“Day of Wrath, for pity take
My sins away from Satan’s grasp
And bear my soul to Heaven at last.”
Made in Denmark during World War Two, this film – set four centuries earlier – is heavy with the weight of German occupation, as women are tortured and cajoled into denouncing others as witches. But the ready identification of these stern, detached church authority figures with the Nazis and their collaborators, if understandable, is simplistic. For a modern audience shaped by decades of feminism and further erosion of the belief in authority or of supernatural evil, with tolerance the dogma of the day and torture one of the few remaining morally repugnant acts – and with six more decades of deplorable denunciations in Maoist China, Stasi East Germany and McCarthy’s “witch-hunting” America – the tendency to oversimplify is as strong or perhaps stronger.
Dreyer is made of sterner stuff than we. He is rigorously dedicated to making art, never propaganda, to exploring the complexities of humanity rather than trading in stereotypes. Whatever preconceptions we carry into the film about witch trials and puritanical Christianity (Lutheran, actually, in this instance), about the purity of love and romance in the face of repression, whatever we are prone to believe about innocence and guilt, our ready judgments are continually subverted as the film progresses. We begin in the middle of the action – however deliberately rendered, however much the violence and horror are kept always off-screen – as a soft-figured, white haired old woman gives herbs to another woman as a mob gathers, chanting about burning at the stake. Her gentleness and our repugnance at the mob cause us to brush aside the fact that she begins the film talking casually about the power of evil. Endless commentators refer to her as an innocent, even asserting that she denies (or confesses) that she is a witch. In fact she does neither: it is the power of our expectations and our insistence on resolution that cause us to mis-remember these incidents one way or the other. Just as those forces lead, inevitably, to the burning not only of this old woman but, no doubt, to so many others. Ah.
As we move into the main action of the film, our inclination to let our personal sympathies warp our perception continues to detract from our ability to see what actually occurs. We are told explicitly that the beautiful young wife of the much older pastor is the daughter of a witch, and the language and imagery Dreyer employs clearly indicate that she herself has inherited the same proclivities and even powers. Yet viewers often brush this aside completely: we dislike the mother-in-law who perceives this in her (for good reason) and therefore discount it, seeing Anne only as the lovely victim of her culture’s primitive misconceptions, and the consequences of her curses as entirely psychosomatic. How then to explain the moment when she finally speaks her wishes toward her husband and he, far away, reels from the power of death that passes through him? The dour mother-in-law speaks hatred, and we condemn her as heartless, a hypocrite: the free-spirited daughter-in-law not only speaks her hatred but wills murder, and we excuse her as a victim of repressive religion. Recoiling from the austerity of this way of life – that girl must be dying of boredom, somebody at least get the poor thing an iPod, I’m thinking – we inevitably celebrate her release into nature’s wildness and reciprocal love with a man her own age, brushing aside that this is a brazen act not only of betrayal but one which is tinged with something like incest. It is a trap the director seems to lay for us quite intentionally: the claustrophobic formal geometries and harsh chiaroscuro of the interiors (where all the religious folk are) make us crave the glorious wildness of the forests and stream where the love affair takes place. But eventually Dreyer shows us far darker images of nature, in the oppressive mist that reduces the lovers to dark silhouettes as their affair is eclipsed, or the raging storm that accompanies death (has a film ever rendered weather more threatening, without crossing into melodrama? The contrast between the measured, incessant ticking of the clock and the wild wind is extraordinary).
Dreyer’s rigour in creating a world and a mindset so palpably not of our time – indeed, it seems not of this planet – is testimony to his greatness. The degree to which we indulge our compulsion to project our own world and times onto the film rather than consider what he so painstakingly renders is the degree to which we fall short of the complexity and maturity of his vision – a vision so rigorous it makes Babette’s Feast appear sentimental. There is above all a relentless honesty to the director’s gaze: he challenges us to look on the terrifying mix of pitiable humanity and self-serving evil that coexist in the human heart, and to our shame we flinch and look away, seeing only what it serves us to see – thereby implicating ourselves in the very evils we see (or don’t see) on the screen in front of us.