Day of Wrath

Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968)

By Christian Monggaard, film critic and reviewer at Information, 2006

Death at the stake  

Is she a witch or not? Can she bewitch and kill people by means of evil? These are two of the questions that are left unanswered after having seen Carl Th. Dreyer’s historic drama about the eternal triangle: Day of Wrath. The film takes place in the superstitious Denmark of the 17th century, where the burning of witches is a daily event (see clip). A young woman, Anne, has married a much older priest, and she falls in love with the priest’s grown-up son, Martin. Impulsive Anne goes through a major change. She starts to question her marriage and wants her husband dead. 

Timeless story 

It is not a coincidence that Dreyer decided to make Day of Wrath during the World War Two occupation of Denmark. It was also a period when suspicion was enough to put a life at risk. But the film is at the same time a timeless story about the power of love, faith and superstition. Inspired by Dutch art, Dreyer hypnotises us with gliding camera movements and beautifully composed pictures stripped of extraneous features. 

Indisputable masterpiece 

Playing Anne with the eyes of an innocent child, Lisbeth Movin has a radiating power that alternates between surprise, sadness, knowledge and malice. It is an intense portrait of a woman, which only Dreyer could create. Day of Wrath was given a regular panning in the press when it first came out, but today the film considered a masterpiece all around the world, Dreyer’s most admired sound film. 

Lisbeth Movin and Preben Lerdorff Rye i Day of Wrath. Photo: Karl Andersson. 95 min. Manuscript: Mogens Skot-Hansen, Poul Knudsen and Carl Th. Dreyer inspired by Hans Wiers-Jensens play Anne Pedersdotter (1908). ©Det Danske Filminstitut. Producent Palladium.
Movie poster for Day of Wrath. ©Det Danske Filminstitut

Did you know?

Source: Torben Skjødt Jensen: Carl Th. Dreyer - min metier. Dokumentarfilm. Steen Herdel & Co, Unni Straume Filmproduksjon og DFI, Danmark, 1995.

During the recording of the dramatic witch burning in Day of Wrath, the actor Anna Svierkier is bound to a ladder, as someone on the set says "now is the time for lunch Mr. Dreyer". Dreyer responds "well, now we all have to go to lunch". An actor comments that Anna Svierkier is still tied to the ladder, and Dreyer promises to take care of it. When the team comes back from lunch, however, the older lady is still tied while the sweat hails from her. No wonder, and maybe not entirely random, she looks so frightened in that scene!

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Film, 2006

Day of Wrath is set in a cold, provincial religious community in 1620s Denmark. It is the story of a passionate young woman who has married a much older priest, whose mother is the dominating force in the home. Pious, and with a fierce tongue, she holds a daughter-in-law in an iron grip in order to protect her beloved son.
The period is characterised by superstition and witch hunts, and the priest has protected his wife by refraining from accusing her mother of witchcraft. The question remains whether the daughter has the same destructive magical powers, greatly feared at the time – not least because it was women who possessed these abilities.

Carl Th. Dreyer has applied all his mastery in this portrayal of an intolerant, oppressive society, where people lived under the threat of God, imposed and misunderstood by bigoted, hypocritical people. Despite this suffocating dour sadness, the film also incorporates a passionate love story, when the young priest’s wife falls in love with her husband’s son. Then the day of wrath begins and the storm closes in. Here, there is no witch, rather a young woman in love who surrenders the erotic and sensuous passion so denied to her by her marriage of convenience.
Day of Wrath is, however, focusses on far more than the portrayal of a single character. The artful and grand aspect of the film is that everyone has their own good and explicable reasons to act as they do. The uncompromising Dreyer – a unique visionary in Danish cinematography – paints his pictures like Rembrandt, challenging actors to bare themselves with a humanity that speaks through the ages.


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