Posted by Mel Valentin, 9/7/04
Vampyr - Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932)
Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schultz, Rena Mandel
Running Time: 75 minutes
Despite a reputation that rivals James Whale’s Frankenstein and Tod Browning’s Dracula, Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey, a 1931 film directed and co-written by Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet, Day of Wrath, Gertrud), fails to create anything beyond a series of momentary impressions, with little connection to narrative or character. No doubt Dreyer’s choice, Vampyr’s narrative makes no effort to generate audience sympathy or empathy for the protagonist or the secondary characters, none of which rise above thin, underdeveloped (and, therefore, underwritten) characterizations.
Set in a desolate, isolated, pre-modern hamlet in Western Europe, Vampyr unfolds through a series of apparently disconnected scenes, which themselves follow a fevered dream logic that, at various times in the film, suggests that the film’s events are the equivalent of the protagonist’s subjective experiences. Allan Grey (Julian West), the ostensible protagonist, arrives at the near-deserted hamlet for a night’s rest from his walking vacation (which appears to include butterfly collecting). The few residents he meets in the hotel seem themselves to be befuddled, suffering from the after effects of physical trauma or illness. An uninvited visitor, the lord of a nearby manor, interrupts his first night’s sleep, cryptically intoning “She must not die, do you hear?” and leaving Allan a package, to be opened only upon his death. Allan, unsurprisingly decides to follow his strange visitor across a dark, forbidding forest, where human shadows seems to have lives of their own. At the end of the forest, he discovers a chateau, and the emotionally distraught owner inside the chateau, his two daughters (one of whom suffers from a strange illness that leaves her bedridden), and two elderly servants. Whatever has affected the nearby village threatens to destroy the two sisters and their father. With little motivation, Allan becomes infatuated with the younger sister, Gisele (Rena Mandel). Their romance, like most of the narrative’s major plot points, is left undeveloped. For Dreyer, anything more than a mere suggestion of a burgeoning relationship is unnecessary to his larger intentions of creating a film around dream logic streaked with voyeurism (the main character is often shot looking through windows at objects or other characters). Dreyer even goes as far as implicating Allan, and through him, the audience, late in the film, when he discovers Gisele in an eroticized, fetishized tableaux, as she awaits the vampire's return.
Dreyer and his co-screenwriter, Christian Jul, diverge from the traditional depictions of vampires. As the film’s title implies, the cause of the illness is a local vampire, identified as Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard), an old woman (in stark contrast to the conventional vampire, whose undead nature belies his or her eternally youthful experience). Dreyer and Jul give Chopin a human “familiar,” the village doctor, who facilitates the vampire’s access to her victims and safeguards her tomb during the day. Following folkloric tradition, the vampire can be defeated only through a stake through the heart, but here Dreyer and Jul substitute a metal bar for the stake. Traditionally, vampires have some control over “creatures of the night” (i.e., rats, bats, wolves, and can sometimes transform into these animals). In Vampyr, there is no evidence that the vampire can control animals or change shape, but she can control the “living shadows” and compel them to do her bidding, including murder. Oddly, while her vampirism spreads to her victims who, in turn, acquire a hunger for blood, in Vampyr, the vampire also attempts to force her victims into committing suicide, presumably to damn their souls to eternal torment. Grey, as the protagonist, must first uncover Chopin’s true identity and then the means to dispatch her.
In Vampyr, Dreyer and Jul choose to deliver most of the exposition through intertitles. Intertitles (essentially placards inserted between individual shots of film) were primarily used during the silent film era, to convey important information about the plot and characters that couldn’t otherwise be conveyed visually. A great deal of the exposition regarding vampires and their natures is delivered through intertitles, which are meant to represent the pages of the book left in Allan’s possession, an implausible coincidence that nonetheless helps to support the film’s dream logic. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, and the performances uneasily straddle different eras in filmmaking. The performances, in intent and effect, are meant to convey information through exaggerated motion and gesture (i.e., silent film pantomime). With little dialogue, and most of the information conveyed through static intertitles, it’s no surprise that the film itself conveys little urgency. With the exception of the protagonist, filmed in tracking shots as he attempts to uncover the secrets of the village and the nearby chateau, the other characters in Vampyr are treated statically, in tableaux.
If Vampyr’s minimal plotting, shallow characterizations, and enervated performances fail to engage the audience, Dreyer, and his cinematographer Rudolph Maté (director, D.O.A., When Worlds Collide) succeeds on a visual level to create a gothic, fairy-tale world. The narrative may be threadbare and (mostly) unoriginal, but when Dreyer allows his camera to roam freely throughout his imagined world, capturing its multiple oddities, the audience is confronted by a series of near-hallucinatory experiences. For example, Dreyer and Maté use double exposures to literally separate the main character's soul from his body. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Dreyer uses long tracking shots, mist-shrouded lighting, and editing to follow the main character as he's apparently caught inside a death dream. For both the character and the audience, Dreyer raises the anxious specter of premature burial (an obsession of 19th-century gothic literature). Although the erosion of the barrier between objective and subjective reality is a conventional device in (later) European “art” cinema, here it’s used effectively to convey a sense of existential dread and narrative ambiguity about the character’s fate, despite the almost idyllic final frame set outside the forest that closes the film.