a parabolic exposition of something deep within the human complex. To delve into this, we’ll quickly outline the main elements of this narrative.

Day Of Wrath is centred on four figures; Absalon, an aged reverend; Merete, his mother; Anne, his young wife; and Martin, his son, who is only slightly older than Anne. With the opening of the film Herlofs Marte, an elderly lady, is accused of being a witch. She is soon captured and interrogated by clergymen, Absalon being one of those that is apart of the trail. Whilst Herlofs¬†confesses to being a witch, she attempts to barter with Absalon, revealing that he saved Anne’s mother, who was also accused of being a witch, only so that he could marry her daughter. Absalon refuses her barter and sends her to burn at the stake, and she goes without denouncing Anne’s already deceased mother. Following this, Martin returns home to his father, grandmother and new mother. For the majority of the narrative, Martin and Anne then fall for one another, hiding behind Absalon’s back, yet unable to escape the presumptuous and contemptuous gaze of Merete, the grandmother. Coming towards the climax of the movie, Absalon finds himself at the deathbed of a neighbour on a stormy night. Returning home, having been affected by the death he witnessed and even feeling death’s calling himself, Absalon confesses to Anne that he shouldn’t have taken her youth. She accepts his confession and admits that she wishes he died before revealing her affair with his son – a fact which kills him. After being defended by Martin at his funeral, Merete claims that Anne killed Absalon and that she, like her mother, is a witch. She is then asked to testify before his dead body and chooses to reveal that she is in fact a witch that used evil powers to kill her husband.

This is an intriguing narrative when we consider the social interactions being represented – though it will seem a pointlessly macabre and boring one if you wanted to see a condemnation of the witch hunt, one rife with hysteria, accusation and melodrama. Nonetheless, we come back to my initial question: does Dreyer actually believe in witches? For the symbolism and subtext that he employs, I would have to conclude that he doesn’t exhibit anything that suggest that he believes in real witches, much rather that he understands the metaphor beneath the religious/spiritual icon. And in such, it seems that Dreyer comprehends what fuelled witch hunts; a stance from which he doesn’t simply construct basic commentary, but, as said, reveals something of human nature. What the narrative of Day Of Wrath is then centred on is one question: what is a witch?

“Witch” is a term that crosses countless cultures with varying meaning, encompassing everything pertaining to medicine to magic to divine powers to evil spell-casting. So, to specify, Dreyer is of course dealing with a Christian interpretation of a witch, one that is attributed to evil and heresy. The Christian ‘witch’ is then one which can raise the dead, will people deceased and communicate with the devil. These are the key elements that are focused on in Day Of Wrath. And if we combine this understanding with a reading of a narrative such as that in The Crucible, we can understand that witches and witch hunts were often chaotic means of manipulating faith as to hurt people or avenge social disputes and quarries. With this being a given as we enter this narrative, the idea that witches could raise the dead, kill people or talk to the devil becomes a subtle means of inciting the same social chaos. In such, through Day Of Wrath it is clear that we are also seeing social disputes, like those between Absalon and Anne, Marete and Anne or Absalon and Herlofs, being funnelled into this concept of the witch. What this then seems to imply is that is the witch is a scapegoat.

We can understand this idea even better if we delve into a detail of Jewish tradition – from which the term ‘scapegoat’ comes from. A scapegoat was a practice from Leviticus (the third book of the Jewish bible) and was a literal goat that villagers would impart their sins onto before sending it into a dessert to die. A witch is very nearly this. In accusing people (often women, though many men were certainly accused and burnt at the stake) of being a witch, people would essentially be doing the equivalent of whispering their secrets into seashells before casting them into an ocean or writing a sin on a piece of paper and burying it some place that no one will ever find it. There is a stark difference between seashells, letters and people, however, and that is that one is a living breathing organism whilst the others aren’t. There is thus a social element added to the witch as a scapegoat, one that can be interpreted in two ways.

Morally, burning witches is an obvious wrong and a barbaric practice – such is a common, basic commentary. Metaphorically, however, this phenomena is a little more nuanced and revealing of social dynamics. As they are depicted in Day Of Wrath, witches are scapegoats, but of a different kind to what has been implied so far. Witches in Day Of Wrath are scapegoats which carry the burden of selfishness (not necessarily sin, malice or jealousy alone). The key distinguishing element of this narrative from many others is then that its depiction of selfishness isn’t always tantamount to evil. In such, much of that which is funnelled into Anne, who becomes a scapegoat witch, is not morally polarising and clearly wrong. For example, whilst her and Absalon’s son have an affair, this is only after Absalon took Anne and stole away her youth (as he admits). Moreover, Martin recognises their wrongdoing and doesn’t accuse Anne of being a witch whilst he believes that she didn’t wish him dead. Thus, he doesn’t give her the burden of his guilt – not until it is revealed that she did wish her father dead. When it concerns Merete, Absalon’s mother, she accuses Anne and despises her, but she does so assuming that Anne has wronged her son – which she did. And when it concerns Absalon, he took Anne’s youth selfishly, but was never a terrible husband to her. The more we assess the characters, it’s clear that they all have their shades of good and bad as well as shades we can empathise with and denounce. What lies at the crux of everything negative attributed to these characters, however, is an act of dishonourable selfishness. Primarily, it is Absalon who takes Anne and contributes to the practice of burning witches. Then it is Merete who hates Anne instead of her son’s decision to bring her into her home. After this it is Anne and Martin who selfishly deceive Absalon. Finally, it is Anne who sends him to his grave.

Every action described is understandable (to varying degrees) and thus we find ourselves in a confounding situation of escalating reactions, all of which are selfish and guided by social context, few of which are direct acts of evil. This situation is incredibly difficult for all of the individuals within this narrative to manage and is exactly why there are such strong emotions of guilt and resentment within this film. The solution that everybody in this narrative eventually takes advantage of is then the scapegoat witch, which Anne is nominated to be. It is then Merete who relieves herself of the burden of her son’s and grandson’s wrongdoings with Anne, and Martin who relieves himself of the guilt of having an affair with his step-mother. Anne also relieves herself of all resentment and guilt with a sacrificial truth; she confesses that she is a witch, that she is the centre of a whole family’s resentment and guilt (unduly or not).

We see a similar paradigm earlier in the narrative with Absalon and the first witch that is burnt: Herlofs. She dies, taking with her his secret, just like Anne probably dies taking with her a family’s shame. So, what this says is that Dreyer does believe in witches; he does believe that social groups create human scapegoats that are burdened with sin and then sent into the desert. He then criticises not the hysteria and the chaos that this can incite, but he criticises, with understanding, the humanity of such a phenomena. This is why Absalon dies weighted down by guilt and is essentially his own undoing. However, Dreyer doesn’t just resort to critique, he sheds mournful appraisal upon scapegoat witches, and does so with a powerful last image. Fading from a cross…

… Dreyer’s last image is this:

The second cross here is one that, though there are a plethora of different cross symbols connected to Christianity, I couldn’t succinctly identify through research. I then think that this is possibly a symbol that Dreyer has invented with multiple meanings. Firstly, the arrow on top of the cross seems to simulate a home, the juxtaposition to Jesus’ cross implying that there has been a sacrifice in a home and for a family; which explains Anne’s final choice. Second, this symbol uses a triangle, which is often associated with hierarchies and the Holy Trinity in Christianity. This would imply that Anne died for social purposes (the group hierarchy which she was at the bottom of), but also purposes connected to divinity and a higher power, which solidifies the reference to Jesus. Thirdly, however, this symbol closely resembles this…

… which is an alchemical¬†cross; a satanic cross attributed to witches. This juxtaposition is most profound as it associates Anne, a scapegoat witch, with an archetypal scapegoat: Jesus. This implies that they both served higher purposes through suffering – in Anne’s case, maybe to prevent endless witch hunts as well as her own suffering – and even leaves Anne with tragic shades of the Virgin Mary about her (especially with her wanting to be a mother).

Whilst any of these interpretations seem viable thanks to the ambiguous nature of the cross, I see all three combining as the intricate and immensely profound social commentary of Day Of Wrath. This is then a film that is as much about selfishness, blame and shame as it is self-sacrifice and responsibility, leaving us wondering if a Day Of Wrath has really begun in the final moments with Anne’s accusation, or if she has somehow saved the family with a sacrifice. I believe it is this that lies at the heart of this masterpiece, but, I’ll end by turning to you. What are your thoughts on all we’ve covered today?

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