Tag Archives: Carl Theodor Dreyer

197. VAMPYR (1932)

Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey; Castle of Doom (alternate English version)

“I just wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted, if you will, to break new ground for the cinema. That is all. And do you think this intention has succeeded? Yes, I have broken new ground.”–Carl Theodore Dreyer on Vampyr

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julian West, Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz

PLOT: Allen Gray, a student of the occult, wanders to the small hamlet of Courtempierre. There, he witnesses ghostly visions and meets an old man who is soon killed by an assassin’s bullet. The man’s sickly daughter lies in bed, her blood drained by a vampire, and Gray takes it upon himself to find the source of the contagion.

Still from Vampyr (1932)
BACKGROUND:

  • The story was inspired by tales from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 Gothic short story collection “In a Glass Darkly,” the most important of which is “Carmilla” (a vampire tale with lesbian undertones).
  • Vampyr was produced in three versions: one with the cast speaking English, one in French, and one in German. Complete prints of the English and French versions no longer exist, although parts were used in restoring the German version. Some say the English version was never completed. Filming the same script in multiple languages was a trend at the time—see also the Spanish-language version of Dracula—although this practice was soon abandoned as too costly.
  • Star “Julian West” is actually Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, who funded the production in exchange for the leading role. Gunzburg used a pseudonym to avoid the embarrassment that would result from having an actor in his Russian expatriate noble family.
  • Vampyr was shot through a layer of gauze positioned in front of the camera to create the soft, dreamlike visuals.
  • The film was booed at its premiere in Berlin, and in Vienna crowds rioted, demanding their money back. Vampyr lost money and at the time was seen as an embarrassment in its distinguished director’s career, although now it is regarded with near universal acclaim.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The translucent astral body of our protagonist, peering down at his doppelganger as it lies in a coffin.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A nearly irrational, mood-based horror gem with imagery that verges on the surreal, Vampyr is a grim and restless death parable made in the brief age when the melodramatic structures of silent films were slowly being fleshed out with the new colors and textures afforded by sound. This experiment in terror by a master filmmaker, made in a unique period that cannot be recreated, is an artifact of its time that paradoxically seems all the more universal because of the age-bound specificity of its style.


Clip from Vampyr (1932)

COMMENTS: “It was an eerie moonlit night. Lights and shadows, Continue reading 197. VAMPYR (1932)

CARL THEODOR DREYER’S VAMPYR (1932)

Most agree that ‘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 ‘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: ‘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.

Still from Vampyr (1922)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.

DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)

Every time a prestigious film institute puts together an official, stamped with authority list of “The Greatest Films of All Time” their number one pick is going to be Citizen Kane. No surprises there. Such lists might as well be packaged and sold as a 1.2.3 paint-by-numbers set. Ironically, it was the granddaddy of all film institutes that treated Kane’s creator as a heretic, refused to give him due recognition, banished him to Europe and excommunicated him for life.

Taking absolutely nothing from that film, nor Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is not the greatest film ever made.  That honor probably goes to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 Passion of Joan of Arc.

Rarely do classic films live up to the hype. Throughout the 1970s numerous books whispered about this lost film. It was very common to read its being compared to a fugue. Several veteran critics lamented its loss, something akin to losing a sacred relic. Only the loss of Von Stroheim’s uncut Greed inspired as much passion.

Then, in the early 1980’s a near mint condition print was found in the closet of an Italian mental institute.  When it was finally made available, many, myself included, bristled with excitement, wondering if this film was everything it was said to be.

Regardless of how much you’ve read about The Passion of Joan of Arc, nothing prepares you for it.  By the time the credits roll, the viewer feels emptied, literally drained. It is that devastating, as an emotional, spiritual, ecstatic, and aesthetic experience.

Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential, time-defying, inimitable cinematic experience of (German) Expressionism and (French) avant-garde.  The producers had wanted something else altogether, but Dreyer’s film was taken directly from Joan’s trial transcripts.  This is not Joan the warrior, but a young, frightened uneducated girl, absorbed in an ecstatic religious experience and a terrifying, inevitable martyrdom.

Still from The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)The performance of this Joan of Arc, as portrayed by Maria Falconetti, is the single greatest acting that has ever been imprinted, seared, burned, into celluloid.  But, this could hardly be called acting in any traditional sense.  Rumor has it that, in certain scenes, Dreyer made Falconetti kneel on hot coals to obtain the right expression of suffering, and Falconetti certainly was in abject misery for the hair cutting sequence (Dreyer’s reputation as a tyrannical dictator, ironically a bit like Joan’s judges, was well earned, but he made the Continue reading DREYER’S CINEMATIC PASSION (OF JOAN OF ARC)