The single-minded director of The Passion of Joan of Arc at one point returned to his first career of film journalism out of frustration and exhaustion. Day of Wrath (1943), showing in a new restoration, was the first feature he shot after the hiatus (during which the Nazis invaded his native Denmark). Maintaining the uncannily paced, cloistered intensity of his 1932 horror manual Vampyr, Day of Wrath picks up on the witchcraft-grade self-assertion of Passion and the morbid desire that The Parson’s Widow treated relatively lightly.
In a 17th century village, Anne, the neglected young wife of a meek priest, becomes lovers with her stepson Martin. In a house palpably weighted with repression, the slightest transgression is like a creaking floorboard pealing through a still night; even in bucolic outdoor trysts, Anne and Martin seem silhouetted by guilt. Anne’s infatuation follows on from the film’s initial story, the capture and burning of a suspected witch she knew (who whimpers and snarls by terrifying turns).
Day of Wrath hums with not only a hovering sense of transference, part supernatural and part destiny (Anne’s mother had the “power of calling”), but also the flesh-and-blood reality of Anne’s basic yearning. There are the seeds of Bergman, minus the strain, while Paul Schrader grouped Dreyer with Bresson in positing a “transcendental” style. Though marking a tunnel-vision turn toward play adaptation, Day maintains cinematic bravura: a children’s choir learning a hymn for the witch-burning, Anne peering through paned glass like the traveler of Vampyr, a slumped half-nude mass in a priestly torture chamber, Anne gliding across the room before her beloved. Like much of Dreyer, you keep returning to Day of Wrath in your mind and re-emerging.