Vampyr, Ou L'Etrange Aventure de David Gray
VAMPYR, OU L'ETRANGE AVENTURE DE DAVID GRAY
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production: Carl Th. Dreyer Filmproduktion Paris-Berlin; black and white, 35mm; running time: originally 83 minutes, currently 70 minutes, also some copies exist at 65 minutes 11 seconds; length: 2271 meters originally. Released 6 May 1932 in Berlin, also released in French and English versions. Filmed Summer 1930 in Senlis, Montargis, and surrounding areas.
Producer: Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg; screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer in collaboration with Christen Jul, from the novel In a Glass Darkly by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu; photography: Rudolph Maté and Louis Née; sound: Dr. Hans Bittmann, synchronized by Paul Falkenberg; art director: Hermann Warm; music: Wolfgang Zeller; dialogue director: Paul Falkenberg.
Cast: Julian West, or Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (David Gray); Henriette Gérard (Marguerite Chopin); Jan Hieronimko (Doctor); Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor); Rena Mandel (His daughter Gisèle); Sibylle Schmitz (His daughter Léone); Albert Bras (Servant); N. Babanini (The girl); Jane Mora (The religious woman).
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There is a small handful of films that can only be accepted on their own terms, redefining as they do audience, even formalist expectation. The boundaries between subjective and objective camera, the chronological link inherent in editing, such as cross-cutting, assumptions made in relation to point of view or even a single shot, the logic of straight narrative—all are blurred. That a film made in 1932, especially, creates such an approach, maintained with aesthetic discipline and without a hint of self-indulgence, results in an event.
Carl Dreyer was master of such works. Vampyr is one of his finest examples, owing its unusual structure, in part, to the fact that the film was the first he produced independently. The plot has the illusion of simplicity. A young man, David, in one nightmarish evening, stumbles upon a series of unearthly events. The focus is on a young girl whose life is slowly being drained by a vampire, aided by a sinister village doctor. An early image of a reaper with his scythe, silhouetted, graphically establishes the film's preoccupation: death, its illusiveness, its mystery, its threat. Another scene encapsulates its theme, the idea of innocence in struggle, transformed and transforming back, with the curious sensuality beyond simple lust of the forbidden. Leone, wasting away through the vampire's continued attacks, observes her sister Gisele, first smiles with real affection, then, as the possession begins to take, with the calculated craving for her, another victim-to-be. Her face contorts, her lips pull back to reveal sharp teeth—then it passes. She falls back, a pitiable, vulnerable girl, bled not only by the monster, but by the impotence of those around her.
The scene is pivotal to the languorous rhythm; now the pace sharpens. With David's nightmare (his point of view), he is enclosed in a coffin, and we, too, learn the terror of helplessly watching our own imprisonment, the lid screwed on tightly over us, the vampire's face peering in with candlewax dripping on the glass lid, then the stake in her heart (which is dismissed in only five brief shots), the havoc created by her earthly release . . . climax. All has been constructed almost mathematically, yet the result is curiously poetic— Dreyer's gift. The final retribution—David and Gisele walking together in the sunlight—is kept from cliche with cuts to the doctor's horrific death, being trapped in the flour mill, the gear wheels jamming, the gasping, the smothering. (The idea was "borrowed," incidentally, for the Harrison Ford film Witness, more than 50 years later.) All is well, yet the shadowy mist remains.
One strength of Vampyr is the unfolding of what Ken Kelman described in Film Culture (Winter 1964) as "emotional images without adequate reason." The plot provides necessary foundation, but the events wrapped around the discovery are as elusive in logical application as those events in our own dreams. Dreyer has filmed an essential dream structure. There is a touch of Victor Sjöström's influence here, a director Dreyer has paid homage to. Both the pervading otherworldliness and his use, in his only film, of superimposition, which creates shadows and presences, is reminiscent of Sjöström's Körkarlen (Phantom Chariot), 1920, a film that affected Dreyer profoundly.
Everything here underlines atmosphere; Vampyr is a calculated, sensual nightmare. The air is misted greys and whites (black gauze over the lens), the gait of the characters is a glide, a floating. Night and day are confused. The dialogue is minimal, voices often muffled, odd snatches of conversation are barely understandable, at times, dislocated and difficult to recall—the way it is in dreams. Cries are mingled with an animal's growl, something disembodied calling, or a strain of music. Photographer Rudolph Mate's camera has become almost a force on its own, not just a recorder, moving before a character, after a noise. If a sound is heard off-screen, Dreyer allows a moment of suspense before showing its source, so awareness is seemingly predestined. His famed, delicately honed sensibility and his self-critical aesthetic nature paid off in exceptional visual intuition; each shot has the stamp of unusual deliberation, with long, slow pans, even simple reaction shots, and tracking shots.
There were no specially built sets—the film was shot in a derelict ice-factory, a deserted chateau, and a plasterworks—and, with two exceptions, no professional actors. The characters are "ordinary" people and could be any of us, which makes the identification with the emotional turmoil that much more effective. The vampire is an elderly, rather dignified Frenchwoman (interestingly, her dress echoes that of a Lutheran pastor), the young David (under the pseudonym Julian West) is Baron von Gunzburg, the film's backer, who couldn't act but could wander, perfect for the impersonal, impassive dreamer, vacant, to be impressed upon. Only the sister, Gisele, and her father are professionals.
With an essentially passive hero who experiences events—acting as manifestations of the unconscious—Vampyr has something in common with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) with it's framing story, but there the similarity ends. While Herman Warm was the art designer of both films, and several scenes in the Danish film are reminiscent of the earlier German one, Caligari's expressionism was proper: exaggerated acting, stylised movement and distorted sets, photographed theatre. In his book Transcendental Style, Paul Schrader refers to Vampyr as "an exclusively expressionistic film," without a trace of kammerspiel ("chamber play"). I don't agree. The Nordic sober-mindedness and "weighty psychological intent" lent itself effectively to several of the latter's ingredients: intimate, slow-paced drama, with a deliberate symbolism and rhythm—the four walls of kammerspiel is certainly extended, but there is at times a suffocating intimacy nonetheless. Caligari was theatre, in shards of black and white, but Vampyr is filmic in its purest sense, its phenomenal lighting accentuating the otherworldliness, the myriad vague greys, mirroring the dream-states within, blurred, shaded. Vampyr combines elements of both expressionism and kammerspiel; Dreyer was no rigid formalist, but experimented successfully with different styles in all of his major works.
With the last scene combining the doctor stifled by cascades of flour with the wandering of the two now-less-innocent figures still in mist, out of the nightmare, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that Dreyer has created "an exalted realm where the natural and supernatural, the physical and the metaphysical, can breathe the same enlightened air."