Saturday, July 31, 2010

Vampyr (1932)

This is the most elegant description of a vehicle crashing that I have ever read. The words attempt to relate facts and give descriptions, yet it is quite obvious that another story is beginning and being told:

I knew what was coming. I covered my eyes, unable to see it out, and turned my head away; at the same moment I heard a cry from my lady-friends, who had gone on a little.

Curiosity opened my eyes, and I saw a scene of utter confusion. Two of the horses were on the ground, the carriage lay upon its side with two wheels in the air; the men were busy removing the traces, and a lady, with a commanding air and figure, had got out, and stood with clasped hands, raising the handkerchief that was in them every now and then to her eyes. Through the carriage door was now lifted a young lady, who appeared to be lifeless. My dear old father was already beside the elder lady, with his hat in his hand, evidently tendering his aid and the resources of his schloss. The lady did not appear to hear him, or to have eyes for anything but the slender girl who was being placed against the slope of the bank.

I approached; the young lady was apparently stunned but she was certainly not dead. My father, who piqued himself on being something of a physician, had just had his fingers to her wrist and assured the lady, who declared herself her mother, that her pulse, though faint and irregular, was undoubtedly still distinguishable. The lady clasped her hands and looked upward, as if in a momentary transport of gratitude; but immediately she broke out again in that theatrical way which is, I believe, natural to some people.
These words are from Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" from the collection of tales In a Glass Darkly upon which Carl Theodor Dreyer based his 1932 film Vampyr. Dreyer begins his film with these words:

This is the tale of the strange adventures of young Allan Gray, who immersed himself in the study of devil worship and vampires. Preoccupied with superstitions of centuries past, he became a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred. His aimless wanderings led him one evening to a secluded inn by the river in a village called Courtempierre.

Here is a description of what Allan Gray sees upon arrival at the secluded inn by the river:

A man is walking down the narrow riverside path that winds its way toward the spot where a ferry crosses to the other bank. It is a summer evening, after sunset. The traveler, Nikolas, is carrying a rucksack and, in his hand, a pair of fishing rods. He wants to spend his holiday in solitude, which is why he has come to this remote region in search of peace.

He arrives at the old inn and finds the door closed. The inn is lying in profound silence, as if all its occupants have gone to bed. Nikolas rattles at the door, but it is well and truly locked. At this moment he sees a reaper walking along with his scythe over his shoulder. He looks at the man curiously as he walks down the ferry. He shouts after him:


Hullo, you there!

But the reaper, not hearing his cry, continues on his way. The landscape is bathed in gray, dim twilight; every object has a tinge of unreality.
The final description comes from Dreyer and Christen Jul's screenplay for Vampyr. In some sense, an understanding or an awareness of all this text is non-essential to Dreyer's film as its visuals are where its magic lies; or perhaps, all of the text is truly essential, as Dreyer's film also takes creative power in its hybrid nature of a silent film of recent past and a film of the burgeoning sound era. The opening text of the film which describes Allan Gray appears as exposition but also functions as a primer for viewing. Vampyr clearly adopts the sensibility of Allan Gray as Dreyer is depicting a "dreamer's" dream. The opening text allows an opportunity for the viewer, if he or she wishes, to adopt a detached or objective style of viewing, e.g. watching Allan Gray, the dreamer, and his adventures. I believe, however, this style of viewing is almost resisting the film. Having seen Vampyr numerous times, the visuals, the atmosphere, the music, e.g. its creative rendition, only allow for quick surrender. Seeing Vampyr through Allan Gray's eyes is far too seductive.A lot of the beauty in Vampyr comes from Allan Gray's smaller journeys within his his larger adventure. Upon his arrival at the inn, he does see the reaper but does not really have an encounter. He only witnesses the man call for the ferry at the river. The "unreality," however, is very much captured.The morning after Gray's night at the inn and his fateful encounter within, another "aimless wandering" occurs. This world is either Allan Gray's, Marguerite Chopin's, or Dreyer's. Once more, near the film's conclusion, Allan Gray leaves the manor after Gisele. As he runs, he trips and falls to then compose himself on a nearby bench. In an audacious move, Allan Gray never leaves the bench but has another small journey.Despite the interplay of written text within Vampyr (and playing with the outside texts which inform it), Dreyer's film is pure cinema. Dreyer's visuals and Wolfgang Zeller's score capture such beauty, making it timeless. The visuals and music defy description; or more appropriately, the visuals and music defy adequate description.
The Criterion Collection has released Vampyr in a stellar edition. Le Fanu's "Carmilla" and Dreyer's and Jul's screenplay accompany the disc (also from where the quotes above are taken). Criticism is also included in the form of an audio commentary and in a booklet. One of the more interesting reads are the notes on the film's restoration. It is difficult after viewing Dreyer's cinema to not recognize him as one of its masters. A personal favorite.

11 comments:

Aaron said...

Nice write-up, Hans! I still haven't seen this and have been meaning to get that Criterion for a long time, but I totally forgot about it until now. Thanks for reminding me. Great to see you tackle a classic silent film. I would love it if you did a write-up on THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE one day... it's one of my favorites from the silent era... visually stunning, atmospheric as hell, and groundbreaking for its time.

Neil Fulwood said...

Excellent review, Hans: elegant, thoughtful and beautifully constructed. The passages you quoted from Le Fanu were sublime.

Hans A. said...

@Aaron--thanks brom. Remember this one isn't completely a silent film. Dreyer's film has dialogue. Part of its beauty is that it isn't totally a silent film and not completely a sound film. I love this era, too. Such beautiful cinema. Consider The Phantom Carriage to get a write-up soon. I hope you write a review on Vampyr, as I always appreciate your thoughts.

@Neil--Thank you. Le Fanu is really something else. Quite a progressive writer both in technique and subject matter, yet also very ethereal and old fashioned. Le Fanu and Dreyer were a match made in Heaven.

Thanks again to you both. I always appreciate your visits and taking the time to share your thoughts.

Aaron said...

Oh my bad, I thought it was a silent film. I have never seen the movie and have only heard about it. And I agree that the silent film era was a great one. Not that they had any choice in the matter back then, but it's amazing how those films can stand the test of time and be amazing to this day... it's hard to believe that some of the earliest films are pushing 100 years old. Can't wait to read your PHANTOM CARRIAGE review when you get around to it, and I'll definitely be checking out VAMPYR in the near future with hopes that I can do a write-up on it that will do it justice. Cheers, brotha.

Shaun Anderson said...

An excellent film that has been severely marred over the years by the substandard print condition of various DVD releases. I picked up Eureka's 'Masters of Cinema' edition when it was released and for the first time it was a pleasure to watch VAMPYR. One could enjoy the atmosphere and the visual beauty without irritation. A great review by the way Hans.

Hans A. said...

Thank you, Shaun. I really think this is a landmark film for various reasons which I can continue to watch over and over.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Saw this one a while back, it was an interesting film to watch, I mean, it had all these on camara tricks, such inventiveness and imagination! They did so much with so little technology, love it for that alone.

Hans A. said...

Thanks Francisco for sharing your thoughts! Yes, it is a beautiful film.

Heavenztrash said...

Great review Hans! Really well put together. I actually have this film on order from Barnes and Noble's Criterion sale last month and have been meaning to watch it for several years. I'm really looking forward to checking it out.

Hans A. said...

Thanks HT! Hope you enjoy it as it's a very beautiful film. The Criterion edition is amongst my favorites.

Rupert Pupkin said...

Great write-up sir! This film looks just stunningly gorgeous. I must show to my wife, she teaches high school photography and this would be a grea film to show her students. Thanks for reminding me of it! I have been a fan of Dreyer's work for some time, but have seen only a few films. I must remedy this.