Despite being one of the greatest film directors, Carl Th. Dreyer (1889–1968) will probably always be considered an acquired taste. His best films are much too austere and demanding for even many serious moviegoers. There is a religiosity about his concerns that, I think, legitimates my occasional, all-too-glib references to cinema as a religion. He also seems to require a shared belief in subjects like vampires, witches, and the Evil One. And, worst of all, there are no Michael Bay–like (or even Cecil B. DeMille–like) special effects to compensate the audience for their effort. This is not to say that Dreyer is deficient technically (the compositions, performances, and camera movement are all masterful), but he is totally focused on conveying his vision, even when a little pandering to the folks out there in the dark might help. Personally, as one of those folks, one who is disinclined to take the supernatural seriously and looking for a bit of visual gratification in my movies, I have frequently struggled to fully appreciate Dreyer’s trance-like cinematic devotion to his personal Lutheranism. (I have similar problems with the films of the great French director Robert Bresson, a devout Roman Catholic.)
Vreden’s Dag (Day of Wrath), made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark in 1943, was only Dreyer’s second talking feature, and his first in more than a decade since Vampyr. For a brilliant explication of the film, I refer you to the monograph by my colleague Jytte Jensen (Carl Th. Dreyer, The Museum of Modern Art, 1988). Jytte, as a woman and as a Dane, has insights into Day of Wrath and Dreyer’s other films that I can’t hope to match: “Dreyer expressed…an understanding of the psychology of the female character that was both amazingly compassionate and deeply passionate, and he imbued these with his intensely personal quest for discovery and artistic expression.”
I feel a little less out of my depth sharing in James Agee’s assessment in The Nation (May 22, 1948; five years after the film’s original release):
“I do mean that the style he has worked out for this film has a severe, noble purity which very little else in movies or…in contemporary art can approach, or even tries to…. I don’t think there is a single excess in word, or lighting or motion…. Dreyer appears to know and to care more about faces than about anything else…. Dreyer goes against most of the “rules” that are laid down…but there is only one rule for movies that I finally care about: that the film interest the eyes, and do its job through the eyes…. Dreyer has never failed to do…that.”
Personally, I feel most at home with Dreyer’s exploration of romantic passion in his final film, Gertrud (1964), which was made with an obsessiveness mostly uncontaminated by anything otherworldly or smelling of blood, burning bodies, or brimstone. Yet the cinema is richer for having saintly, quasi-religious figures like Dreyer and Bresson. In spite of the medium’s carnival-like roots, let us not forget that several of the earliest “masterpieces” were versions of the Passion play, and the first long film, in 1909, was The Life of Moses.
Finally, a word on the poor quality of our screening print: In setting out on this venture two years ago, I decided to restrict myself to prints in the Museum’s collection. One of the intentions was to highlight instances where our archive contained only deficient copies of essential works, in the hope that the series will help to remedy this. Day of Wrath is a great film that deserves better than this “dupey” 16mm print. I welcome any thoughts you may have on this matter.