Sunday, May 12, 2013

Vampyr (1932)

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer                      Writers: Christen Jul & Carl Theodor Dreyer
Film Score: Wolfgang Zeller                        Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel and Sybille Schmitz

The very first thing one notices about Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr is the fluid motion of the camera. I’ve written before that the myth of the stationary camera is just that. All one has to do is look at the two versions of Universal’s Dracula to see that the blame really lies with the director. While the American version with Lugosi is static and stage bound, the Mexican version with Carlos Villarias is fluid and energetic. Perhaps in the late twenties the myth was true, but by the thirties there was no excuse. Dreyer shows just how expressive the camera itself can be, and how much that movement adds to the supernatural aspect of his vampire thriller. The lens, in Dreyer’s hands, is like an apparition that follows the protagonist through his haunted dreams of death.

Julian West is absolutely perfect as the student of the occult who, on his travels, stops at a small village to spend the night. Awakened by a mysterious visitor, he gets up and goes outside, only to see disembodied shadows walking about on their own, moving backwards, dancing, and sometimes meeting up with their human counterparts. West is the wide-eyed observer off all this, including the death of the man who visited his room earlier. He had two daughters, one of whom has been bitten by a vampire and is confined to her bed, the other stricken with grief. Ostensibly a retelling of the Sheridan LeFanu novella Carmilla, in Dreyer’s hands it is greatly simplified, and yet becomes so much more. Atmospheric, haunting in the very telling, it would be the closest thing to a genuine supernatural experience on film until George C. Scott’s The Changeling.

The film is a curious sort of hybrid between silent and sound. While there is an interesting score by Wolfgang Zeller, there is also very little dialogue. For long stretches it feels like a silent film, until someone starts to speak and suddenly it’s something else. But again, this is part of the effect, whether accidental or on purpose, experiencing the dream-like quality of silent film in which that dream is broken occasionally by the impossible sound of voices or sound effects. It’s a beautiful experience. There are also title cards that tell part of the story, as was done in the silent era. The actual print has large German type lettering for subtitles which were not added by the company producing the video but there are very few of them, and there also appears to be some lost frames between shots as the soundtrack jumps quite a bit in places. Another aspect of the film is the apparently severe damage to parts of the print, some of which was intended by Dreyer, thus intensifying the impact of the film even further.

As with LeFanu’s story, the vampire is a woman. In Dreyer’s conception, however, she is an old woman, helped by a Renfield-like character in the form of a doctor. With the aid of an old book on vampires left by the father, West and a servant attempt to destroy the vampire before the girl dies. In a brilliant sequence, West falls asleep and his spirit sees himself in a coffin, and with the camera in the subjective viewpoint he is taken to the graveyard. Dreyer was simply a genius in his sense of composition and his films, like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, are some of the most powerful pieces of cinematic art in existence. Even in taking on the low-brow supernatural subject of the vampire, his artistic sense is keen and powerful. Vampyr is not just a great horror film, it’s a masterful piece of filmmaking.

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