Monday, February 8, 2010

My Favorite Films Volume 15: Vampyr or "In Dreams...."

“I wanted to make a film different from all other films. I wanted to break new ground in cinema.” Carl Theodor Dreyer was a different kind of director and this quote, given in an interview about his 1932 masterpiece Vampyr, proves just that. Dreyer would spend his life making films of a wholly different class than his peers that would be largely ignored upon their release only to be reappraised and hailed as classics years after the fact. His varied career saw him receive the attention and admiration his work deserves but once when, in the event of the premiere of his last film, Gertrud, his many admirers in the film world arrived, among them Henri Langlois, Georges Franju and François Truffaut. I first encountered Vampyr, which would become my favorite of his works and among my favorite films of all time, when I was 16. I watched it on a whim, seeing only its shocking title and bizarre one-sentence description (the plot is difficult to sum up but the action is easy enough: a man meets an old man, his two daughters and a vampire). I was immediately transfixed and watched the rest of the film in dead silence, not daring to turn my attention elsewhere. It was in poor shape but that only added to the sense that the film was somehow forbidden. Its dreamy camera-work supercedes the narrative and I came to see that Vampyr doesn’t obey the logic of the real world. It haunted me for years; I couldn’t get its more absurd images out of my head or for the life of me see where the hand of the filmmaker lay. When I was 18 I decided to try and remake it, a decision which took two years to come to anything like fruition and which would inadvertently land a few of my friends in jail. It was a disaster because I was trying to conquer the movie, trying to see where the enigmatic Dreyer started. I didn’t realize that there is nothing that can be done to improve upon Vampyr; it is the perfect experimental horror film. In refusing to explain anything and by simply thrusting you and its doe-eyed hero into one haunted house after another that Dreyer was not simply making a film with horrors in it but he himself was taking you along, immersing you in the same world as any of his characters. He is god and the devil bringing you in and out of the light in a way that to my reckoning hasn’t been equaled since.

by Carl Th. Dreyer
Allan Grey is a young man with a good deal too many fantastic preoccupations for this world. He arrives at a rundown inn somewhere in the middle of the forest with a strange assortment of tools (a fishing net and frilled satchel among them). He passes a man with a scythe headed toward a ferry and has to rent a room from a girl no older than 16. The walls of his room are covered in macabre paintings of death and he hears strange voices belonging to even stranger men in the other rooms. In the middle of the night a man comes in through his locked door and offers the cryptic plea “She mustn’t die. Do you understand?” before leaving a wrapped parcel on Grey’s desk with the words “to be opened upon my death” and then leaving. Grey dresses himself and gives chase finding first a factory filled with old machinery and the shadows of what could be ghosts dancing. The ghosts all seem in thrall to a mysterious older woman with dead eyes who wanders about the place with the help of a doctor Grey encountered at the inn. The young man eventually finds where the nervous old intruder lives, a sprawling estate in disrepair in the middle of the forest. He arrives just in time to see him assassinated by the shadow of a one-legged gunman. The man’s two daughters and housekeepers are distressed and the carriage driver is dispatched to get the authorities. In the meantime the man’s eldest daughter sleepwalks into the woods where she is beset by the old woman, leaving her drained of blood; apparently a frequent occurrence. When the doctor arrives to give her a blood transfusion and the carriage driver turns up dead with bite marks on his neck, Grey realizes that they’re stranded. He opens the old man’s package and discovers a book on the lore of vampires prompting his realization that something evil is afoot and that old woman and the doctor may just be the cause.

Vampyr’s greatest asset is by far its look. Dreyer set out to make a film that performed the same tricks that the other big horror films of the day (London After Midnight, The Unholy Night) did, but in a wholly unique fashion. His first step was finding locations suitable to such a purpose and he succeeded and then some. Like Nosferatu there is a very important sense of place and I would say that Dreyer has an even better grasp on the possibilities of a given location than F.W. Murnau From the inn to the factory to the chateau and the room with the coffin and finally the woods and mill of the climax, every location is full of musty, claustrophobic charm. Of all the locations only the graveyard was tampered with significantly for effect. Incidentally it would be by legendary designer Hermann Warm, who’d done the set design for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari a decade earlier. The next of Dreyer's uncannily strange element was the performers. Whether it was through inexperience (as in the film’s producer Nicholas De Gunzberg acting under the pseudonym Julian West as Grey or Rena Mandel as Gisèle) or through their bizarre physicality (as in philosopher Jan Hieronimko’s doctor or Georges Boidin’s gunman) everyone in the film has a strange and otherworldly presence. Gunzberg and Mandel seem like children leaving the womb for the first time and everyone else either preternaturally evil or unmoving as if part of the scenery. Everyone walks with the strange stilted mannerism of a toy soldier come to life. Coupled with the film’s ancient buildings, untouched ornate designs and the film’s gauzy photography and you have a film that looks like an antique volume come to life, a horror story that belongs to another time.
The horror of Vampyr is one that is not often carried off effectively. Dreyer spins a strange tale, one that only makes sense after repeat viewings, and refuses to explain any of it. informed not so much by the usual ghouls and goblins or by the vampires of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Through A Glass Darkly (specifically the story Carmilla) where Vampyr's story took its inspiration, but from Dreyer’s own Lutheran upbringing and his obsession with the afterlife. The things that Grey encounters, the fatherless shadows, the bizarre guests of the inn, the unexplainable cries of children and his dream, all lead him toward the conclusion but they follow no logic. In dreams often I make reference to something and then a hitherto non-existent memory will appear to explain it; this is the logic of Vampyr. It’s no coincidence that some of the film’s most terrible images occur while Grey is passed out after his transfusion (in one of these dreams he even learns of a plot that then crosses over into reality). Without the father’s visit, Grey could never make it to the house to save him. Without the book, he would never know that the body of the vampire is buried nearby, yet he isn’t the one who digs her up. Grey encounters the doctor before he enters the story but all that means is that Grey is slightly suspicious of him. All of these precedents are to familiarize us with later elements but none of them have any foundation in the narrative, they are there because they need to be. Even the strange image of the man digging backwards is given a twin late in the film.

Dreyer’s film was actually completed well before Dracula ever started shooting but thanks to its bizarre subject matter and the fact that the director also served as its producer it took him years to get it to an unappreciative public (the film was long the stuff of rumour and bootlegs. You could find it in a terrible print but it wasn't until 2008 when Criterion released their definitive special edition that it became clear exactly what's going on in behind all that mist. As film scholar Casper Tybjerg notes in his video essay, the influence of artists like Goya and Corot is evident of Dreyer's visual style and to finally be able to revel in the lavish painterly visuals is a real delight). It is no wonder at all that the public was unwilling to accept his vision of the horror film. First of all Dreyer must be commended for having his vampire embody feminine fears. The old woman preys on both men and women but her drawn-out attack on Léone posits that it is the girl's youth and beauty that she hopes to steal; men are obstacles to be cut down, women are resources. It's an interesting idea and one that Vampyr often doesn't get credit for, the first female vampire. Beyond even that Dreyer’s film have a scope that transcends simple matters of good and evil and such a heavy exercise is not in keeping with the idea of cinema as escapist fun. Paul Schrader grouped him with Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu in his thesis on the subject of transcendental film and in Vampyr the idea has two edges. There is the obvious heavenly connotation when Grey and Gisèle seem to walk into a heavenly realm after he saves her from bondage and of her sister’s miraculous recovery. Then there is the darker half. Whenever Grey is transported to the dreamworld or when the villains are haunted at the film’s end. Dreyer doesn’t stand nearby and offer an explanation or moralize, he simply shows them what they fear most; in this case their victim’s face. They then walk right from the nightmarish image into their own (accidental) deaths. From the torments of a kind of hell of a waking nightmare into the actual hell. Though they arrive there because of their tampering with dark forces their deaths are not supernatural, perhaps as punishment. And who but Dreyer could think up that most ingenious method of disposing of the doctor; a death scene that is so peculiar yet also very ordinary and remains totally original.
Finally there is a scene that must be talked about if the subject of Vampyr is to be exhausted. Grey’s final dream takes him to the lair of the villains where he discovers their plans but his finding comes at a high-price: he has to watch his own death and burial. Out of body he ceases wandering and is suddenly on his back in an open coffin. The one legged man brings the lid over which has been put a window so his unblinking eyes can see out as the doctor and the vampire prepare to bury him. The one-legged man screws the lid on and everyone looks down at Grey’s face through the glass before they carry him to the cemetery. This most beautiful and terrible of dream sequences gives life to many people’s greatest fears and also illustrates the difference between the inquisitive hero and his murderous foils. Grey’s fears of watching the ground go overhead make him realize that there’s more to life than pursuing the supernatural and following the revelation he is able to get the girl. The housekeeper finds that the vampire’s coffin has been broken as if she had broken from the confines of hell and death. This difference marks the divide between good and evil for Dreyer. Those who attempt to deny death will be punished; those who see the difference and decide to act for the good of others will be rewarded. The doctor’s pursuit of the vampire’s help makes him just as curious about the shadowy underworld as Grey but greed and curiosity are two different things and they turn to death and love and eventually burial and rebirth. The doctor finds himself in place of the old vampire and Grey’s soul literally walks back to him so he can save Gisèle. It takes the experience of death in both cases and so we may believe Dreyer when, after being asked whether or not he achieved his goal in making Vampyr he stated simply “I have broken new grounds”

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