Filmed near the very dawn of the 'talkie' era, this hazy meditation on earthly despair and spiritual hope is as challenging and unique in its way as anything modern film experimentalists such as David Lynch might conjure up at home on their digital camcorders. No small wonder then that audiences at many a European premiere in the early '30s reacted with such indignant outrage, often demanding their money back during screenings! For cinema audiences at that period of time, only recently accustomed to the horror genre as then defined by Universal Pictures, watching "Vampyr" for the first time must have been a thoroughly bewildering experience. The film wasn't released in Berlin until after Todd Browning's "Dracula" and James Whale's "Frankenstein" had already played there, leading Dreyer to attribute this to "Vampyr's" initial lack of success, claiming that the two Universal films 'undercut' his own by establishing a more conventional narrative line in dealing with the uncanny which ultimately made audiences more resistant to his own methods. In truth, "Vampyr" can be just as disconcerting and befuddling to cinematically savvy modern viewers -- so persistently radical is it in disregarding what we now see as normative film grammar, let alone the usual mechanics of narrative plotting.
Dreyer may have been inspired and influenced by the surrealists, but what is most striking when watching the film now is that, unlike early surrealist films such as Bunuel and Dali's "Un Chien Andalou" (perhaps "Vampyr's" closest cinematic cousin), no sense emerges that this stolidly austre Danish filmmaker was attempting, or even thinking, of causing upset or outrage. "With "Vampyr" I wanted to create a daydream on film, and I wanted to show that the sinisiter lies not in the things around us but in our own subconscious" Dreyer was quoted saying in 1940. Dreyer's methods of invoking the film's somnolent, blanched atmosphere are often sutble, but always unsettling. The horror genre had apparenly already been set in stone by cinema, as far back as F.W.Murnau's "Nosferatu", as one that needs expressionistic lighting and Gothic trappings for its eerie effects, "Vampyr" largely rejects that in favour of a predomently pale, whited out aesthetic. Many of the locations were painted all white for the film and much of it was shot by director of photography Rudolf Mate with a sheet of gauze over the lens to add a foggy 'not-quite-thereness' to the film's dislocated imagery.
The story, on paper, and in a synopsis from a 1933 Danish film programme (a translation of the text of which is included in a lavish booklet that comes with this Masters of Cinema DVD edition), seems deceptively straightforward, little different indeed from any vampire film made then or now. Ostensibly based on the stories from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's collection "In a Glass Darkly", the film in fact retains very few of these elements apart from the central idea from the story "Carmilla": that of an isolated household where the daughter is under supernatural threat from an undead being (the lesbian undertones of which provided Hammer films with no end of material in the mid 1970s), and a particular sequence based on an idea from another non-supernatural mystery story in the collection, which involves the threat of premature burial.
The story has the "hero", Allan Gray (Julian West), a daydreamer obsessed with reading about the occult, staying the night at an inn next to a river on the outskirts of the village of Courtempierre in France. During the night he has a visitation from a mysterious old gentleman (Maurice Schutz) who deposits a package on his desk inscribed with the words "To be opened upon my death". The next day Allan Gray sees many strange things while wandering about the mainly derelict buildings in the village: it seems to be a place where shadows rule; the shadow of the church spire seems to frolic along the riverbank, leading Allan onward; the shadow of a peg-legged man is able to leave and rejoin its host of its own accord; the shadow of a grave digger 'un-digs' a grave, and a Dance Hall of shadow-dancers seems under the command of a crooked old woman in black, with flowing white hair and a cain. Allan also stumbles upon a decaying labyrinth of cobwebbed rooms, one of which belongs to a dishevelled-looking doctor who lives in a room furnished with blackened old skeletons and dusty books — and even a coffin — and who seems to have a mysterious connection to the old woman with the cain.
Later he comes upon a chateau where lives the old man who left the package he now carries in his breast pocket. The old man has two daughters, one of which is gravely ill from a mysterious malady which has left her weakened and in a suicidal frame of mind. But the peg-legged man's shadow appears to be responsible for murdering the old man while grey watches (!) whereupon Allan Grey opens the package, which turns out to contain a book on vampire lore. Among its anecdotes and advice, it tells of how the village of Courtempierre has once been cursed centuries ago by a vampire known as Marguerite Chopin. He realises that the sick daughter, Leone (Sybille Schmitz) has fallen prey to this creature; but before he and the other daughter, Gisele (Rena Mandel), with whom he has quickly fallen in love, can do anything about this, they notice Leone is missing from her sickbed! They find her in the garden but do not see the old woman with the cain who stoops over her inert form! The surface plot of the film then concerns itself with Allan and Gisele attempting to thwart the vampire and her human helpers before poor Leone's tortured soul is lost in damnation forever.
This all sounds straight forward enough, but it fails fully to capture the elliptical, dreamlike mood Dreyer succeeds in creating. The apparently simplest of sequences, such as Gray's attempts to secure a room at the inn at the beginning of the film, are impregnated with a strange disjointed ennui. Dreyer's unorthodox editing strategy often makes it difficult to picture where anything is located in relation to anything else: rooms don't seem to have the relationship to each other that you'd expect for instance, and the camera often might follow the gaze of a character (with its strangely urgent movements) only to pan back to reveal that they have moved off in entirely the opposite direction! Yet the camera always seem to have a disconcertingly modern peripatetic motion about it — the mobile camera work makes it look almost as though a stedi-cam has been transported back in time to the early 1930s! Offsetting this jagged, upsetting, hard to fathom edginess that gives a dreamlike logic to the simplest of scenes, the film's total lack of any artificial studio sets gives an immediacy and an authenticity to the film that lends the most surreal of images a hardened realness and an unparalleled credibility. Unable to afford proper film sets on the budget the film's patron, Nicolas de Gunzburg, had made available, Dreyer was forced to improvise, renting out a number of rooms and even an abandoned ice factory in which to film the main indoor sequences. These unusual locations give the film a thoroughly unique look, with Dreyer's insistence on an "all white" aesthetic only adding to this effect.
An acute sense of unreality is maintained by the dreamy non-performances of the cast, especially the 'lead'. Baron Nicolas de Gunsberg was an aristocrat who fancied acting and so financed the film on the proviso that he would take the lead role. Out of this inauspicious circumstance, Dreyer manages to snatch victory. To put it plainly, Gunsberg (whom, as director Guillermo del Toro points out in his marvellous commentary track, looks uncannily like the horror author H.P. Lovecraft!) cannot act — but his spiritless performance and perpetually blank expression, as he drifts through the film, always gazing at events abstractly, often through dusty windows, just adds to the gentle, haunted quality of the film. Practically no-one in the cast was a professional actor and the often stilted delivery of the sparse dialogue in this very early sound picture (the dialogue scenes were shot in German, French and English, but only the German version remains in any kind of presentable condition) is almost Lynchian at times in its weird abstractness.
Definitely ahead of its time is the strangely oblique narrative structure, which, in one amazing section of the film, sees Allan Gray's point of view (for it is mostly from his point of view that we witness events) split into three, creating a bewildering array of perspectives which boggle the mind as effectively as anything in "Mulholland Drive" or "INLAND EMPIRE". At this point in the film, Gray apparently falls asleep on a bench. In a dream, his spirit form leaves his sleeping body and gazes down upon a third version of himself, lying immobile in a coffin presided over by the old vampire woman and her two assistants. But then Dreyer shifts the point of view of the camera to that of the paralysed Allan Gray, looking up out of the window of the coffin as he's carried along to be buried in the churchyard! As the procession passes the sleeping body of the first Allan Gray he wakes up, and the funereal cortege promptly vanishes! It's a marvellous sequence but the various manipulations of perspective are accomplished with such effortless fluidity that the viewer barely notices the switch.
Perhaps the most unexpected thing about "Vampyr" is just how little a role the film's putative blood sucker actually plays in the proceedings! The real villains of the piece appear to be the doctor and the peg-legged soldier, who conspire to cause suicide and despair, and in doing so, incidentally aid the vampire's designs. The film is more concerned with exploring the "sickness of the human soul" than in external monsters and their evil doings; and although the vampire gets staked in traditional fashion, it is the doctor who seems to get the most brutal punishment, drowning in a flurry of flour at a mill after a mysterious agency traps him there! The visual theme of white, signifying annihilation in the doctor's case and spiritual bliss in Allan and Gisele's case, as they emerge from fog and are last seen disappearing into sunlight reflecting through a bucolic woodlands, remains to the very end.
The UK Masters of Cinema DVD presents a whole host of extras for this important film which include two wonderful commentaries: one by film scholar Tony Rayns and an exclusive a thoroughly engaging one by director Guillermo del Toro, who is full of his own ideas and theories which hardly ever overlap with Rayns's. Two scenes deleted by German censors are included (for various technical reasons they could not be restored to the original film). A documentary about the films and career of Carl Th. Dreyer which was made in 1966 is included, along with a specially commissioned visual essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg on Dreyer's Vampyr influences. There is also a short documentary about the film's lead actor and financier, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg. Finally the disc contains a PDF file of Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla".
But that's not all! The disc is also packaged with an 80-page book (and it is a proper book, rather than just a leaflet) which is full of essays and extracts relating to the film and its director, as well as many stills and behind the scenes photographs.
This is a difficult film, but undoubtedly an important one in the history of the development of film and, in particular, the Horror and fantasy genres. Masters of Cinema have produced the best tribute possible to Dreyer's unique piece of work. An essential purchase for students of cinema and fans of the offbeat and unusual.