“This is the story about strange events that happened to the young Allan Gray. His studies into earlier centuries’ superstitious ideas on devil-worship and on the activities of Vampyrs have transformed him into a dreamer and fanatic for whom the border between what is reality and what is fantasy has become blurred.”
This introduction to the plot of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ (taken from the first intertitles, as translated by Trond Trondsen) sets the mood for the movie.
Allan (producer Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, billed as Julian West) arrives in a small town and indeed observes very mysterious happenings right from his first night at the local inn.
A stranger (Maurice Schutz) visits him in his room and leaves him a package that should be opened “in the event of his death.” Later, after Allan experiences some more eerie moments while walking through the town, it turns out that his nighttime visitor was the lord of the manor, whose daughter, Léone (Sybille Schmitz), was struck by an unknown illness.
The symptoms are similar to these of anemia, but it is quite clear that the illness is something much less typical, as the girl’s neck bears suspicious bite marks. When Léone’s father dies, the young man opens the package and finds out it’s a book depicting the history and habits of the vampires.
Now, to save Léone, her sister Gisèle (Rena Mandel) and himself from fates worse than death, Allan has to turn into a vampire hunter — and he needs to start by determining the true identity of the village doctor ( Jan Hieronimko).
The order of events presented in ‘Vampyr’ is not to be trusted, though, and the viewers can never be sure whether what they see is supposed to be real or dreamed/imagined.
According to Michael Grant, author of the essay “Cinema, horror and the abominations of hell” (from ‘The Couch and the Silver Screen: Psychoanalytic Reflections on European Cinema’), ‘Vampyr takes place “in a world which is that neither of life nor of death.” “Self-interrogation is… central to the project of Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr,’” writes Grant.
“For instance, Gray’s first walk to the mill is both a narrative event and at the same time a disruption of the logical sequence of that narrative event. We are first presented with a disruption of the intelligibility of the relations between body and reflection, as Gray sees a figure, in reverse motion, reflected in the river, digging a grave. There is then a further fracturing of normal physical relations, when we see a man’s shadow separate itself from his body. At the same time, the usual structure of narrative and temporal order is broken by a sudden, unmotivated irruption of music occurring when Gray enters the mill, an irruption that immediately calls forth what look like cut-out figures, dancing or circling around each other. These different elements of cinematic device, combined with the sudden intrusion of the commanding voice of the vampire, compromise the meaning of the narrative at this point, rendering the presentation of events suspect.”
The vague nature of the plot is yet emphasized via a masterfully handled sequence in which the main character leaves his body and witnesses his own burial — we can never be quite sure what triggered this vision. And this is what Dreyer wanted to achieve with his bleary, oneiric film, which forces viewers to constantly question the “reality” of the depicted world: “Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room,” the director said at the time of filming ‘Vampyr’.
“Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in, is completely altered; everything has taken on another look: the light, the reality has changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed, and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I want to get in my film.”
Dreyer, who had earlier made the successful ‘Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife’ (1925) and the critically acclaimed ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ (1928), was much less interested in following Le Fanu’s plot than he was in creating a unique dreamlike mood and experimenting with various filmmaking techniques.
The camera in ‘Vampyr’ is unbelievably dynamic for the time, the combination of sound and intertitles is quite unusual, some trick photography still impresses today, and the movie’s “hazy” look was achieved by using unorthodox lighting.
Borrowing visually from both surrealism and German Expressionism, and touching upon themes like disease, death, insanity and the value of science, ‘Vampyr’ is a stunning, one-of-a-kind achievement that grabs the viewer by the soul with its cold, ethereal fingers.
The movie was not received very well upon its release in 1932. As a consequence, Dreyer had trouble financing his next project and decided to focus on his work as a journalist.
At the beginning of the next decade, Danish filmmaker Mogens Skot-Hansen managed to convince Dreyer to return to directing.
The first step in this direction was the short documentary ‘Good Mothers’ (1942), which encouraged Dreyer to start thinking of another feature-length effort.
‘Day of Wrath’ (1943), a tale of witchcraft set in the seventeenth-century Denmark, was a powerful drama with some analogies to the contemporary situation in Europe (i.e., the Nazi terror during World War II).
After the movie’s premiere, Dreyer left occupied Denmark and settled in Sweden where he made ‘Two People’ (1945), a chamber drama that flopped so badly that the director decided to disown it. As the war ended, Dreyer came back to Denmark and limited his work to documentaries.
In 1954 he shot ‘The Word’, a poignant drama dealing with the notion of faith, based on a play by Dutch World War II martyr Kaj Munk. This movie finally was an international success, getting praise from the critics and winning many awards (the Golden Globe and Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival among others).
Dreyer’s last film, the sombre drama ‘Gertrud’ (1964), based on a play by Hjalmar Söderberg, was not as unanimously applauded as ‘The Word’ (though it won the FIPRESCI prize in Venice), but it should nevertheless be recognized as a slow-burning masterpiece crowning the director’s career.
To watch ‘Vampyr’ is to take a path winding around your dreams and fears, and leading to the depths of your soul.