In cinema, the possibility of horror is more unnerving than its actualization, particularly if a filmmaker is able to dramatize the precise moment when the banal becomes uncanny. In 1932’s Vampyr, Carl Theodor Dreyer draws such a transition out, in ebbs and flows, over the course of the film’s running time. Adverse to makeup and other overtly specialized effects, Dreyer often forces us to scrutinize an image for its subtle notes of wrongness.
Dreyer is one of the great cinematic poets of faces. Roughly at Vampyr’s midpoint, he lingers on a close-up of the face of Léone (Sybille Schmitz), a beautiful young woman who serves as this film’s equivalent to Lucy from most versions of the Dracula narrative. Léone has been seen wandering the courtyard, where she’s accosted by her vampire master, Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard). Facing her sister, Giséle (Rena Mandel), in her bedroom, Léone expresses despair only to curl into a demonic smile, her eyes rolling into the back of her head as Chopin or some other entity exerts its influence. Contemporary viewers have seen many versions of such a moment before, which is now a cliché of the vampire narrative, but the unadorned simplicity of Dreyer’s staging is terrifying. No plastic fangs, no red syrup, just a woman’s unknowable visage, which conjures all sorts of psychosexual associations.
In another of Vampyr’s greatest moments, Dreyer lingers on Giséle and a servant as they regard the former’s recently killed father on the floor, and the camera subtly pushes in on the characters as they walk backward in the frame, reeling from grief and shock. Giséle’s agonized face appears frozen, and the solidity of this sequence suggests a biblical woodwork.
Great surreal art is often rooted in ecstatically ordinary textures that serve as both a bridge and a counterbalance to the fantastic. The vivid faces of Dreyer’s astutely selected non-actors serve this purpose in Vampyr, an exploration of consciousness that’s more complex than its genre-movie plot indicates. As in much of the work of David Lynch, which is unimaginable without Vampyr, one’s encouraged in Dreyer’s film to ponder the identity of this narrative’s dreamer. Allan Gray (Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the film’s financier, who bears an eerie resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft) is said in the opening credits to be obsessed with the occult and open to other worlds, wandering into Courtempierre “aimlessly.” In one of the film’s iconic images, Allan notices a reaper with a scythe by the river, inspiring one to wonder if this might be the Styx, and is drawn into the vampire narrative occurring in properties that are seemingly behind the inn where he’s staying.
Vampyr is almost maddeningly difficult to follow, suggesting a dream in which the simplest facts are slippery. Many of the compositions—showing Allan in courtyards, meadows, and the interiors of abandoned castles and factories—exist as self-contained art, cloaked in shadows and dust. There’s little of the orienting spatial geometry that one takes for granted in contemporary cinema, particularly as Allan wanders a white castle that occasionally houses Marguerite and the doctor (Jan Hieronimko) who’s helping her orchestrate a reign of terror. Dreyer cuts to perspective shots that aren’t logically possible, undermining Allan’s credibility as the “center” of the film. And astonishing tracking shots throughout the various buildings suggest an untethered consciousness, with chambers embodying deeper recesses of the psyche and abounding in symbols that are contextually both Freudian and Jungian: especially silhouettes and shadows that belong to a subterranean world.
Literalizing the notion of multiple worlds and modes of consciousness is the famous sequence in which Allan’s personality splits, as he dreams on a bench as a superimposition of himself continues in pursuit of the villains. In this vision, Allan splits again into a third personality who’s about to be buried alive by Marguerite and the doctor. Dreyer shoots portions of this sequence from the perspective of Allan’s corpse, suggesting that the audience has been divided and trapped by the film. The glass pane in the coffin evokes a theater screen within a screen, as do the endless images throughout that show Allan witnessing pivotal moments through distancing scrims such as windows. Vampyr is a film about an impotent and passive protagonist, then, who may be refracting said impotence through a lurid story of erasure that’s capped by a beautiful yet obligatory finale. Which is more disturbing: the story, or the possibility that someone may need to imagine it as a salve for alienation?
Deepening and epitomizing Vampyr’s mystery are prismatic compositions abounding in skulls, coffins, candles, paintings, and other gothic bric-a-brac, which merge with the striking architecture of faces and found buildings. These images are so loaded with stimulation that one feels rushed and overwhelmed, particularly considering the geometric dislocation. The soundtrack alludes to acts that remain unseen, such as the baying of wolves and crying of children, and plot points are frequently introduced and dropped. Dreyer plummets the audience into a vortex in which conventional rules of play have been suspended. Most filmmakers don’t dare to alienate their audience in pursuit of the chaos of horror, and such audacity impeded Dreyer’s career. Vampyr was re-edited after disastrous premieres, dividing the already multitudinous prints that existed in several languages. Even de Gunzburg is a multiple, appearing in the film as “Julian West.” From top to bottom, Vampyr refutes the myth of truth’s singularity.
As outlined in the Blu-ray's supplements package, it's a miracle that Vampyr exists at all, considering the many different versions and the lack of master materials. Regardless, this print is amazing both in sight and sound, benefitting in part from the fact that Vampyr is one of those films that improves with imperfection, as the occasional glaring white or softness of image only intensifies its primordially dreamy power. Black are quite strong, and image texture is extraordinarily vivid, as illustrated by facial close-ups and surfaces of furniture, paintings and props, in which one can discern minute patterns and flaws. (One visual issue—the difficulty of reading English subtitles over German text—has been remedied for non-purists with an alternate version of the film that substitutes the German with English writing.) The soundtrack is intricately layered, offering a dreamscape in which diegetic pitter-patter merges with the eerie score and the potentially imagined sounds of screaming and rattling. Certain noises are almost subliminal, to the point that you might not notice them until a second or third viewing.
This is the same supplements package that Criterion assembled for Vampyr's DVD release in 2008, but it remains a terrific assortment of discussions and essays that offers wide-ranging context pertaining to the film's creation, reception, legacy, and eventual restoration. Film scholar Tony Rayns's dryly amusing audio commentary covers the biographies of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Nicolas de Gunzburg, and many other pivotal players, describing Vampyr's place in the blossoming horror wave of the 1930s and elaborating on the intricate camera movements and sense of dislocation they foster. Rayns possesses the unusual ability to discuss a film's formal qualities without lapsing into theoretical tedium. The video essay by scholar Casper Tybjerg ably complements Rayns's formal coverage, discussing Dreyer's visual influences, particularly a vast swath of painters and films such as Nosferatu, which is referenced by Vampyr during a pivotal death scene. Complementing Rayns's biographical research is Carl Th. Dreyer, a 1966 documentary by Jørgen Roos chronicling Dreyer's career that's also worth seeing.
The printed material in this package is equally important. Martin Koerber's piece on the film's restoration offers invaluable information (also partially covered by Rayns) on the difficulty of assembling a contemporary master cut of Vampyr. In short: German, French, and English versions of the film were shot, and various cuts of each version were commissioned due to the pressure of censors and audience reactions and who knows what else. No original materials exist, though various German prints struck from those materials were found and combined. In this light, the existence of this Blu-ray seems miraculous, and the printed screenplay included with the package further suggests what might have been cut or trimmed
Meanwhile, Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman's essays examine Dreyer's methods of adapting Sheridan Le Fanu's short stories, one of which, "Carmilla," is also included here. Rounding out the package is a radio broadcast from 1958 of Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking, providing additional insight from the horse's mouth.
The Criterion Collection’s restoration of a horror masterpiece achieves a nearly contradictory state of ghostly clarity.