Friday, July 22, 2011

Vampyr - 1932

Director:                          Carl Theodor Dreyer
Producers:                        Carl Theodor Dreyer, Nicolas de Gunzburg
Screenplay:                      Carl Theodor Dreyer, Christen Jul
     (based on the book "In a Glass Darkly" by Sheridan LeFanu
Phtography:                      Rudolph Mate
Music:                              Wolfgang Zeller
Art Directors:                   Hermann Warm, Dr. Hans Bittmann, 
                                            Cesare Silvagni

Allan Gray                     Julian West
Bernard                         Maurice Schutz
Leone                            Sybille Schmitz
Gisele                            Rena Mandel
Dorfarzt                         Jan Hieronimko
the Vampire                  Henriette Gerard
Joseph                           Albert Bras
Joseph's Wife                N. Babanini
Nurse                            Jane Mora 

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is probably the first and only time that the names of Ed Wood, Jr. and Carl Theodor Dreyer have been mentioned in the same sentence. Most people know of Ed Wood by now – the creative mind behind some of the most uniquely incompetent movies to come out of Hollywood in the 1940’s and 50’s – e.g. “Plan Nine from Outer Space” and “Glen or Glenda”. (I like the phrase that filmmaker Larry Blamire uses to describe Wood’s oeuvre, “professionally challenged”.) Many people have called him one of the worst directors of all time.

Carl Theodor Dreyer
Carl Dreyer was a critically acclaimed Danish director working in Europe from the 1920’s through the 60’s. Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is considered one of the outstanding achievements in cinema. Many people have called him one of the greatest directors of all time.

What in the name of all that is holy do these two men have in common? They both were unable to obtain financing for their projects and had to go outside the studio system to get their films made. They both secured funding through private backers but had to make casting compromises to do so. The results for both were quite different, however.

Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi slug it out in "Bride of the Monster"
In the case of Ed Wood, the movie was the deliriously inept “Bride of the Monster”. The financier was a rancher named Donald McCoy who backed the film on condition his son, Tony, be the star. Tony McCoy’s wooden performance secured him a few small roles in movies and TV. “Bride of the Monster” stumbled to film obscurity until it was picked up by the writers at “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and became a classic episode of that insanely funny show.

Dreyer had an artistic triumph but a financial disaster with “The Passion of Joan of Arc”.
Renée Falconetti as Joan

To fund his next project, “Vampyr”, he made the acquaintance of a minor Russian aristocrat living in Paris, the Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg. The Baron agreed to finance the film if he could play the leading role. De Gunzburg had never acted before, and never made another film. Under other circumstances the closest he should have come to a film set was an aisle seat at the local nickelodeon: his only qualifications for a starring role were his good looks and tailored wardrobe.  But in fact, he was not the only amateur hired. There were only two professional actors in the cast, the rest were selected on the basis of how their look fit the roles

De Gunzburg was well known for his intelligence, wit and impeccable style and moved among the creative avant-garde of his time. Eventually he came to the US and was hired as editor-in-chief of Town and Country and was for 20 years fashion editor at Vogue, counting Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein among his protégés.

Independent cinema is not something that has occurred only in the last few years. The artistic dreams, passions, challenges, disappointments and successes involved are universal and have been around for a long, long time. Today, indie filmmakers use Facebook and indieGoGo to reach out to people and raise funds. No matter if the end product is a work of genius or ….something else, you have to admire the determination and guts of the individuals who will do anything they must to get that work made and in front of the public. This drive to create is remarkable and each filmmaker (or any artist in any medium for that matter) should be respected and supported.

Let’s talk more specifically about “Vampyr, a work of genius. Film historian William K. Everson calls it – “one undisputed masterpiece of the genre”. However, I have to admit it took more than one viewing for me to appreciate it. You may have the same first impression of it that I had – slow, dull, and confusing. It has very little in the way of a typical linear plot. It is so disorienting as to time and location it’s impossible to be sure if what we are seeing is real or a dream, or a combination of the two. Dreyer shows us things that are inexplicable, sometimes impossible, and asks us to accept them. He moves the camera in surprising and unprecedented ways, twisting our expectations by playing with our point of view. All of this adds up to a challenge for the audience. Is this challenge worth it? Yes, definitely. I have never experienced a more unsettling film, one that left me with a sweaty unease – a bit like a fever dream. It is absolutely one of the strangest horror films ever made and becomes more interesting with each viewing.

The first thing you notice is the disjointed sound of the film.  Dreyer was not comfortable with sound recording and so shot “Vampyr” completely on location in France without a soundtrack. He synched the music, sounds and dubbed voices later. There is very little dialog and it feels very much like a silent movie. Exposition is given to us first via narrative cards we read on the screen and later by seeing the pages of a book the characters are reading.
It was typical at the time to make more than one version of a film for international audiences. Dreyer shot multiple takes in English, German and in French and he chose actors who were able to speak the lines in three languages, or at the very least able to move their lips to make it look as if they were speaking the language. When even that was not possible, Dreyer positioned the actors so you did not see their mouths when you heard the dialog. Fortunately, de Gunzburg was fluent in all three languages so it was always his voice you would hear dubbed into the film for his character. 

(The complete English version has been lost and the restored version from Criterion has been created using the German and French versions.)
We meet our hero, Allan Gray as he approaches a country inn to find a room for the night. We are told through the narrative that Gray is a wanderer and a dreamer; one who has studied the occult and is obsessed with vampires and all things supernatural. He is shown to a room by a young girl and wished a good night. Gray glances out the window and sees a farmer carrying a large scythe. The man is at the river’s edge, waiting to cross on the ferry (the ferry across the river Styx to the underworld?). The farmer stands very still holding the scythe, resembling the figure of Death seen so often carrying the same implement. Next, Gray’s attention is drawn to a framed print on the wall. It shows a sickroom, the patient in bed with priest and family around him, as well as a skeletal figure of Death hovering over him. 

These are just two of the small impressions we are shown which help us appreciate Gray’s state of mind and hint at the adventure awaiting him. But up to now we are on pretty firm ground, realistically speaking.
[Take a close look at the above still, notice how balanced the forms are within the frame.  This is a great example of Dreyer’s, and Rudolph Mate's, artistry in composition (who can say which of them was responsible for this shot?).  The vertical wooden post echoes the straight posture of the farmer; the wooden crosspiece and bell pull echo the shape of the scythe he is holding; the two angled wooden support pieces echo the farmer’s arms and hands holding the scythe.  The wooden post and the man are also positive/negative images - the man and scythe are dark, the wood is light.  In the background the waves in the river gradually merge into the mist above - this world melting into the next.  Beautiful.  Graceful.  Precise.  Elegant.]

Later, Gray wakes to a knock on his door and the key turning on its own opening the door. The supernatural is entering, and from this point we can’t really be sure of anything we see. Even the lighting in the room changes mysteriously. An elderly man enters, looks at Gray and says: “She must not die!” He then goes to the desk and leaves a package marked ‘to be opened upon my death’. The man makes a small bow and leaves the room. What just happened? Was it a dream, or did it really occur? Was the man a ghost or a premonition? Gray picks up the package, gets dressed and leaves the inn to follow the mystery.

When he goes out the door of the inn he leaves what passed for reality and enters the dream world. He sees a man’s shadow walking along the lakeside, however there is no man there – only a shadow. He follows it to a dilapidated building and opens the door. The broken glass in the door frame is in the shape of his outline – his head, shoulders and torso in profile. He stands next to it, as if it is a ghostly doppelganger. Perhaps this striking effect was not intentional, but considering Dreyer had a very precise eye for sets I believe it was a clever foreshadowing of later scenes when Gray does split into two characters.
He sees the shadow meet up with its owner and join him sitting on a bench. When the man stands, his shadow follows him normally.  Further in the room we see the shadows of musicians and dancers, but again no people.  At several times there is a shot of a gravedigger at his work.  Once more we see only the shadow, and to make it more bizarre the movements are in reverse – as he lifts the shovel the dirt rises up to meet it.  Are these shadows all that remain of the former inhabitants of the town, murdered by the vampire?  Truly, Gray seems to have entered the “land of phantoms”, - how Transylvania was described in Murnau’s film “Nosferatu”.

We see many examples of Dreyer’s imaginative and exceptional direction.  He created very few establishing shots to help us orient ourselves to where the characters are or where we are.  Locations have little context or explanation. I defy anyone to draw a map of the area in this movie, or a floorplan of any of the buildings.

Here is an example of how Dryer plays with our perception: a man starts to walk across the room from the left, and the camera pans along in the direction he is going, but we lose sight of him.  Suddenly the man appears from the left side of the frame.  How did he get there?  Did he walk around or through the camera? This happens a few times, and if you are really paying attention it can make your head spin.  If this doesn’t exactly break down the fourth wall between the actors and the audience, it gives it a little nudge

-->In most movies the camera follows a character and shows us what he is doing as well as what he is looking at and where he is going.  Dreyer surprises us with shifts in point of view, using the camera for first person and third person POVs sometimes in the same scene.  At first, the camera accompanies Gray like a friend out on the same adventure.  Later, the camera seems to be on its own, as if it were a separate character.  For example, as Gray explores the building we see him come up through a trap door. The camera pans around the room as if from Gray’s point of view, but when it returns to Gray he is in another room, as if he has abandoned us (and the camera).

Aother remarkable scene occurs later - it is all one long take and the camera movement is beautifully fluid, panning around the room in an almost 360 degree turn. A young woman has been attacked by the vampire and is being carried back home.  We start in a hallway inside the home looking out a window, and the first thing we see is a servant standing outside.  Beyond her in the distance we see people returning to the house carrying the vampire’s victim. The camera continues to move down the hallway as another servant walks to the door to admit the girl and her rescuers.  It hesitates for only a second; we don’t see the door, only the characters when they have entered into the frame.  They start down the hallway towards us, and the camera backs down the hallway as they advance.  To our left the staircase comes into view with Gray and another character waiting to assist the others.  It is a subtle yet breathtaking flow of movement and stillness

-->There is a credit at the beginning of the movie referring to a short story collection,“In a Glass Darkly” by J. Sheridan LeFanu.  One of those stories, “Carmilla”, about a female vampire, is notable for among other things a lesbian relationship between the vampire and her victim.  This credit is a bit bewildering, as you won’t find anything in common between “Carmilla” and “Vampyr” other than both vampires are female and have a female victim.  Our vampire, named Marguerite Chopin, is a grim-faced, elderly woman who uses a walking stick; hardly the menacing figure we have seen in so many films.   She couldn’t be more different from the young and beautiful Carmilla.  (Ok, Carmilla is actually 300 years old but looks pretty damn good for her age.)

[Here is another example of Dreyer's eye for composition.  On the left you see the vampire Marguerite Chopin bent over the prostrate form of Leone in a still from the movie.  See the similarity to the image on the right, "The Nightmare", 1791 oil painting from artist Henry Fuselli.]

Eventually, Gray comes to a chateau owned by the man who had entered his room at the inn.  His two daughters are Giselle, and Leone who has been the victim of vampire attacks and is near the point of death.  Now the film starts a slightly more direct story line.  Gray is drawn into the danger that both girls are in from the vampire and helps to save both of them; however, the action he takes comes later.  His character is a passive cipher for the most part, observing the action and rarely doing anything.

Our Allan Gray, the Baron de Gunzburg (he used the name "Julian West" in the credits) goes through the entire movie with one expression on his handsome face - wide-eyed and blank.  Normally this would be a disadvantage in an actor, but Dreyer even used this well.  His blankness fits the impressionable dreamer Gray and lets us interpret in our own way what we are shown.  Possibly a more professional and expressive actor would not have captured or reflected the obscure mood of the world Dreyer created. 

-->Time seems suspended in “Vampyr”.  It is unclear if we are experiencing all the action in one evening or over more than one day.  Dreyer filmed at dusk and at dawn so it seems an eternally hazy twilight.  According to Dreyer, he and his photographer discovered quite by accident how to create a misty effect on film. They later used a piece of gauze to reflect light back to the camera in order to reproduce this foggy impression.

-->The way the characters interact with each other is equally fantastic.  Gray enters the chateau after seeing the father murdered.  He is accepted into the family with no word, no introduction, no explanation of who he is or why he happens to be there.  When Gray is exploring the dilapidated old building from previous scenes (where he saw the shadow people), he meets a sinister doctor who is Marguerite Chopin's human assistant. Again, there is no explanation or logic to any part of this scene.  The doctor walks past Gray, seemingly unaware that the young man is there.  We then hear one of the most eccentric conversations in cinema.  The doctor turns around and asks Gray if he has heard a noise.  Gray responds that, yes he heard children and dogs.  The doctor states emphatically “There are no children or dogs here.  Good night”.  The scene can be described best as surreal.
Even the set decoration seems dream-like.  Marguerite Chopin is seen in a room with wagon wheels suspended and twisting in mid-air.

In the doctor's room we see dusty old books, the skeleton of an infant, skulls which turn toward the characters and whose empty eye sockets light up.

The old building was a deserted factory which Dreyer had repainted completely white - a clever and budget minded way to turn something ordinary into other-worldly.  The entire movie was shot near a small village outside of Paris, using found locations such as the factory, the chateau where the family lives and an old mill which is used at the end for a grisly death scene.

At times Dreyer seems to establish a story which starts to make sense, then pulls the rug out from under us; he turns things inside out and we are on our own.  I have already mentioned the shifting point of view shots.  The most perplexing scene in the movie happens when Gray is running across a field trying to save Giselle who has (apparently) been kidnapped.  He stumbles and falls injuring his leg.  He sits on a bench to rest and seems to fall asleep.  We then see his…what?...his soul, or a dream-self, emerge and go off on its own, leaving the original Gray on the bench.  We now have a second Allan Gray who enters the old factory, and finds a coffin with a small piece of glass in the lid over the face of…the dead body of Allan Gray.

Dreyer plays with the camera’s point of view once more: the shots alternate between looking at Allan’s inert face and looking  outward as if WE are in the casket.  Helplessly, we watch through the glass as the coffin lid is screwed shut.  The face of Marguerite Chopin appears looking through the glass, making sure Allan is dead.  Pallbearers carry the coffin outside and we take our last look at the living world.  The ceiling of the room passes over us, then the door jamb, outside to see the sky, the tops of trees, and the barely glimpsed top of the church steeple.  Suddenly things switch again, and we are back in the field where we started.  We see the original Allan Gray still asleep on the bench and watch the coffin being carried away.  Allan awakes as the frightening vision fades.

-->This is the interlude which may have its origin in another tale from “In a Glass Darkly”, although it seems to have as much in common with Edgar Allan Poe as with LeFanu. The story is titled,“The Room in the Dragon Volant”. It tells of a young man on a mysterious and romantic adventure, who finds himself in a coffin unable to move or speak and about to be buried.   It’s hard to think of anything more terrifying than being buried alive and forced to watch it happen.  

-->Dreyer used the subtitle, "A Dream of Allan Gray” when he wrote the story for “Vampyr” and the film flows like a dream.  While dreaming you can be in the action and be watching it at the same time; things usually don't make sense, locations are mysterious, people appear and disappear; things just "are" and we accept it. Dreams are frequently incoherent, indistinct and bizarre.   “Vampyr” is not just Allan Gray's dream, it feels like ours.

-->I don't often get the chance to use the words 'nebulous' or 'ephemeral', so I am very happy to be able to describe “Vampyr” in those terms.  You may not like this movie.  It is so full of unreal images - symbols, skulls moving on their own, doors opening by themselves, disembodied shadows, dreams within dreams, situations and characters which make no sense - it can feel overwhelming.  If your mind runs more to the literal it may be too confusing.  If you are expecting a typical vampire tale you may be bored.  You may be amused by the style which seems old-fashioned, anachronistic or simply creaky and ridiculous.  However, I would place a bet that you won't be able to forget it.

Carl Dreyer was a uniquely creative artist and a true independent filmmaker.  Shortly after the film's premier (generally the movie was not well received, by the way) he was asked his intention in making "Vampyr".  His reaction was,
"I have not had any particular intention.  I just wanted to make a film different from all other film.  I wanted to break new ground for the cinema." 
He succeeded absolutely.

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