not in our stars, but in ourselves
45/52: A new-to-you movie from your favorite genre*
In 1955, Carl Dreyer wrote for Sight & Sound magazine:
Where is the possibility of artistic renewal in the cinema? I can only answer for myself, and I can only see one way: abstraction. In order not to be misunderstood, I must at once define abstraction as something that demands of the artist to abstract himself from reality in order to strengthen the spiritual content of his work. More concisely: the artist must describe inner, not outer life. […] Abstraction allows the director to get outside the fence with which naturalism has surrounded his medium. It allows his films to be not merely visual, but spiritual. The director must share his own artistic and spiritual experiences with the audience.
Prior to last night, I’d only seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, so I could only judge one movie by the above quotation. Now that I’ve seen Vampyr, I think I can safely say that Dreyer was a master of “abstraction” in cinema, of depicting the inner life on film. More precisely, Vampyr is the closest any film has ever come to the experience of having a nightmare, at least of the films I’ve seen. (David Lynch’s works are serious challengers to this claim, but I’d still give Vampyr the edge.) It’s strange, mesmerizing, and uncanny in the extreme – just like a runaway dream making you toss and turn and wake up in a cold sweat.
Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg – here credited as Julian West) is a young student of the occult. He has grown so absorbed in his studies that he’s begun to lose track of what’s real and what’s a dream. On the night of a full moon, he arrives in the rural town of Courtempierre and rents a room at an inn. He tries to sleep, but he’s plagued by anxiety and dread – especially when someone starts knocking at his door and picking at the lock. An old man (Maurice Schutz) wanders in, and tells Allan, “She mustn’t die!” He takes out a small parcel wrapped in paper, and writes on it, “To be opened upon my death.” The man leaves, and Allan decides to go out and see what’s going on. All around him, he sees shadows – some seemingly moving backwards, some running through fields, some reflected in the river – that seem to lead him to a strange building. He sees more shadow people, and a bizarre old woman (Henriette Gérard – who, it must be said, looks exactly like Franz Liszt in his old age; this will become sort of funny in a moment) creeping around the premises. He also encounters a similarly sneaky middle-aged man (Jan Hieronimko), and then hightails it out of there. Outside, he sees more shadow people – children, this time – whom he follows to a forlorn manor. Inside, the old man he saw in his room is about to go check on his sick daughter when a shadow person (with a peg leg and a rifle) shoots him. Allan knocks desperately on the door to be let in, and races to the old man. By that time, the rest of the household (besides the sick daughter) has flocked to the living room, where the old man dies. Allan opens the parcel: it’s about frightful creatures called vampyrs. Allan gets distracted from finishing the book, but a servant, Joseph (Albert Bras), finishes it: there was a vampyr in their very village, Courtempierre, and her name was Marguerite Chopin. The only way to defeat her is to open her grave just before daybreak, and use an iron stake to pin her soul to the earth so that she dies when the sun rises. Marguerite Chopin is that very same Liszt-looking woman (see! kinda funny!) whom Allan had seen earlier, and she’s using the village doctor to collect her victims. One of those victims is Léone (Sybille Schmitz), the old man’s sick daughter; the other is soon to be Gisèle (Rena Mandel), her younger sister. Joseph removes the heavy gravestone from Chopin’s grave, digs her up, and – with Allan’s help – drives the stake through her body. The curse is lifted; for good measure, Joseph buries the doctor alive in a flour mill.
The story is a wild enough ride that it would feel like a bad trip in even a hack director’s hands. Dreyer made several deliberate choices, however, to give his film the nightmare quality that infuses every frame. He employs an extremely mobile camera, which wouldn’t have been so strange in a silent film, but was highly unusual during the sound era. Indeed, Dreyer was unwilling to throw off everything he’d learned from silent filmmaking. Mark Le Fanu writes for his essay accompanying the Criterion Collection release of Vampyr:
Vampyr was made at a time when the technology of sound was still at a quite early stage of its development, and the aesthetics of the film still belong in obvious and important ways to the silent epoch. There is no harm in that: by the end of the twenties, the vocabulary (so to speak) of silent film had reached, internationally, an extraordinary level of refinement and sophistication. Indeed, it could be argued that a significant percentage of the most beautiful films of all time belong to this period. I refer here not only to refinement of visual composition (Dreyer himself was one of the greatest contemporary connoisseurs of painting) but also to suppleness of camera movement, which, following the innovations of Murnau in the mid-1920s, took off in a major way during the rest of the decade. Vampyr is full of terrifically soigné traveling shots that explore space and locale with freedom and daring. We are never quite sure where we are, and, for once, this confusion is productive. Yet to return to sound for a moment, the opacity (one might almost say crudity) of the dialogue is arguably in itself an “aesthetic value,” contributing importantly to the film’s uncanny, dreamlike atmosphere. (We do talk in dreams, of course, but somehow speech is not dreams’ primary element.) […] It would be wrong to imagine that Dreyer was uninterested in speech. On the contrary, later films of his show, among other things, a complete mastery of the medium of sound. But in Vampyr, Dreyer intuited, correctly I believe, that, concerning atmosphere, the crucial contribution would continue to be made (where it had always been made in the days of so-called silent film) through the medium of music. And, in fact, Wolfgang Zeller’s delicately eerie score is one of the film’s quiet triumphs.
This makes for good cinema, obviously, but it also adds to the nightmare feeling. Consider the last nightmare you remember having. Was there a lot of talking? Or were there a few phrases spoken aloud, with the vast majority of information conveyed through images and sensation? Were there somewhat impressionistic scenes taking place in what you might call “long shot” – and then sudden, violently intense close-ups as your unconscious attention suddenly focused on a particular face or object? Did the location – time and/or place – seem to be one thing, but your mind accepted it as somewhere else?
Dreyer does all of this in Vampyr, deliberately. Le Fanu explains the use of sound quite well. But there’s more: there are the hazy outdoor shots (made all the more so by the sad fact that Vampyr, like many unsuccessful films from Germany and France in the early 1930s, wasn’t especially well preserved) contrasting with the intentness of the closeups. There’s the obvious day-for-night shooting that, while watching, this particular viewer accepted as the eerie light of a full moon. There are the shadow people, who are really and truly creepy and unnerving. There’s the persistent sense that this place isn’t real, but – as Rust Cohle might have put it – a memory of a place, and the memory is fading.
If you prefer the creeping dread of a dark cloud spreading over your unconscious to the sudden fright of a man jumping out from behind the bushes, Vampyr is the movie for you. Tell yourself it’s only a movie; tell yourself it’s only a dream; but just try not to see the shadows around you, trying to lead you somewhere you shouldn’t go.
*Okay, so here’s the thing: I don’t really have a favorite genre. Vampyr is categorized as a horror film, for want of a more precise category; but that’s not exactly true, as you’ve read above. Anyway, “horror” wouldn’t be my favorite genre, even if I had one, because I’m too much of a wuss: the genre that can include something as ethereal as Vampyr and something as brutal as Hostel is not for me. But that brings me to my point: of the genres to which I do turn, time and again, there are sure to be some examples I love, and some that I can’t stand. I enjoy comedies, but you’ll never catch me watching Paul Blart: Mall Cop unless I’ve lost a bet or been roofied or something. I enjoy dramas, but not when they have the oppressive stench of Oscar bait clinging to them. I enjoy musicals, but; I enjoy rom-coms, but; I enjoy thrillers, but but but. You get the idea. I would say I enjoy particular time periods and styles more than I can really say I enjoy any particular genre. Early 1930s European arthouse nightmare simulation – I’m in. Other vampire movies – I’ll take them on a case-by-case basis. I know, I know. I’m a cheat, and a pedant to boot. Deal.