DVD Review of Vampyr

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/30/08


  The Criterion Collection will shortly be releasing a two disk version of the 1932 black and white classic horror film by Carl Theodor Dreyer, Vampyr. I first watched this film about twenty years ago, on a VHS release, and, unlike many others, immediately recognized it as a supernal piece of cinema. Then, I did not have the critical knowledge to discern why, but I do now, and will explicate. This film was the first sound film released by the Danish filmmaker, and perhaps the last film in the vein of silent German Expressionism. That stated, it is a very different form of vampire film from the then contemporaneous Dracula, made by Tod Browning, for Universal Studios in America, as well the earlier explicitly Expressionistic take on the film, 1922’s Nosferatu, by F.W. Murnau. While the two other horror films have risen to the stature of iconographic symbols of evil and fear (as well a bit of hokum, with the passing of decades), Vampyr has not; although it still retains a creepiness that, to modern eyes, makes it a more unsettling experience than the two other films, great as they are.

  The primary reason for this has not to do with blood and gore, nor even with mood, mis-en-scene, or the like, but with the fact that Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté do not merely make the viewer observe what is going on, but also feel it, by using narrative and filmic devices that elicit empathy from the viewer, by emotional and intellectual means. As example, characters are frequently entering the frame from odd angles- sometimes they seemingly walk around the back of the camera; other times the camera pans to a place, to make the viewer believe a character will enter, only to have the character enter the frame from where the camera just left. Also, there are dolly shots (and reverse ones) where the point of view morphs from the presumably subjective to the demonstrably objective, as the character whose point of view we presume we are seeing then includes said character. At other times, two differing points of view are used. Then there are the more manifest devices- the use of shadows that seem detachable from their material casters, or those that seem to have an ability to act upon the material (a shadow that seemingly murders a man), or images that have no logical place in the narrative, yet whose appearance enhances it greatly in a Keatsian Negatively Capable way (a shadow that seems to not be digging a grave, but filling one up, as dirt seems to flow into its shovel at its apex, or odd characters who grimace and stare at the camera, but whose presence and/or import to the tale are never explained). The film’s hero, too, is often seen glaring through things- windows, openings, holes- to see the world framed in a way different from reality. Yet, we also see him framed obversely through the frames; thus we empathize with him, even as we realize the limits he may not, just as the viewer is limited by what is in the frame. Also, some of the later outdoor scenes were filmed through filters which give the film a blanched quality that Dreyer strove for- to give a more shroudy appearance (rather than merely foggy), yet which lends the film a dreamy quality that visually is unmatched, even by many later film advances in obfuscation via special effects. Dreyer famously remarked that he was more interested in mood than story for this film, yet, his transcendent use of mood becomes the story, even as we are drawn to it not by its moodiness, but the engendered psychological empathy that Dreyer’s visuals impose on us. Dreyer’s thesis was this: ‘Imagine we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in is completely altered: everything in it has taken on another level; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed.…This is the effect I want to get.’ And he succeeds. In another scene, a room darkens as a door opens, because the source of light is blocked. Little touches like this, which play against the infused logic of reality, help Dreyer displace the expected into the unexpected, where real fear dwells; and this is only accentuated by the fact that the film was one of the first to be shot entirely on real world locations, not in a studio.

  The film’s more conventional narrative, by contrast, is simple, and plays out in straightforward and unaffected way for its rather brief 72 minute running time. Although released under many different titles, the Criterion edition uses the film’s simplest form, Vampyr. The film was scripted in German, French, and English language versions, but never shot in English. There was a Danish version of the film under preparation, but apparently a full version of it never saw release. Minimal dialogue, and the characters often speaking while off camera, or with backs turned, helped make this approach to multinational distribution possible. The lead character was originally called David Grey, and several of the film’s working and release titles used that name, Vampyr: Der Traum Des David Grey (The Dream Of David Grey), but somewhere along the line the character was renamed Allan Grey. The film commentary, by film expert Tony Rayns, speculates why, but not conclusively. The lead character was played by Julian West, a pseudonym used by the film’s co-producer (along with Dreyer), the Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who later became an influential magazine editor in America. He agreed to finance the film if he could star in it. This agreement has often been a sore point for many Dreyer fans, who see ‘West’ as the film’s biggest minus, in a cast that included only two professional actors (only Sybille Schmitz- who played Leone, and Maurice Schutz- Leone’s murdered father, were professional actors). Yet, realistically, and given the dreamy nature of the film, criticism’s of West’s acting is too harsh. The most similar role in film to this is Anthony Perkins’ essaying of Josef K in Orson Welles’ take on Franz Kafka’s The Trial. And while it is true that West is not anywhere near in a class with Perkins as an actor, the film’s screenplay makes sure he need not be. This is because, as a hero, Grey is mostly an observer, a passive hero; in fact- almost an antihero (not in the snarling negative sense, but in the sense of the reluctant hero).

  The true classical ‘hero’ of the film is but a secondary character, a caretaker of the inn that Grey stays at. This fact shows just how daring Dreyer was as a storyteller. The reason this works is because of the excellent screenplay penned by Christen Jul, very loosely based upon British writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, about lesbian vampires, and a few other elements from other stories in the writer’s collection of tales, In A Glass Darkly. The film follows Grey- an amateur occultist, in the French town of Courtempierre. Quickly, we are shown many of the above detailed images with no explanation. Furthermore, since Dreyer wisely disjuncts logic by having seemingly subjective shots turn out to be objective, the viewer is never allowed to plant a foot firmly in any cinematic ‘reality,’ for it all could be the wisps of Grey’s imagination- a point the film later seems to support. He is then asked by the owner of the inn he stays at to help solve some mysteries, mostly the illness of his daughter Leone, whom is shown to have been preyed upon by the town’s vampire, a fat old woman named Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard). Chopin hypnotically led Leone to a field, and was about to bite her when interrupted. Grey, meanwhile, has had an odd encounter at an abandoned flour mill and factory with shadows that dance and play music- a foreshadowing of scenes from Herk Harvey’s Carnival Of Souls, made thirty years later.

  Back at the inn, Grey encounters a Doctor (Jan Hieronimko) who looks like Mark Twain, but really is the servant of Chopin. It is not clear whether he is a vampire, as well. There is also a third villain in the film- an unnamed worker with a wooden leg, called Pegleg, by the audio commentary on the DVD, provided by film expert Tony Rayns, and played by an unnamed actor. It is Pegleg whose shadow is detachable. The Doctor feigns concern for Leone, but her father and sister Gisele (Rina Mandel) do not trust him. The father is then killed by a seeming shadow- although this may just be more of Gray’s imagination, and seems to die of a stroke or heart attack. Grey then opens a package sent to him by an unknown and unseen person (one of many mysteries unresolved in the film, but which heighten its dream-like ‘logic’), and it turns out to be a book on vampires. There is a nice in-joke in that the publisher is shown first, and it’s called Gottlieb Faust (German for God loves Faust), but the very need for Grey to read a book on the subject matter betrays how recent the belief in, and mythos of, vampires took hold in Western pop culture. It also allows for a deepening of the film’s psychology. Prior to this moment, the film has had a few intertitle cards (ala in silent films) that pushed the action along, and allowed for narrative ellipses. Yet, all of these were from ‘objective points of view.’ The book’s narration- read first by Grey, and later by the inn’s handyman and true ‘hero’ (Albert Bras), allows a more subjective viewpoint to intrude amongst the tangle of points of view that the film’s visuals weave because the intertitles were only being read by the viewers, whereas the book is being read by the characters and the viewers, which makes the characters aware, with the viewers, of what may really be occurring. The book also gives needed backstory on Chopin, and pushes the story forward. The characters in this film are not psychologically deep, but such ellipses force the viewer to reconstruct a narrative from the intriguing fragments, and it is this imbuement by the viewer, in co-creation with what Dreyer gives visually, which crafts the film’s narrative and psychological depth. The screenplay, thus, like in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Last Year In Marienbad, lets its minimalist-seeming screenplay draw depths from its percipients, rather than swamping them in the murky catacombs of melodrama and genre fluff. In this way, Vampyr, like the two aforementioned films, is a very interactive film, one that needs to be engaged, but which gives more than enough to elicit such engagement. If it did not it would be a failed pretentious piece of hermetic art. It is not.

  The Doctor, meanwhile, schemes, and captures Gisele. Grey goes to look for her while the handyman decides to find Chopin’s coffin and stake her. Grey runs across the countryside, then rests on a bench, where he seemingly dozes off. His transparent dream self then finds where Gisele is being hidden, and comes across a nightmarish scene, where he sees his own corpse (a third Grey) being sealed in a coffin for burial, eyes wide open, by the Doctor and Pegleg. Pegleg screws the coffin lid shut, and we are given the vantage point of Grey’s unblinking corpse looking out a small window in the coffin. There we see Chopin glaring down at him. As the Doctor and Pegleg transport Grey’s corpse for burial, we see the move to the outside, as ceiling gives way to sky. At the site where the coffin is to be buried, we see the sleeping Grey awaken as his spectral self returns within him, and the coffin, Pegleg, and Doctor fade. This is one of a few instances of explicit dreaming intersecting with reality (another being a scene where a skeleton tires to poison Grey as the Doctor, in the working world, tries to poison Leone); but what makes it works so well is that Dreyer has other scenes that seem manifest dreams, only to have them never be revealed as such.

  Meanwhile, the handyman has tracked down Chopin’s grave, unsealed it, and stakes the old woman as Grey watches. The vampire turns into a skeleton, and Grey goes on to find Gisele, as Leone recovers upon the vampire’s death. Earlier, there was a seminal scene of her slowly being perverted by the evil, but now she is relieved, although weakened- a direct contradiction to the ease and strength that most vampire victims feel when released in other films. Grey tracks down Gisele, and they head through fog out on a boat, to cross a river. The handyman, meanwhile, pursues the Doctor and Pegleg. Some mysterious force, not the handyman, seems to kill Pegleg. Moments earlier, we see a scene where the huge face of the murdered father of Gisele and Leone fills a window, and this seems to panic the Doctor and Pegleg. It is clearly not a ghost (at least not as depicted in most films); more likely a shared vision heralding the death of the vampire Chopin, but it does seem to have some power, as the Doctor is locked- by the same mysterious force that doomed Pegleg- in a cage at the flour mill, where the machines start without the help of the handyman, who watches the Doctor dies by smothering under tons of the stuff. When the Doctor has died, the machines turn off. Notably, all three of the villains are dispatched in ways wholly antithetical to the Christian mythos that drenches the vampire genre. This is particularly telling since much of Dreyer’s work is connected to Christian spirituality. Gray and Gisele, meanwhile, make it across the river, through a small forest, and out toward where the fog gives way to sun. The film ends, in a sense, tritely, save for the fact that there is no real resolution, and both the physical movement of the characters and its lack of resolution would be picked up later, and slightly expanded upon by Marcello Mastroianni’s anomic character in Federico Fellini’s great La Dolce Vita.

  The DVD package by Criterion is first rate. The first disk has the film in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, and the audio commentary by Rayns. He is one of the better commentators out there, for he does not go too far afield in his views, and usually sticks to explicating scenes, rather than expounding on inconsequential trivia. I mentioned the excellent cinematography, but the score by Wolfgang Zeller is very good- never veering into melodrama, and always assisting the images in inflicting dread. The film also comes in a version with German intertitles and English subtitles, or an English text version for the intertitles and book sections. It, too, has subtitles. However, since many of the scenes are in bright whites, some of the subtitles are difficult to read. Fortunately, since dialogue is minimal, this is no great problem. I’ve long suggested that Criterion follow other DVD companies by making golden subtitles de rigueur with black and white films. Also, as the film was originally to be shot in English, it would have been a great bonus for an English dubbed soundtrack to be included. Also, Criterion has restored many films to quite high quality, but this film has some reels that are excellent and others that are still streaked with dirt and blemishes; and I’m not talking about the blanched look of some of the outside scenes meant to imply fog. The second disk has a half hour long 1966 documentary called, simply, Carl Th. Dreyer, by Jørgen Roos, in which the director discusses some of his films. It also has a bit longer featurette by film expert Caspar Tybjerg on the things that influenced Vampyr, and a radio broadcast of Dreyer reading an essay on filmmaking. While all of these extras could have been put on one disk, that bloating is compensated for by a booklet with essays in the disk set, and a small book that has the screenplay for the film, as well as Le Fanu’s story Carmilla.

  Vampyr is one of the few early sound or silent films (indeed, it almost seems to occupy an artistic place all its own, midway between the two forms of film) that still works as well as it did upon its release because, unlike Dracula or Nosferatu, its horror was never based in the ‘reality’ of the day, rather the never-changing reality of the human psyche. It could be dreamt by someone today, a century ago, or five hundred years from now. Its disjunctions and contradictions are the real seed of its horror, not monsters nor that which goes bump in the darkness. In a sense, this film gave birth to the sort of ‘adult horror’ that the RKO pictures of Val Lewton exploited a decade later, rather than the more puerile horror that came after the first few classic monster flicks put out by Universal in the 1930s. Dreyer relies on subversions of the ordinary to create horror, not blood and gore, which only produce shock and disgust. Yet, the film also acted as a precursor (by two to three decades) to films that sought psychological depth from characters and tales that did not rely on plot driven action. For these, and reasons too many to enumerate, it is a film that has rightly earned the appellation classic, as well as great film. Perhaps, some day, Criterion will release a DVD set that, like Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin, will incorporate elements from both the German and French versions of the film (as well as rumored Danish scenes and intertitles) to construct a ‘Definitive’ version of Vampyr. But, until then, The Criterion Collection version of this film (based upon a 1998 reconstruction of the German version of the film) is the best place to start.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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