Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey

(Vampyr, France/Germany - 1932)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko
Genre: Surrealism/Horror
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer & Christen Jul based on Sheridan Le Fanu's novel In a Glass Darkly
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate & Louis Nee
Composer: Wolfgang Zeller
Runtime: 83 minutes

Scaring many of the admirers he earned with 1928's The Passion of Joan of Arc in the wrong way, Carl Theodor Dreyer announced that his next project would be a horror film. Dreyer would go on to prove to be one of the very few directors that couldn't be pinned down. His films are all very much his own, and share certain similarities both in theme and style, yet one could not guess what material he'd go to or really even put their finger on where to place it once he'd finished. The one thing we'd learn for certain though, when he did eventually get a film made, it wouldn't disappoint.

Basically all you need to know about Vampyr's story is told on the first intertitle. "This story is about the strange adventures of young Allan Grey. His studies of devil worship and vampire terror of earlier centuries have made him a dreamer for whom the boundaries between the real and the unreal have become dim."

To some extent, Vampyr substitutes the religion of Joan with the supernatural. Both films are mediations on belief during a state of personal crisis, with the heart of the film being a choice between the tangible and the intangible. In this case, the crucial reading from Paul Bonnard's vampire book is about a doctor who aided them in attaining and securing victims. The bitten sister Grey (Julian West, the film's producer) is concerned with might be saved if she gets a transfusion soon enough, but he's presented with a great conflict of his beliefs when the doctor asks him, "will you sacrifice your blood?" One of the biggest reasons Vampyr is the better of the two is, while Joan was very black and white with good and evil being obvious, the lines are all blurred. Therein lies the key to any mediation, that the audience must weigh elements they are unsure of to come to a conclusion that does not need to be the same as the director's or everyone else's.

When I'm arguing against a pointless, illogical, silly, unbelievable film that one of my friends liked, I often hear that the problem is I "didn't enter the director's world". I agree that the best directors generally reconstruct the world from the ground up, but that alone doesn't mean much. To be successful they have to thrust you in and interact with you in some way.

One reason the film works is Dreyer immediately makes us dreamers also unable to discern real from unreal. Allan arriving at the inn is intercut with a scythe wielding bell toller. In an ordinary film that would probably be a less than subtle harbinger of doom, but in Dreyer's world we don't know if the reaper is coming for Allan or created by Allan's imagination running wild. Furthermore, since the guy is not really dressed as the grim reaper, he has a big round hat rather than the hood, perhaps it's a combination of my identification with the tool and knowing it's a horror film that results in my transforming man into reaper.

What's more important than thrusting us into a nightmare, obviously, is sustaining it. This is where the wannabe surrealists fall on their face because they are still partially thinking in terms of traditional and coherent means of storytelling or worrying about whether enough people will "get it". Dreyer is not a director that is prisoner to surrealism or anything else, but rather one that understands how to destroy genre and recreate. Here, he uses his own narrative language and challenges you to follow it. He explains certain things, but you never know where or when an explanation will pop up, and when it does it could just be more of the material that's muddling Grey's brain. The key is Dreyer doesn't get cute. His film starts off structureless, and remains that way throughout.

What makes this one of the truly interactive films is that it refuses to take a point of view. Grey's role is more conveyer of supernatural information than protagonist. Though we travel with him, the film is shot more as if we are a character watching Grey watch the weird events. Sometimes we see more than Grey, but sometimes he limits us. We also read what he reads, but he doesn't give us his opinion. It's a shared experience where we go through the same things together, but without sharing perspectives so we could just as easily be alone.

Vampyr is a masterpiece of style and atmosphere. Though Dreyer's films always looked impressive and Rudolph Mate and Louis Nee shared cinematography, I'm guessing that Mate is the key to the look. Joan with Dreyer and Mate looked excellent, while Day of Wrath with just Dreyer showed him missing Mate even though it still added up to a great film. Mate was one of the greatest cinematographers, working for directors like Howard Hawks, King Vidor, Leo McCarey, Alfred Hitchcock, & Ernst Lubitsch. Though perhaps as many as a dozen films he lensed could be argued as classics, including Foreign Correspondent, Gilda, The Passion of Joan of Arc, & To Be or Not to Be, Vampyr stands as his most amazing work. Not only was he working for a visually oriented director, but he was free of almost all plot and dialogue.

Ironically, the general look of the film was pretty much luck. Dreyer started filming before he knew what he was looking for. He was unhappy with the normal crisp look he asked for because he wasn't sure what would be better. One day he saw mysterious cloudy rushes that were the result of a light leak in a camera casing that exposed and fogged the film. Through early morning shooting and the use of filters, Dreyer now had a surreal hazy perpetual dawn look for his surreal tale. There was no luck involved in the many unforgettable shots and sequences the film contains though.

Shot on location in and around a Paris castle, the first 20 minutes basically consists of Grey walking through unfamiliar territory and seeing mysterious things, or things his mind makes mysterious. The shots are so graceful and gliding, bringing a kind of life to the eerie gothic surroundings, that you forget this was filmed 40+ years before Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam. They also blend together so well that you never think about set pieces. In the Passion of Joan of Arc, there's a cool upside down reflection during the chaos at the end. Here, this reverse image is applied to the story much better and taken much farther. We see a reflection of someone walking on the far side of the lake then we see Grey walk into the picture on the near side following this image, but also not being able to see who, if anyone, originates it.

The use of light and shadows is nothing short of brilliant. It's worked into the story by text from Bonnard's book that states, "shadows of executed criminals are their (vampires) helpers." Though called Vampyr, the film is almost as much a ghost story. Grey often sees other villagers as walking shadows leading him into the unknown. Sometimes they walk through a lit area or we see them and their shadow in the same shot, so we don't know what's real or fake, dream or reality. A cool effect during one of these scenes is the soundtrack alternating between the creepy dreadful nightmare score and the "real" upbeat music the shadow violinist is playing for other shadows to dance to.

The film has two inarguably brilliant sequences. One has Grey's soul leaving his body. He sits on a bench motionless (freeze frame) with the soul first splitting out so it looks like a "two headed monster" then standing up and walking away from the limp body. Adding to the amazing effects for 1932, Grey continues his journey as a transparent soul.

As memorable as the splitting scene is, it merely sets up an even more unforgettable one. From Grey's point of view we see a coffin (it has a window) with Grey in it being sealed and carried to the graveyard for burial. The people that caused his death are outside to add to the creepiness, one lighting a candle for the dead, and the shots of the sky, trees, and buildings are all beautifully realized. Two things really make the scene though. First, consistent with the rest of the film, we also see shots from inside the coffin of Grey's face, as if we were trapped in there and our head was simply opposite his. Second, we get bird's eye view shots looking down on him through the window that make it look like he's still alive, able to move just enough to signal "no" about being buried alive.

Despite having first seen Vampyr 70 years after it was made, I had no problem believing the effects. This is because the shots were composed properly by real artists who didn't rely on the "best" technology available at the time, which quickly becomes as state of the art as that computer you bought a year ago. Instead, they concentrate more on suggestive aspects they know how to manipulate such as lights and angles. This is the opposite of say King Kong (1933); a film that was comical when I was five, but now is downright torture to sit through because I can't believe one effect in the film for a second, not to mention there are about 1,000 holes in the "logic" and the acting is poor. It's the difference between an effect that looks a bit rustic today because it can be done smoother/cleaner, and one where you say that's just not right. I remember how the entire film class I was in cringed or had to close their eyes during the eyeball splicing seen in Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou, and that film was from 1929!

Existing prints of Vampyr are rather crusty to say the least. It was Dreyer's first sound film, but similar to how it largely defies genrefication, it's more of a hybrid existing somewhere between the silent and the talkie. It was shot silent and has more intertitles than spoken sentences, but it benefits greatly from an excellent string and piano score that is one of the keys to the film's transcendence. Upon completion of these aspects, it was dubbed into French, Danish, English, & German. The current version is a bizarre hodgepodge of several of these versions with giant subtitles in boxes that cover up subtitles printed on the reels in a different language. Only in a film like Vampyr could this not only fail to ruin the film, but in spots its inconsistency even adds to its charm. Remember those dreams you had where you knew where you were but something just wasn't right about it, like you are in your current house but now it's located in the neighborhood you grew up in? Anyway, the discrepancies in the prints create that kind of effect. Of the little dialogue there is, some of it isn't translated. This, along with sounds that are muffled, produces a greater feeling of alienation when Grey is eavesdropping on unseen characters, making the foreign mumbling seem even more like the occult.

The slowness of the film certainly won't be to many people's tastes, but it's what makes many scenes work. Most films use endless condensing, sometimes to great effect like in Requiem for a Dream, but generally because that's what they are "supposed to do" because these days people "don't have any patience." Dreyer uses real time with characters moving very deliberately in a kind of robotic self induced slow motion. He knows how to utilize lengthy takes, but he's not bound to them like many directors who prefer them. The effectiveness of the scene where Grey sees his door unlocked and opened is as much that we know he knows someone could be coming for him as it is that our anticipation is built by it taking 30 seconds for a face to be revealed. Unlike the newer horror films that just play for cheap cat jumps through the window "scares", what appears adds (really sets off) to the films mystery rather than answering any of our questions.

As Joe Pesci would say, "It's a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma!" We want to believe the readings from Bonnard's book because there's no real plot. This absence of something to follow puts us in tune with Grey, who is also searching for an explanation for what's going on. Like a dream, the film doesn't follow any prevailing logic and gives us more questions instead of providing answers. It is that very characteristic, that you don't know who or what to believe, that makes it so enthralling and something you won't forget for a long time. It is also that characteristic that makes you explore your own intellectual and spiritual concepts and values. Vampyr does eventually provide things that could be answers to Grey's story and come to some sort of ending, but how you interpret it and whether you believe all of it, or any of it, is entirely up to you. The point is not to solve a mystery, but to experience one of life's puzzles in a way you otherwise wouldn't that promotes greater thought and the cultivation or advancement of your own views.



* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *