CARL DREYER’S ‘VAMPYR’
This privately financed film loosely refers to two short stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla and Through a Glass Darkly. Carl Dreyer approached this vampire story using an experimental strategy. At the time, his reputation was of the individual artist and he was lucky enough to have free reign over the production, co-financed with Baron Nicholas de Gunzberg, a film buff who had aspirations towards becoming an actor. De Gunzberg was to take on the lead role, playing Allan Gray (the film was subtitled, The Dream of Allan Gray). The use of an almost entirely unprofessional cast was another unusual move, and the supporting actors seem to have been summoned from a recent stifling dream Dreyer had, with their ethereal physical presences.
Intuitive decisions influenced the entire production. Dreyer still addressed the formal elements of filmmaking while creating a distinctly personal and abstract mood. He sought evidence – or visual manifestations – of his feelings through a particular approach to photography. His most famous statement on the film, about “an ordinary room being completely altered when someone reports a corpse lying behind the door to this room,” expresses his objective to achieve his effects through light, sound, and temporal awareness. Atmosphere was used to communicate quite a specific understanding of the story through these formal elements. Working with his cameraman, Rudolph Mate, for instance, a new technique of veiling the lens and casting light onto it diffused normal daylight shots, emphasizing the unnerving creepiness accompanying our hero on his journey. I read that Freddie Francis used this technique again when he filmed the desert planet sequences for Dune.
Vampyr can be a confusing film. The use of shadows, signalling the presence of the supernatural also points to the lack of any substantial reality to grasp, of causes, or of antagonists. As Allan Gray embarks on his wanderings around the old mansion where he is lodging, the spectator’s relation to the screen is set up as his point of view. But this point of view is of gravity defying shadows, unreal reflections, and disembodied hands. We hear unseen animals and pitiful, low human voices. Our point of view is Allan’s and it is somehow out of true. “He is predisposed to the fantastic,” the title card says, and we experience this.
Rudolph Mate interprets Dreyer’s translucent world through his disorienting framing. Figures enter rooms after long moments, or pass behind the camera to get to the opposite side of the room (in the same frame). The camera pans away at times from important reaction shots to view the set almost as if the spiritual manifestations in the film were guiding it. Dreyer permits the atmosphere to take control at such moments. Another memorable scene occurs when the sick Lise’s father first enters Allan’s room; the system of necessary reaction shots is delayed unnaturally. We understand Allan’s isolation.
Traditional narrative cross-cutting, normally used to build the momentum of the story adds to this symbolic understanding: when Gray enters the old mansion at the start of the film, the insistent imagery of skulls, gravediggers filmed backwards and shadows are edited into this investigation into the house. This is not exactly moving the story forward, yet it effortlessly foreshadows future events in the story: Allan’s dream of death later in the film, prefiguring his own; the various deaths which occur later, of Lise’s father, and the peg-legged assistant, and the old doctor.
We are forced into a world of the inexplicable and the ephemeral, all the while, needing to be informed and satisfied. The point is, we do not lose interest even though the exposition may be as obscured as the oddly out of synch dialogue recording. Worth noting is that the sound design is consistent with the overall discordant style. When Allan meets the strange doctor on the stairs, communication is stilted:
Doctor: Did you hear that?
Allan: Yes. The child.
Doctor: The child?
Allan: Yes, the child!
Doctor: There’s no child here.
(The Doctor passes Allan on the way to another locked door).
Allan: But the dogs!
Doctor: There are no children or dogs here!
(Allan exits. The door is flung open by the wind, and the Doctor finds Marguerite Chopin emerging from the cellar. He escorts her into the house – intercut with a skull as the eyes are slowly illuminated within the shot).
Dialogue is carefully considered and used sparingly in this exchange, along with the intermittent use of natural, human and animal recordings. I’m not sure if these details are intended as part of a rigorous preconditioned design, but for me, the film’s strengths lie in the use of these discordant elements within a realistic world, and within a coherent narrative framework.
The story is set over a limited time period of two days, another use of formal rules and restrictions to heighten the sense of the uncanny intruding on reality. We are mostly uninformed throughout the film; the relationships between certain characters is still unclear, such as the doctor and the old woman vampire, Marguerite Chopin, Allan and Lise’s father’s relationship, and Allan and Lise’s relationship. Added to this, the films ordering of scenes is far from seamless. Most narrative horror usually manages to relate one scene to another with some momentum. But the details in Vampyr, like the father’s discovery of the book on vampires, or the events with Lise and her sister, or Allan’s dream of his own burial all appear to be unmotivated by previous events. The effect is, as I say, not as jarring as it sounds, or as deliberately obtuse as more experimental films. Vampyr’s logic shows a stranger, atavistic reasoning at work.
Where does the film belong? Around the same time, Browning’s Dracula (1931) seemed to have more to do with the reproduction of the Broadway theatrical version of the novel than anything else. While I admire the uncanny, gloomy artifice of the film, I always felt the film script was not as cinematic as James Whale’s Frankenstein in the same year. Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is as ambitious as Vampyr, but with a bizarre, painted and unrealistic expressionist design; it is successful in portraying the story’s inner horrors through a series of distorted sets, but less expressive with the camera and editing.
Vampyr has something akin to these examples; they are all modern retellings of traditional folk stories, aware of the logic of the folk imagination. This vampire folk tale is captured on screen as an undying, amorphous menace, as familiar as our everyday world, thanks to the intuitive directing of actors and use of locations. Dreyer’s feelings about the dead person on the other side of the door are expressed through the use of film techniques: long dissolves, odd compositions, meaningful superimpositions featuring skulls, scythes, expressionistic faces, extended travelling shots.
The enduring symbols of holy water, the sign of the cross, and the wooden stake are all recurring icons of vampire folklore, and they are well integrated into the flow of Vampyr’s story. Perhaps the imagery threatens to surpass our concerns for the characters, and to some extent, the plot, and predictably this led to a mixed reception when the film was premiered in Berlin in 1931. It was booed and screamed at. Nicholas de Gunzberg, who played Allan Gray and co-financed the film, believed that a group of people objected to Dreyer’s unusual representation of vampirism. The main vampire, Marguerite Chopin, is an old lady in her eighties – this goes against the grain of the genre. It also seems at odds with today’s modern vampire films, with their sleek, image-conscious and well-groomed young vampires.
Vampyr was a critical and commercial failure and Dreyer soon fell out of favour with the film industry. The film’s reputation has grown since then, and as De Gunzberg also pointed out: “The reaction in Paris was mixed. Certain people absolutely went over and over again and were fascinated by it.”
Over thirty years passed before the film was re-issued in the 1960s. Raymond Rohauer bought the rights from Nicholas de Gunzberg and Vampyr was re-released. This time the publicity was wider with regular screenings at art-house cinemas, usually as part of a horror theme alongside films like Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), and Browning’s Dracula and Mark of the Vampire (1935). The critics who received the film this time around were much more appreciative.
It is still an elusive, dreamlike experience with a visual style all of its own.
VAMPYR: DER TRAUM DES ALLAN GRAY - Running time: 68 mins.
Director: CARL DREYER -Photography: RUDOLPH MATE, LOUIS NEE - Producers: CARL DREYER, NICHOLAS DE GUNZBERG - Screenplay: CARL DREYER, CHRISTIAN JUL (source: ‘IN A GLASS DARKLY’ and ‘CARMILLA’ by SHERIDAN LE FANU)
Release year: 1932, dubbed and titled.