Reel Norden : Nordic Film & History

Day of Wrath -- Behavior

As detailed in the analysis below, the character's behaviors in Day of Wrath emphasized society’s need for blame, reflected typical responses to the horrific witch trials, and displayed the different gender roles present at the time.

A Need for Blame

Throughout the film it is obvious that the entire community believes that witchcraft exists, but from where does this belief originate? Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in reflecting on Day of Wrath, stated "We bear the frightening knowledge that genuine evil resides in this confined world, but without a capacity to locate it in literal sorcery, we paranoiacally find it everywhere and nowhere - in a kind of collective virus infecting a whole community without ever being clearly traceable to a single individual."(1) In other words, Rosenbaum is claiming that we are afraid of what we do not understand and it is human nature to feel a need for blame.

In Day of Wrath, the religious leaders have convinced their followers that this blame lies with witches and the Devil. A new religious outlook, after Martin Luther and the Reformation, instilled a fear of the Devil and the powers that he possessed. To Lutheran and Catholic reformers, the Devil was a frightening being that brought evil into all parts of the world. This is where the idea of maleficium--evil acts--comes into play. Most accusations against suspected witches centered around maleficium and the unknown.(2) Women were blamed for all kinds of events, but usually the events that had no other explanation.

The spread of Christianity across Europe demanded that people practice their faith properly, and that included the eradication of superstitious beliefs, paganism, and magic.(3) In Day of Wrath, many of the people present at Herlof’s Marte’s trial were religious leaders, including Anne’s husband, a Lutheran minister. During these witch hunts, the opinions of these leaders--men of God and elders--were of great influence.(4) This Christian society needed someone or something to blame for the unexplainable occurrences.

Behavior Throughout the Witch Trial

It did not take much to condemn someone as a witch. Oftentimes, no direct evidence was presented, but the suspicion caused uproar and hostility in the community, and frequently led to conviction.(5) The movie opens with the documentation of Herlof’s Marte's accusation, and shortly after the crowds can be heard chanting, “She’ll be put on the stake and burn!”  This accurately reflects the attitudes towards witches described in the previous section.  Purging a witch from one’s community was ridding it of the Devil, too.

Between accusation and execution Herlof’s Marte was terrified, and reasonably so. Byron Nordstrom has described the brutality of these witch-hunts, stating, “It is estimated that about three hundred witches were executed, often by burning… Many times, the so-called witches were just the victims of personal animosities and rumor.”(6) Herlof's Marte also had to face and was tortured by a council of the clergy in their town.  The actions of the parson at her trial were typical of the time--he demanded responses to his leading questions. According to William E. Burns, author of Witch Hunts in Europe and America, witch trials in general were more accusatorial rather than inquisitorial.(7)

The Role of Gender and Family

Gender roles were strict during the time depicted in this film. Day of Wrath reflected this accurately.  One way gender roles were reflected in the film was through the family roles of each character. Absalon desired to create a strong family following his marriage with Anne. When Martin, Absalon’s son from his first marriage, returned home, Absalon immediately urged him to meet and become acquainted with Anne, as if she were his own mother. Anu Pylkkänen, author of “Women and Family Law in Scandinavia” explains how the idea of having a nuclear family unit was emphasized in the seventeenth century. The dominant male in the family would marry and demand the rest of his family to respect his wife.(8) Furthermore, Absalon shows extreme respect for Anne and reminds Martin to do the same. Anne began as a quiet, obedient wife, but after the death of Herlof’s Marte and discovering her mother was accused of being a witch, she starts to make decisions on her own. She takes more control of her life by tapping into supernatural powers her mother was accused of having.  The film juxtaposes Absalon and Martin describing her eyes just before and after she attempts her powers for the first time.  This presents Anne in the age-old mentality of being seduced by the Devil like Eve in Genesis. 

The portrayal of Anne’s transformation directly reflects the views of women and witches in the seventeenth century. Witchcraft and women were almost always tied together societally. When people picture a witch presently, they usually think of the witch as a female. Anne did have the good fortune of being the wife of a prominent religious figure in her town because women not married, or being taken care of by their sons were often targeted.(9) Once her husband died, she lost his protection and Absalon’s mother demanded atonement for his death by accusing her of being a witch. By wishing her husband dead, Anne ordered her own death as well. This realization is depicted in the film when she arises from her chair to confess her husband's death.  

(1) Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Figuring out Day of Wrath,Criterion Collection, accessed September 15, 2014,
(2) Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe (New York: Longmont Inc., 1987), 96, 98.
(3) Brian P. Levack, The Witch-Hunt, 101.
(4) Jeffrey B. Russell, and Brooks Alexander, A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics & Pagans, (New York: New York, Thames and Hudson, 2007), 112.
(5) William E. Burns, Witch Hunts in Europe and America: An Encyclopedia (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), 1-3.
(6) “Women and Family Law in Scandinavia,” last modified December 1997,
(7) William E. Burns, Witch Hunts in Europe and America, 219.
(8) “Women and Family Law in Scandinavia.”
(9) Russell and Alexander, A History of Witchcraft, 113.

Written and edited by Marah Moy, Grete Hamnes, Phil Kuball and Chelsea Pritchard

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