Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932
Cinema can mark you for life. In the late 70s I became aware of cinema – not just movies, but ‘film as art’. It may not have happened if it wasn’t for the Wellington Film Society and a chance viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974) at the 8th Wellington Film Festival. This seemingly plotless film (a cryptic Russian expression of personal and collective memory) went right over my head... or so I thought. In terms of my expectations of movies at the time, Mirror made little obvious sense, and yet I left the theatre exhilarated. It was an epiphanic, near-religious experience, a life-changing encounter with a language that spoke directly and intimately through sound and image. It wasn’t what was being said so much as 'how' it was being said. Mirror required full concentration, perception and intuition, a film one had to discern rather than simply wait to be entertained by.
So began a life-long quest for ‘cine-fire’. Within a relatively short period (thanks to film society in the early 80s), I received a crash-course in world cinema that introduced me to masters such as Miklós Jancsó, Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Rainer Werner Fasssbinder, Theo Angelopoulos, Ozu Yasujiro, Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard, Victor Erice, Carl Dreyer, and many others. These poets of the moving image shaped my perception of cinema, and foremost among them was Carl Dreyer. VAMPYR and Gertrud (1964) have had their hooks in me ever since.
It has been impossible to see Vampyr as Dreyer intended, given the dire condition of the various prints in circulation, but even the worst prints fail to undermine the extraordinary power of Dreyer’s images. One might even say that the grungier the reproduction the more effective the film can be. Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté strove to give the film a grainy otherworldly appearance characterised by a strange and unsettling half-light, as if the film had been shot in fog. They sought to suggest a perpetually dissolving and detached dreamlike reality, and to infuse each image with a palpable feeling of dread. Its somnambulist quality creates an atmosphere of limbo and spiritual malaise, and the ‘through a glass darkly’ character of both the visual and narrative ‘fog’ evokes the kind of dream-logic that is more recently associated with David Lynch. This pervasive unease was accentuated by Dreyer’s brilliant formal discontinuity, and the murky sound design added to the sense of a parallel reality of threatening forces. The result is a horror film for those who don’t generally care for them, which Alfred Hitchcock famously quipped was the only film worth seeing ... twice.
The best print of Vampyr I've seen to date is the restored version released by Masters of Cinema in 2008. The DVD includes two interesting commentaries, one by film scholar/critic Tony Rayns, and the other by director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). Rayns mostly discusses the formal aspects of the film, while Del Toro offers a personal reading of the metaphysical meaning of the work, attempting to get to the heart of the film's compelling fascination. For Del Toro, it’s a film about spiritual transcendence: rejecting Darkness, embracing Light. He sees it in religious terms, but for me (and maybe Dreyer too, given his comments on the subject) the allegory is more broadly philosophic. Del Toro’s commentary is full of perceptive observations, such as 'Time' being the biggest vampire; the Memento Mori quality of the film; the use of off-white to signify death; and the effectiveness of non-professional actors, a career-long practice in which Dreyer cast actors according to their emotional resemblance to the character they were to play. This is evident in the performances of Henriette Girard as the vampire and Baron de Gunzberg as David Gray, where their lack of skills served rather than detracted from the compelling ‘otherness’ of their roles.
The horror and vampire genres have often been used by filmmakers as vehicles for sub-textual, such as the guilt-ridden implications in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), both of which equate vampirism with imperialism. It’s difficult to say some 75 years down the track just what Dreyer’s sub-textual intentions were, but the fact that De Gunzberg brings a homosexual dimension to the Christ-figure he plays (some 35 years before Pasolini) is interesting to ponder. At the time, Dreyer railed against what he called the “holy organisation” of the film industry, which dominated film production everywhere by the 30s. With financial support from De Gunzberg he set up an independent film company, which is interesting given that he chose a vampire story as his first (and as it would turn out, only) independent production –– a film about bloodsuckers that transcends the limitations of film industry expectations by being a fragmented cinematic mood-piece that challenged (and continues to challenge) formal conventions as well as the ‘vampiric’ tendencies of commercial film production. Just as the story depicts a battle between carnal passion and spiritual piety within the souls of those infected by destructive and insatiable lust, the film itself embodies the battle for the poetic soul of cinema, a struggle against the infection of artistically limiting dictums and an insatiable commercial lust! Why not?
It would be nice to think that Dreyer may have used the generic tropes of spiritual hope and renewal to express an aspirational passion for his beloved art form. Online reviewer Acquarello echoes this idea nicely when he likens the rays of light beaming across the landscape in the penultimate image of David and Giséle emerging from misty woods and walking towards a luminous sunrise to that of the light projected in a cinema. He also equates the gears stopping in the mill (as if by divine intervention) as a metaphor for filmmakers as the creative conscience behind their work. Of course, self-reflexivity was far from Dreyer’s primary intentions. Vampyr, like all of Dreyer's work, is an attempt to articulate the essential substance of human experience and emotion.
It would be decades before Vampyr received its critical due. Despite seminal evaluations by the likes of Bordwell, Schrader and Burch, many continued to dismiss the film as technically and artistically flawed. Bordwell wrote about Dreyer’s use of ‘absent cause’, an obfuscation of the narrative by withholding motivational information so that we only see the “late phases of an implicit sequence of actions”, as Bordwell put it. In other words, we are shown consequences rather than causes. Not only are causes absent, they are (crucially) rarely explained.
Classical cinema, on the other hand, relies on relatively unambiguous spatial, temporal and narrative relationships, coherence central to that unspoken contract between filmmaker and viewer. But poets like Dreyer subvert this so as to allow greater freedom for filmmaker and viewer alike. Such strategies can be taxing for audiences today, let alone 75 years ago. It’s little wonder that Vampyr was a financial failure, but it is one of the reasons why it contines to be so influential and affecting today. It deserves its place in film history if for no other reason than to show that great cinema need not be bound by the constraints of the classical narrative style, and that the essential humanity and poetry of a work will ultimately endure.
Dreyer was a compassionate filmmaker who made films from the heart. They may seem formal and austere at first, but behind that Danish reserve lay a genuine regard for people, and optimism in their capacity for selflessness, honesty and love, and their inspirational ability to express the most profound and affecting truth through simple human interaction ... and of course, through art.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader