Vredens dag (Day of Wrath) (1943)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer.
Starring: Preben Lerdorff Rye (Martin, Absalon's son from first marriage), Lisbeth Movin (Anne Pedersdotter, Absalon's second wife), Preben Neergaard (Degn), Sigrid Neiiendam (Merete, Absalon's mother), Thorkild Roose (Rev. Absalon Pederssn), Anna Svierkier (Herlofs Marte), Olaf Ussing (Laurentius).
accusations of witchcraft in a 17th c. Danish village
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.
A man names Jens Uhlen writes a letter: "And whereas the said Herlof’s Marte is denounced as a witch by three respected and worthy citizens, we rule that she be seized and brought before the Court."
Two elderly women talk. The white haired woman, Herlof’s Marte, has made a tea of herbs from under the gallows. A bell is being rung. The sitting woman asks: "Who are they hunting now?" The woman steps out to see and then leaves the house.
People are heard shouting: "She’ll be put on the stake and shall burn. And burn with smoldering flesh." There is a knock at the door and Herlof’s Marte is told to come out. She sneaks out the small door used by the pigs.
Absalom lives with his wife and mother in a nice home. There is a lot of friction between mother and daughter-in-law. Absalom is old enough to be his wife’s father. He tells his mother that she is too hard on his wife. Mom justifies her cruelty by saying she is trying to make her daughter-in-law a good wife.
This is the second marriage for Absalom. His son Martin is coming home today by ship. Absalom goes to pick him up. Martin comes to the house. He meets his step-mother, Anne. They introduce themselves gradually. He promises to be a good son to her, although they are around the same age.
Herlof’s Marte sneaks around trying to avoid being seen.
Absalom returns home. Martin hides himself in order to surprise his father. Absalom is glad to see his son when he suddenly stands by his side. He asks Martin to give his mother a kiss. He kisses her on the forehead.
Herlof’s Marte comes to Anne and asks her to hide her. Otherwise, they will burn her. Herlof’s Marte has been cut in her rambles and is bleeding. The elderly woman says that she helped Anne’s mother when she was denounced as a witch. Anne denies it, but Herlof’s Marte insists it’s true. They only let her mother go because Anne married Absalom.
The mother-in-law is heard approaching and Anne sends the woman upstairs to hide. The witch hunters come in looking for Herlof’s Marte. Some children saw her come into the rectory. Absalom lets the witch-hunter look for her. He finds blood stains on the steps leading upstairs and goes up to look. He finds her and we hear a scream from the woman. Anne starts crying.
Absalom is given the job of getting Herlof’s Marte to confess. The woman asks him to help her, but he says only God can help her. But the woman insists that he can help her if he wants to. Anne watches from the doorway with the door just slightly ajar. She asks him just to do what he did for Anne’s mother: "You spared her." Absalom says the woman is lying. Absalom has her kneel in front of him. He tells her not to beg for her life but to pray for her soul. He tells her to confess that she is a witch. She does not. Absalom rings a bell to have the lady taken out. She tells the minister that she is so terribly afraid to die. Anne closes the door.
Martin and Anne listen for a while to the children’s chorus. They are being taught to sing an anti-witchcraft song about the day of wrath. They will sing the song at the burning.
The old lady is tortured to get her to confess in front of the clergy. She finally says yes to being a witch. She, topless, is asked more questions. With the threat of more torture the woman has to make up stories to answer the inquisitor’s questions. The inquisitor is congratulated on a fine confession. But the inquisitor is not done with the old woman. Now he wants her to name names of the other witches. She says she knows of only one, but she has forgotten her name. The holy men get set to torture the woman some more, but Absalom tells them he will speak to her in private. Herlof’s Marte begs Absalom to spare her. He only prays and then has her taken away. Absalom signs a statement, date June 14, 1623, that Herlof’s Marte was subjected to painful interrogation after which she made a confession.
Martin and Anne take a walk in the wheat fields. She and he pick wild flowers. They are both happy. But then she sees a wagon bringing firewood to use for the burning at the stake.
Absalom goes to see Herlof’s Marte. She is mad that he has not intervened on her behalf. She threatens him that if she dies, next will be Anne. She then tells him to get out.
Marte is brought to the place of execution. Martin sits with the clergy, but he leaves saying he cannot stand what is about to happen. Anne watches him leave from a window. The chorus is put in its desired place. Anne cries. Martin comes up to console Anne.
Marte, tied to a ladder, asks to speak with Absalom. She tells him that she shall denounce Anne. The ladder is raised up. When it is in place, Absalom gives the signal and the ladder is pushed over into the fire. Marte, still tied to the ladder, falls directly into the fire. Martin holds Anne as she cries.
Absalom prays to God. His mother listens in. When he finishes he walks over to her. She wants to know what is tormenting him so? He tells her that he has sinned. She says that he’s changed since the arrest of Marte. And now that she is gone he is acting so strange. Mother asks if Marte denounced someone and is he keeping it a secret? He says she denounced no living person. Mother says what about the late mother of Anne? Her son says that mother says these thing out of her hatred for Anne. Mom, however, says it’s because she loves him so much.
Martin and Anne go into see Absalom. The son says good night to his father but Absalom tells Anne they have something to talk about. He tells Anne that her mother confessed to being a witch. She could call up the living and the dead and they would come. If she wanted someone dead, they would die. Anne asks her husband if he spared her mother in order to marry her (Anne). She was just a child at the time. He never even asked her if she loved him. She wants him to make love to her, but he says he has much to talk to God about. He tells her good night.
Anne is amazed that humans could have such strong powers as those of calling forth even the dead. She calls for Martin. He shows up. They embrace. She cries. They kiss. When Martin hears noise he asks her to come outside to the birches. She is so happy and he too. They walk to the spring to drink. Absalom sits by the fire thinking. They sit amongst the tall grasses. Anne asks Martin to hold her tight and make her happy. They lay on the ground.
Grandmother does not like the changes she is seeing. Anne is humming and singing and seems so happy. And Martin seems to have distanced himself from her and her son. About Anne, she says she hates the "wretched woman". She goes in to speak with her son in private.
Martin asks Anne what will come of all this? She kisses him and he reciprocates.
Grandmother opens the door and Absalom hears his wife laughing. He says it’s the first time he has ever heard her laugh in the house. He notes that she’s changed. Even her voice is different. They leave the room. Absalom tells Anne that it was good to hear her laugh. Anne gets up to say they are just leaving. They are taking a walk by the river. They leave.
The chaplain delivers a message from Master Laurentius to Absalom. He is dying and asks that Absalom come and prepare him. Absalom will go.
Anne and Martin go for a boat ride. Anne is so happy, but Martin worries what will become of their relationship. He often thinks of his father. Anne says she things only of Martin.
Absalom arrives at Laurentius’s bedside. Laurentius, the inquisitor of Marte, says: "Herlof’s Marte did not forget me." She promised him death.
Martin suggests to Anne that they separate for awhile. Anne says they can never separate.
Laurentius speaks of death. Absalom says he too feels death approaching him. But he will meet it with courage and hope.
Strong winds blow. Mother says that she hopes her son doesn’t return home over the bog. Mother says they will all wait for father. So Anne says she’s going to bed.
Grandmother tells Martin that he should take a wife. Martin says there’s no hurry. He asks grandmother why she dislikes Anne so? Grandmother says she hates Anne, but she doesn’t say why. She says good night.
Anne comes out to see Martin. She looks like she’s ready to pounce on him. The chaplain and Absalom walk to Absalom’s home. Anne tells Martin that she never loved his father and his father never loved her. She says she often thinks what it would be like if her were dead. At this moment Absalom feels weak, as if death had just brushed by him. Anne says to Martin they will have a house by the sea and a little Martin. Abasalom arrives. They tell Absalom they waited up for him. Absalom speaks of death and Anne has a smirk on her face. It makes one wonder if she has not asked for his death.
Martin goes to bed. Anne tells her husband he shouldn’t think about death so much. He asks her if she has ever wished him dead? Anne asks: "Why should I?" He answers: "Because I did you a great wrong." He just took her without asking her if she wished to be his. He took her youth. Yes, she agrees. And how she burned for someone to love. And he never gave her a child. Now she says she has wished him dead hundreds of times. Absalom is shocked and a bit scared. She even tells Absalom about her being with Martin. Now he knows everything, and now she wishes him dead.
Absalom calls for Martin. He starts to walk upstairs but falls backwards onto the living room floor. Anne screams. Grandmother comes out. She cries over her son’s body.
Anne yells for Martin. He sits alone in the woods. Anne finds him. Martin tells her that she told his father about them. That’s why his father called out for him. He still hears his father’s voice. Martin says he wishes he himself were dead. Martin says he is leaving. She chases after Martin. He goes to the house to stand vigil with his father’s body. Grandmother leaves. Anne comes in. She says: "You shun me." He replies: "I shun mostly myself." They need to be on their knees asking for his forgiveness. Martin always sees the matter in black and Anne in white. She says his father would have forgiven them. He died to let their love live.
Martin now asks Anne if she compelled his father to die. Does she have the power? She replies: "You are driving me to the stake." When he persists she says: "I love you. That’s my only crime." She says that she is not the cause of his father’s death. He has her repeat that in front of the coffin. She does so. Does he believe her now? He says yes. Anne says they sinned together so they should stand together. She tells Martin she sees happier days coming.
The funeral is held. Martin thanks everyone for coming and asks his father forgiveness for letting his feelings get the better of him. He says that he lays his father’s death at the feet of no man or woman. But mother wants to speak too. She says that her son was murdered and his wife is the murderess. Mother says that her grandson is under the spell of Anne. "With the aid of the Evil One she ensnared you." And with the devil’s help she killed her husband. "I denounce her as a witch."
And now Martin seems to believe his grandmother. He walks away from Anne and over to his grandmother. Anne says nothing. The clergy ask Anne to take a oath with her hand on the dead man’s body. Anne looks like she is in a trance. She goes over to him and says she swears, she testifies, but she doesn’t finish her thought. Rather she says: "So you have your revenge. I killed you with the Evil One’s help. And with the Evil One’s helped I lured your son into my power."
She finishes with: "I see through my tears, but no one comes to wipe them away."
Damn good movie. And doesn't it make you mad that human beings can be so evil? Even those who professionally speak for God, the clergy, are not really any better (or maybe even worse) than other human beings. The clergy in 17th c. Denmark believes this nonsense about devils and witches. And they find it oh so easy (too easy in fact) to sentence an elderly woman who has done nothing wrong to be burned at the stake as a witch. And the elderly woman is not the only victim of the clergy. Poor Anne, after her mother died, was taken as a child bride by a minister who never asked her how she felt about the matter. As he says himself, he stole her youth and gave her very little emotionally. Just one of the many terrible things about baseless accusations naively believed by the believers is that it can't be used as a weapon by ambitious rascals to further their own agendas to make themselves more powerful and wealthy. (Think about McCarthyism and its us of "communist" as a political weapon and the abuse of the word terrorism by the George W. Bush presidency.) There's often a meaning behind men's madness. What easier way to get rid of one's political enemies than to call them a witch or a communist or a terrorist? Probably none. (And isn't torture a nice tool for the wicked to use? The witch-hunters and George W. Bush had something in common. They both liked to used torture, but only Bush lied about it.)
The movie has a surprise twist, although I thought of the possible ending myself, given the idiocy of the people running around crying "witch". The movie is somewhat depressing. There is no punishment for the really evil ones (and it's not the "witches"). Even Anne's love interest turns out to be a whining betrayer and he is another clergyman. Beware of men and women going around saying they are more moral than the rest of us and that they know the way; follow them. Oh, no, not for me.
The movie The Crucible is much more satisfying because the accusers of others are brought low. But not in this movie. Then again, a movie can be very helpful if it justly makes you mad.
Patrick L. Cooney, Ph. d.
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