With The Witch back in theaters and having a field day at the box office, let us look back at the single greatest film about witches ever to grace the screen.
Carl Dreyer’s non-silent catalog remains one of the most fascinating mysteries in the modern cinematic landscape, precisely because its dominant stylistic mode is antithetical to the average cineaste’s mental blockade of Dreyer as an enshriner of the world in the canvas of the human face. While gestures and facial reactions do ensnare his sound era films from time to time, Dreyer’s late period style is defined in the work between characters, not the supremacy of the individuals in the frame. Although he would perfect the style with Ordet and sublimate it to a transcendental realm with his final film Gertrud, Day of Wrath evolves Dreyer into a chronicler of human connection and discrepancy, human movement and human stagnancy on both the physical and cognitive levels, as existing in similitude. While filmmakers tend to counterpose cohesion and disruption through the daily dance of tracking/panning and editing, Dreyer binds the two modes together, constructing a conscious camera that actively strives to find association in disparate existence, to discover separation in ostensible community. In doing so, not only is Day of Wrath a technical marvel but a perceptual case study in altering the consciousness of the filmgoer.
Dreyer himself would riposte the many claims that his films were too ethereal and spiritually vague with his piercing final film Gertrud, where camera movement and physical, earthly gesture existed in heated harmony. But even in Day of Wrath – a film about religious oppression – we discover a groundedness to Dreyer’s vision of spirituality, a tactility and an awareness that his heroine sees religion as present, embodied, visualized, and earthen. The conflict is not so much between spirituality and the “real world” but Dreyer’s indomitable vision of how the two, for him, could coexist in one. One doesn’t know for sure that Dreyer was an admirer of Heidegger, but the philosopher’s notion of coexisting “world” – the mental embodiment of the conscious world – and “earth” – the materiality of the sensory realm – coexisting in dialectic harmony has seldom been encapsulated so beautifully in a film.
Dreyer is an almost papal guide in this realm because he so readily liquifies the typically ossified separation between the internal and the external proposed in the conventional cinematic world, where human consciousness functions as a prefigured master of the world rather than a struggling, striving combatant or flexible position within it. Instead, in Dreyer’s cinema, like in Tarkovsky’s or Malick’s, consciousness must react to the world as it pulls mental energy from physical space; the world does not enervate itself to human consciousness, but inscribes a power to those willing to sacrifice their mental boundaries to the materiality, earthly, and temporal nature of the world.
Dreyer’s earliest canvas for this dialectic was the materiality of the human face; he remains the cinematic painter of the face as a dialectic between fractured, fluid internal consciousness and external material. This story of Marta (Anna Svierkier) and later Anne (Lisbeth Movin) – women accused by the church of clandestine witchcraft – is something of a portal between the two Dreyers, with an expressively intimate reawakening of personal, emotional, even sexual energy invoked by Svierkier’s and Movin’s whimpers, screams, urges, pains, and their untempered, undestroyed consciousnesses explicitly foregrounding their humanity as a factor of free-floating consciousness and an energy that reorients emotions and feeling within scenes. The paramount flexibility of their ever-malleable human face fighting against the enervating pull of social oppression with flickers of modulating, ever-changing emotion is itself a stylistic, formal gesture in the direction of Dreyer’s vision of individual energy pushing back against the doldrums of society. The camera, like the church, pines to square-off the face of the individual, and yet the ever-moving individual resists stagnancy.
Pointedly, and essentially, the face is not merely a harbinger or embedded meaning in Dreyer but a formable, material entity reacting to the outside world with gesticulation and motion, an external realm in itself and not simply a flacid representation of assumed internal character psychology. Dreyer’s beauty is that he does not foreground an assumed psychology – he presumes that his camera can’t know what lies in the assumed internal world of his characters that we often take for granted as given to us in classical Hollywood film. Instead, his camera glimpses and questions the faces of his characters, foregrounding their physical nature as expressive analyzers of the world rather than vacant, transparent portals into an inflexible inner-self.
Here is the throughline to Dreyer’s unimpeachable classic The Passion of Joan of Arc, and yet Day of Wrath’s camera doesn’t foreground facial clay as tantamount and singular this time out. Dreyer had evolved into a director of perspective and consciousness as it floated outward into the world, rather than simply being contained within human flesh. So not only do we locate Dreyer’s past, but we perceive a presentiment of where he was going. “Going” being the operative word, for Dreyer’s later films are transitive journeys whose defining feature is their recalcitrant rejection of stagnant or ossified mental, perceptual positions. Reflected in a camera habitually in a state of flux, the only constancy Dreyer’s films know is inconstancy. The camera scrupulously tethers together disparate perspectives that themselves can’t always perceive the worldly connections they all embody. These are not herculean camera flights of fancy though, nor are they boldface camera dances with death embodied in more outre motion pictures. Instead, Dreyer’s camera doesn’t so much glide as peek. It’s an unstable camera, an oscillating perspective like a wandering, wondering consciousness more than a declamatory visual lightning-bolt.
The conventional camera track is a given marker of continuity of not only physical space but consciousness, but Dreyer’s tracks – much like Altman’s later and Renoir’s before – propose a more ambidextrous relationship to human interaction and the subjective camera. Passing from person to person – leaving humans in the background with the cascading cadence of the frame as new perspectives are discovered on the other end of the frame – suggests not only a contiguity or collectivity of humans in the same frame but a human divergence or distance embodied in the perspiring work the camera must undertake to find these new perspectives, these alternate humans in the frame.
In order to connect the souls in the frame, it must discover the collectivity via wandering the halls of a cinematic rectory, therefore underscoring the tentative nature of collection and the palpable effort one must undertake to chisel away at physical and mental boundaries. Late in the film, we witness an absolutely sublime combination pan/track with a choir of boys around a room – diamond-cut against the unmoving, stagnant, insular, hunched-over spaces of disconnected human flesh in the background passively, tentatively fighting for control in the frame over the foregrounded boys, who become like prison bars we must view the entrapped background humans through. It is as perfect an encapsulation of mutually constituted movement and stillness (both physical and mental), connection and distance in simultaneity, as the cinema has produced. The camera becomes a consciousness, a partial perspective endlessly striving against the structural, societal walls constructed around it. Dreyer’s style, his very camera, is unique in that it is not impacted on the unmalleable wall of embedded meaning and instead always flexibly striving to come into being, creating itself as a process of images and sounds that discover meaning and connection rather than rocketing to preconstrued answers. As connected as humans may be in Dreyer’s cinema, the human collectivity is always undercut or tempered with the awareness that connection is only apparent to those who are looking.
The camera isn’t simply moving then; it’s opening itself up to new experiences, sinuously suggesting the frailty of any one perspective such that it treks across the screen for new ones, imploring us to accompany it. There’s a humility to the film’s awareness of its own incompleteness, its desire to better itself by opening itself up to the world rather than closing itself off. This is why Dreyer’s work exists in opposite polarity to most works of cinema; it neglects to masterfully divine every secret in a prison-like contraption of meaning and self-satisfying import. Instead, it raises its glass to the value of un-blissful ignorance, because not knowing always proposes the possibility that there is more to glean, a mental adventure to be undertaken. For a work about resisting mental stagnancy with the vituperative glow of divine human energy, what form could be better than a camera and a film that rescinds its own complacency?
While most films blissfully, blithely shoot from character to character, the cinema of Dreyer foregrounds its own shifting consciousness and the “work” it must put in to drawing together and separating the characters. In its very formal caliber as a piece of camerawork, it reminds us that if we aren’t looking, listening, and mentally questioning our own perspectives, always searching for new ones in the tangible material of the earth around us, then our human mission remains incomplete. This is a sensory, perceptual, earthly camera, an act of sensing as becoming in diametric opposition to the normative cinematic camera that seems, not unlike a representational photograph, always to exist in a state of disembodied “being”, of stagnancy devoid of past, present, or future. As Dreyer’s film is ultimately a plea to embody ourselves, to find spirituality even in the carnal actions of sex as a viable ritual of bodily and mental connection, the embodied nature of a camera that learns and perceives from its own world is tantamount to an act of cinema as human consciousness, form and content not only in unison and harmonious but one in the same.
Above all, Dreyer’s camera is like Malick’s in that it is a fallible camera, not a tool but a consciousness that doubts and questions and worries and liquifies itself to engulf the sensory experiences of the outside world, be it the human face or the earthen realm between faces. In critiquing institutional close-mindedness, the film’s camera expresses a sort of flawed, struggling ideal of open-mindedness all the more notable for how much it acknowledges its own effort and all the potential moments where its camera could stop looking around, give in, and fail. The film itself is an embodiment’s of its characters’ quest, our quest, to take in the outside world and free ourselves from the rigidity, the partiality, of our own mental blockades in doing so. The beauty of Dreyer’s always perspective-shifting, fundamentally subjective camera is that it suggests it is no better than its audience’s best selves.