Screening Log #36: Vampyr (1932)

Written by Carl Theodor Dreyer and Christian Jul, based on the book In A Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring Julian West (Nicolas de Gunzburg), Jan Hieronimko, Rena Mandel, and Sybille Schmitz

 

 

There is a sense of loss inherent in any age of transition. As such, it seems only appropriate to watch Dreyer’s Vampyr the night before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a thoroughly nostalgic and backward-looking list of Best Picture nominations. That the Academy – and the film community at large – seems to be so nostalgic for the silent film era, and the painful growth the medium experienced with the advent of sound, is understandable as it enters into the adolescence of digital media. Concerned with death – its imagery permeates the film – and standing astride the worlds of silent film and sound, Vampyr grafts a dream-like unreality onto his usually austere compositions to evoke a strange and liminal world that articulates a sympathetic unease with the space between.

Dreyer’s film adapts a collection of supernatural stories into one nocturnal adventure that follows Allan Grey, Nicholas de Gunzberg playing as “Julian West”, as he visits a hotel in a small town that is beset by the horrific and paranormal. From his first frames, Dreyer interjects shots of Grey with stark images of a man carrying a large scythe boarding a river ferry; the connection to Charon is inescapable. What follows is a strange encounter with a man in Grey’s hotel room wherein the Lord, Maurice Shutz, stares in confusion or horror before writing on a package that it was not to be opened until after his death. Grey then embarks on a strange journey around the grounds of the hotel, witnessing various acts being performed by shadows that move independently of sources, digging a grave in reverse, dancing along walls, or climbing ladders before returning to an attachment with its source.

Grey ventures to the Lord’s mansion in time to see the Lord mysteriously shot. The Lord passes on and the parcel is opened and revealed to be a book concerning vampires. The Lord has two daughters, one of whom, Léone, Sybille Schmitz, is mysteriously ill, and sports a bloody neck. Léone is prone to wandering off, leaving Grey and her sister, Gisèle, Rena Mandel, and Grey to search for her in the darkness. Léone is also being attended to by the town’s doctor, Jan Hieronimko, who has encountered Allan in a strange incident previously at the hotel. The investigation into the vampire responsible for Léone’s condition, and whose demise is required for her recovery, leads to an unexpected revelation of the identity of the vampire and an oddly, and memorably, proletarian end for the Doctor.

Throughout the film Dreyer uses dialogue sparsely and to little exposition; much of the story-telling is entrusted to Dreyer’s long takes and employment of title cards – brilliantly translated in the Criterion edition of the DVD. Stretches of time unfurl with the viewer forgetting that dialogue is a device that may be employed. Dreyer builds tension via his soundtrack, his prolonged shots of shadows and movement enhancing the viewer’s apprehension for what is to come and heightening the surreal and dream-like quality of his visuals. The film is suffused with markers of liminality, of space of overlap between two states of being. The visual cues that gesture toward death, Dreyer’s insistence of its immanence, and the manner that these images, in choir with the shadow play, conflate Grey’s waking and dreaming states into one altered reality. That the film’s elusive antagonist is a member of the undead – neither living nor dead, yet somehow both – is another nod toward its interrogation of liminal state; that the protagonist’s surname is “Grey” – a shade of synthesis positioned directly between black and white – ensures that this inquiry is implicit in the film from its beginning.

Perhaps too thoughtful and slowly surreal to be considered outright horror, the thematic inquiry of Dreyer’s Vampyr is no less a product of its time. The anxiety of transition, the confusing dislocation associated with any uncontrolled movement, saturates Dreyer’s compositions; the most surreal happening is nonetheless predicated on a reality, even if it espouses an inversion of conventional rules. Eighty years after its inception, Vampyr, like its antagonist, represents a very particular and timeless source of discomfort. From beyond this gulf of time, and a wider gulf of technological and cultural change, Dreyer’s film has its shadowed, cold, hands firmly on the pulse of the spirit of Hollywood.

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