The German Expressionist film movement of the late 1900’s radically altered the landscape of European silent cinema, and paved the way for inventive directors such as FW Murnau, GW Pabst and Fritz Lang. Expressionism’s formal stylings – painted sets, flat lighting, angular cinematography – rejected any attempt at naturalism, and instead made a virtue of stylization.
These breakthroughs naturally coloured the cinema of other countries, as other film-makers began to experiment with form. Danish Director Carl T Dreyer’s 1927 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, is notable for its use of a non-professional actor in the lead role, its reliance on close-ups, very little use of intertitles for dialogue and a near empty frame. The German set designer Herman Warm, who had worked on the Expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) also designed Joan of Arc’s bare minimalist set, the style of which owed more to theatre production than to cinema.
In 1932, Dreyer followed the ascetic minimalism of Joan of Arc with an altogether different film; Vampyr is his adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s novella, Carmilla (from the collection In a Glass Darkly) and is an early entry in the vampire film genre. Here, Dreyer indulges his passion for experimentation, producing an atmospheric fable which leaned heavily on Expressionist motifs, and Surrealist imagery.
Vampyr’s plot, such as it is, follows the protagonist Allan Grey as he arrives at a remote French village. Grey stays the night at a local inn, but his attempts at sleep are hampered by an encroaching sense of unease, as well as by a nocturnal visitor who inexplicably states “She must not die” before vanishing. The visitor leaves a parcel bearing a note that it is only to be opened in the event of his death. This sets Grey on a mission to discover who the mysterious visitor is. Later, we discover that the parcel contains a book on vampires, including mention of one who has wreaked havoc on the very village Grey has found himself in.
Dreyer’s vampire story differs from, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In Stoker’s story the central character was the embodiment of evil who was pitted against a morally “good” adversary with whom he battles. Vampyr largely eschews the idea of a bad or evil central figure and instead deals with the notion of evil as an unseen destructive force which reaches into the lives of ordinary, law-abiding people. In Dreyer’s film a young village girl has been “possessed” by the vampire figure, and it is her struggle to live and to refute evil which Dreyer foregrounds.
Vampyr uses techniques borrowed from German Expressionism and the French Surrealist Movement to tell its tale. Dreyer had spent time in Paris with the Surrealists, and at times Vampyr’s narrative reflects the non-linear, dream-like patterns favoured by them. Indeed a key central segment of the film has Allan Grey “step out” of his body, and see himself placed inside a coffin being carried to a graveyard. The image of Grey’s face under the glass of the coffin lid, with the sky and trees reflected in it, is one of the most visually powerful in the film.
As with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Vampyr’s set designs feature cramped, uneven interiors, shadows, narrow hallways and darkened rooms. The character’s inner turmoil and emotions are expressed in the films visual style; we see as Grey sees. Often we don’t know if what he is seeing is real or imagined; here Dreyer’s subjective style gives the film a psychological realism which was unusual for its time.
Vampyr was not a commercially successful film. Bad press and indifferent audience reaction sent Dreyer into a physical and mental tailspin, and it was some time before he returned to film-making. Much as the influence of Caligari and the Surrealist masterpiece, Un Chien Andalou (1928) can be seen in Vampyr, the film’s own influence can be seen in the work of later generations of experimental film-makers such as David Lynch.
The screening I attended featured a live musical score from Steven Severin, ex-bassist with 70s goth-progenitors Siouxse and the Banshees. Severin’s evocative electronic score greatly complimented the eerie visuals of Dreyer’s film, breathing new life into a still slightly perplexing film; now rightly regarded as a classic of its kind.
Watch a film clip here