Vampyr Carl Theodore Dreyer (1932; Fr/Ger) Nicolas de Gunzburg
viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd June 22; ticket £10.75
Seeing Dreyer’s main character Alan Gray walking thorough ‘Vampyr’, treading the the line between the real and the imagined, he called to mind Bunuel’s protagonist in L’Age d’Or. Both men were middle aged ordinary men of the cinema and sported the same ‘30’s era look: costumed in suit tie sensible shoes and carefully parted hair, though Bunuel’s ‘hero’ is in evening dress with bow tie, and he ends up rather dishevelled. As ‘Vampyr’ develops after Gray’s arrival at the ‘Inn’ it feels in some respects as if Dreyer’ film is a continuation of L’Age d’Or. Both protagonists work their way through the respective scenarios as if they were automatons, like mechanically driven dummies that are presented with increasingly strange and outrageous situations which demand an imperturbable but mechanistic robotic capability to get through to the end. Like bulldozers they either shunt aside or plough over all that crosses their paths. Like clowns and other types robots, dummies, mummies et al, they are all strong filmic devices for breaking through the walls of the convention, a feature also useful in horror movies.
Both Bunuel and Dreyer commit to using the full resources of the cinema to express thought as cinematic imagery. Both film makers make extensive use of non linear impossible cuts, but whereas Bunuel uses fragmentation to break up the structure of his film Dreyer uses cinematic techniques to create the feeling of another world of intention and desire existing right beside us if only we knew where and how to look.
The thought modes underlying Bunuel and Dreyer are distinct. They point in different directions. Bunuel’s automaton points to what cannot be seen: ‘The man’ in L’Age d’Or’ is sent out to undermine the solid world of the Bourgeoisie to reveal its pretence hypocrisy and dishonesty, to lift the lid on forbidden desire that underlies the surface of ‘politesse’ and good manners. Dreyer’s character points to what can be seen but which is hiding in plain view, if only you know how to look, for instance with a certain squinting of the eyes. Alan does not probe underneath the surface of reality but sensitised to its existence, is able to see the parallel world, a shadow world that exists co-terminous with the things we can see. It is a flickering world just like the world of cinema.
The line between the real and the imagined becomes blurred. And this is the stunning visual feature of ‘Vampyr’, Dreyer’s cinematic ability to create the images the signs that indicate that the Vampyr is at work in the world of the living. Dreyer mostly utilises the technical potential inherent in the operation of the camera: gauze, lens stocking, exaggerated shadow, matts, double exposures, over and under exposures. But he also exploits the faciality of his players. In one particular scene, a young woman is confined to her bed by a mystery illness (caused by the Vampyr) and we see cued by the arrival of the evil doctor, the young woman’s face transform itself. As she draws back her mouth to reveal a set of bared threatening animal teeth, her face changes from an expression of resigned suffering to a mask of pure evil intent. Dreyer conjures up the world that is hovering at our shoulder but which we try not to see. And of course there is very good reason why we don’t want to acknowledge it. We prefer not to read the signs that are right in front of our noses; we want to look away from the shadow world, we want to continue to carry on as normal.
Interspersed throughout the film’s duration is the text of the history of Vampyrs. It is returned to with increasing insistence.
‘Vampyr’ was made between 1930 -1 when Dreyer was moving all round Europe. As a European observer Dreyer will have been very aware of the revolutionary atmosphere in Germany, where Nazi’s and Communists were contesting the streets and had developed simple ideological formulae to attract votes. In 1930 elections the Nazi’s made their first significant electoral gains in Berlin with their anti-Semitic racist propaganda, their remilitarisation proposals and their trumpeting of German nationalism. As a filmmaker aligned to seeking out the salvatory and spiritual in life (The Passion of Jenne’d’Arc) it feels that Dreyer’s choice of the Vampyr motif must have been guided by his perception that at this time there was a diabolic force abroad in the world. But no one could see that this force was right in their midst, people weren’t reading the signs. Returned to again and again the words of the film’s text intensify. It explains how the Vampyr takes over control of people’s soul as people fall under its sway; the Vampyr is like a plague on the innocent; it seeks to colonise whole villages; to drive the whole population to suicide; it….it fills their veins with poison. Vampyr is not so much, one entity, it is a fog a mist that penetrates through our world, and like the air we breath we are blind to it.
What reverberates for me after seeing ‘Vampry’ is not so much the specificity of Dreyer’s film, but the underlying idea of reading the signs, reading the runes, understanding what is happening in the shadow world right beside you.