CARL THEODORE DREYER’S DAY OF WRATH (1943)

‘s Day of Wrath (1943) is an undeniable masterpiece that should be required viewing. It’s bleak as hell; a kind of synthesis of Rembrandt and Nathanel Hawthorne filtered through a lens of wrenching pessimism. After viewing, you’re likely to break out in a sweat and be reduced to incoherent mumbling. If you’re brave enough to attempt a second viewing, wait twenty-five years. It’s that intense: the most somber opus in this unrelentingly somber filmmaker’s oeuvre.

As in virtually all of Dreyer’s work, Day of Wrath (the title is taken from the hymn “Das Irae,” used in requiem masses) highlights the director’s excruciating obsession with realism, and his paradoxical stylization. Set in the 17th century, Wrath‘s subject is the Danish church’s persecution of accused witches. Critics at the time noted  Dreyer’s unflinching comparison of the powerful Protestant Church with the Third Reich (Denmark had recently acquiesced to the Nazis). In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Dreyer had previously held the English Catholic Church to accountability (although one must concede that he wasn’t entirely sympathetic with the saint either). Here, his lack of favoritism is equally unsparing. His grim eye for religious and political institutional thought soaks every pigment of every frame, but falls short of full-scale condemnation. His shrug at commercial filmmaking and its audience is proportionately tenacious. In daring to produce films of authentic spirituality, he appeals to no brand of atheism—be it religious or cinematic atheism.

In approaching Day of Wrath, holster all naive notions of hope. There is none to be had, except for a sensuous sliver in the form of Lisbeth Movin as Anne, the second wife of Rev. Absalon (Thorkild Roose). For the sin of youthful earthiness, the poor woman is inherently doomed.

The superlative early sequences focus on the old woman Marthe (Anna Svierkier), an accused, tortured witch who believes she can blackmail Absalon into interceding to save her from the stake. Anne, who sympathizes with Marthe, is the daughter of a witch, one whom Absalon hypocritically protected to secure the arranged marriage. Complicating the loveless union is Anne’s  love for Absalon’s son Martin (Preben Lerdoff Rye) who is closer to her age. Intensifying the already oppressive milieu is Absalon’s mother, the sadistic and jealous Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam), who hated Anne’s mother and now equally despises her daughter-in-law.

With Anne clearly more a trophy than a beloved, Absalon fails to heed Marthe’s threat, and relinquishes the old woman to the stake. The scene is excruciating to watch and, as he had Maria Falconetti in Joan of Arc, so Dreyer again puts an actor through extreme physical discomfort to solicit the right degree of suffering. Perversely choreographed to an ominous hymn, it climaxes with the dying Marthe placing a curse on Absalon and Anne.

What follows may or may not be the aftermath of that curse. Wisely, Dreyer leaves that decision to the viewer. Ordinary people lose their humanity in subscribing to the fears and platitudes of religiosity and the status quo. Even Anne becomes unsympathetic when she sets the wheels of Absalon’s comeuppance in motion. Rather than being freed after the Lutheran pastor’s death, Anne is betrayed by the weak Martin and denounced as a witch by Merete. Like Melisande, Anne becomes purified by accepting her fate.

Strikingly photographed by Karl Andersson, the black and white chiaroscuro further intensifies an almost unbearable experience. For contemporary viewers, the unrelentingly static pacing of Day of Wrath may prove a challenge. Yet, it is unquestionably the most powerful film to date on its subject.

*reprinted from 366 Weird Movies

CARL THEODOR DREYER’S VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr (1932) poster

Most agree that ‘s Nosferatu (1922) is the greatest and most unique screen incarnation of Bram Stoker’s iconic character (although, as blasphemous as it sounds, I would place ‘s 1979 remake on an equal plane. Yes, I said that, but that is a subject for another week). However, the greatest cinematic treatment of  vampire folklore is a world removed from the titular Transylvanian count: ‘s Vampyr (1932). But it is not for attention span-challenged vampire fans.

Vampyr (1932)  poster

Vampyr is a film of relentless, static beauty, almost demanding chimerical concentration and phantasmagorical imagination of the viewer. After the predictable box office failure of the greatest film ever made—Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—the director deluded himself into thinking he could produce something commercial. He had what seemed to be the right source of inspiration (slight as it is): Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 pulp hit “Carmilla,” taken from the collection “In a Glass Darkly.” “Carmilla,” with its theme of a lesbian vampire would, of course, be enticing fodder for the dull masses. But it turned out Dreyer was too original and too much in possession of an authentic, artistic spiritual substance for titillation. Fortunately, Dreyer, who wrote the screenplay, jettisoned the lesbianism and, with it, any anticipation of appeasing puerile genre fans. Vampyr was a financial flop, resulting in Dreyer’s nervous breakdown and the dissolution of his production company. He would  not make another film until Day of Wrath(1943). If period aficionados found Vampyr‘s deliberate pacing and intense, ethereal milieu too challenging, then many contemporary viewers, saddled with grand guignol expectations, often find the film provocative. Despite this, Vampyr proved to be a profound influence on both the German Expressionists and the Surrealists.

Vampyr (1932) poster. Carl Theodore dreyer

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DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped with authority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane.  No surprises there.  Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint- by- number set.  Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’screator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and  excommunicated him for life.

Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made.  That honor probably goes to Carl Theodore Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.

Rarely do classic films live up to the hype.  Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film.  It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue.  Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic.  Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.

Then, in the early 1980′s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute.  When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.

Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it.  By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.

Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde.  The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts.  This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.

Still from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid.  But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense.  Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the rare gesture of presenting his actress with a bouquet of flowers after that heart wrenching scene).  Falconetti, understandably, never made another film.  It is a haunting, harrowing performance.

Falconetti and Dreyer relentlessly violate the viewers’ personal space, so much so, that one feels tortured, right along with Joan.  The British censors were certainly affected; they banned the film upon its release.  In the film, Joan’s English accusers provoke varied, intense emotions, although they are not depicted as two-dimensional personifications of evil.

Despite overwhelming empathy for Falconetti’s Joan, Dreyer directs with admirably objectivity.  At times, Joan does indeed seem on the fringed edge of sanity, so ethereal, so spaced out, that we can, at least, have some understanding of the nervous fear she she inspires in the medieval mindset of her judges.  But, Dreyer’s theme of a saintly woman would also be repeated prominently in both Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1955), and one suspects a heated obsession behind Dreyer’s cool-toned facade.

Passion, like all of Dreyer’s films, has a Rembrandt-like quality in every frame (Day of Wrath took this quality to an exquisite extreme).  Rudolph Mate’s expressionistic cinematography cannot be underestimated and volumes of books could probably be written about every single shot.

Passion may be one of the ugliest films ever made, but it is necessarily ugly, a bit like the necessity of Picasso’s hideous “Guernica.” Crusty fingernails, nose hairs, sweat, bushy eyebrows,  and oily pores abound in the penetrating, dirty close-ups.  The only “pretty” face in the film belongs, ironically, to the legendary avant bad boy Antonin Artaud.  Artaud, as the sympathetic monk, Massieu, is so young, so beautifully sensuous,  that memories of the later, greasy Artaud, fresh from the asylum, madly roaming Paris streets, eaten with rectal cancer, and raving ”Having done with the judgement of God” are all temporarily banished from the mind’s eye.

Despite all she is subjected to, Joan is not of a Protestant (or Pre-Protestant) mindset.  The greatest torture she receives is when she is refused the Eucharist and it is this that temporarily breaks her, so intense is her devotion.  But, Joan’s final answer is, ‘This is my church, not yours.  You are the devils who have invaded my church and the faith.  It is not the other way around.”

Joan’s conviction is so complete, so inspiring that her martyrdom leads to further slaughter of the sympathetic crowd.  The British authorities sensed, in advance, the level of veneration that would be accorded Joan of Arc.  They  repeatedly and thoroughly burned her body as to prevent the collection of her relics.  That type of fear, combined with inspired awe, was only captured once, in 1928, despite all the later films made on the subject.