Most agree that F.W. Murnau‘s Nosferatu (1922) is the greatest and most unique screen incarnation of Bram Stoker’s iconic character (although, as blasphemous as it sounds, I would place Werner Herzog‘s 1979 remake on an equal plane. Yes, I said that, but that is a subject for another week). However, the greatest cinematic treatment of vampire folklore is a world removed from the titular Transylvanian count: Carl Theodor Dreyer‘s Vampyr (1932). But it is not for attention span-challenged vampire fans.
Vampyr is a film of relentless, static beauty, almost demanding chimerical concentration and phantasmagorical imagination of the viewer. After the predictable box office failure of the greatest film ever made—Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—the director deluded himself into thinking he could produce something commercial. He had what seemed to be the right source of inspiration (slight as it is): Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 pulp hit “Carmilla,” taken from the collection “In a Glass Darkly.” “Carmilla,” with its theme of a lesbian vampire would, of course, be enticing fodder for the dull masses. But it turned out Dreyer was too original and too much in possession of an authentic, artistic spiritual substance for titillation. Fortunately, Dreyer, who wrote the screenplay, jettisoned the lesbianism and, with it, any anticipation of appeasing puerile genre fans. Vampyr was a financial flop, resulting in Dreyer’s nervous breakdown and the dissolution of his production company. He would not make another film until Day of Wrath (1943). If period aficionados found Vampyr‘s deliberate pacing and intense, ethereal milieu too challenging, then many contemporary viewers, saddled with grand guignol expectations, often find the film provocative. Despite this, Vampyr proved to be a profound influence on both the German Expressionists and the Surrealists.
Although Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound film, he was uncomfortable with the medium, and the movie is imbued with pronounced silent film aesthetics. The great Rudolph Mate served as director of photography, interpreting Dreyer’s crepuscular world through incandescent, gossamer grays, giving the film an enchanted but foreboding sheen. Dreyer likened the experience of watching the film to a person standing in a room, then being told that another has just died in an adjacent room. The perception of the room you are in suddenly alters, even though the room itself remains the same.
As in a dream, the imagery is often disjointed, but deeply ingrained: a ferryman with scythe, a shrouded river, a shadow departing its one-legged owner, the antagonist dispatched by suffocating from falling white flour in a dilapidated windmill, and the film’s nexus, the disquieting vignette in which the protagonist, Allan Grey (Julian West, who financed the film) lies, trapped, in a sealed coffin, perforated with a glass window. We take on the role of voyeur to Grey’s nightmare, his helpless, vacant stare masking his terror. His eyes take in the landscape as he is carried away to burial.
The cast is primarily made up of non-professionals (with the notable exception of Sybille Schmitz as the dying sister, Leon). Chief among the amateurs is Henriette Gerard as Marguerite Chopin, the old woman whose spectral presence is matched by her ominous Doctor (Jan Hieronimko). Together, the two weave a spell over the film, as does Dreyer, who imbues Vampyr with a resplendent sense of hermetic purpose permeating its sickly skin. As with all of Dreyer’s work, Vampyr is replete with spiritual preoccupations and fears.
Vampyr may be one of the films most benefited by the Criterion Collection treatment. For years, it was only available in washed out transfers. Even the Image Entertainment release was disappointing. Criterion has done a remarkable restoration, using both French and German versions. Jorgen Ross’ documentary of Dreyer, Casper Tyberjerg’s essay, commentaries, a 1958 Dreyer radio broadcast, and the original script are part of an extensive package of goodies.