Such are the qualities of silent cinema and early cinema that, when applied to the horror genre, a film like Nosferatu (1922) could justifiably bear the subtitle A Symphony of Horror. Coming a decade later in the early days of talking movies but still bearing all the hallmarks of the silent cinema stylings of one of the medium’s most accomplished and influential artists, Carl Th. Dreyer’s elaborate and enigmatic experiment in the genre, Vampyr (1932), could by the same token be described 'A Symphony of Shadows'.
In the event, the film (in the German version) actually bears the no less evocative subtitle of Der Traum des Allan Gray, "The Dream of Allan Gray" or, as it is translated here "The fantasy experience of Allan Gray". Gray (Julian West) is a young man steeped in studies of the occult, demonology and vampirism and consequently prone to reveries and flights of imagination. How much then of what subsequently occurs when he stops at an inn after a walk by the river at Courtempierre is real or imaginary, threatening or harmless is open to question, the young man seeing symbols and portents in the shadows and plays of light as well as figures that seem to hint at a more sinister purpose. One such figure ventures into his room late one night, delivering an ominous message and leaving a mysterious package to be opened in the event of his death. The man turns out to be the Lord of the Manor (Maurice Schutz) who is concerned about the state of health of his daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz), a young woman suffering from a condition that the village doctor (Jan Hieronimko) believes necessitates a transfusion of blood – a lot of blood. In fact, reading some books on the subject, Allan Gray realises that her thirst for blood could lie in a condition of vampirism, once believed to be endemic in the region. The book also gives a clue to other methods by which the problem could be cured.
In plot outline, the story of Vampyr, freely adapted from Sheridan Le Fanu’s In A Glass Darkly, would seem to be a standard run through vampire lore and mythology, then very much in vogue with Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi also in production for Universal in the US. Dreyer’s treatment however is far from conventional and far from a mere relating of the storyline. There being no greater master of the use of light and shadow, Dreyer rather creates an eerie ambiguous environment for Allan Grey to inhabit – a nightmare world of disembodied shadows, inverted images and chimera, of impossible angles and trompe l’oeil locations, a world where the laws of God, physics, rationality and order do not apply - a place, in cinematic terms, lying somewhere between the fantasy of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête and the surrealism of Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. Consequently, there’s not a single stock horror image used here, the film demonstrating the power of Dreyer’s unique inimitable vision and his ability to create mood and impressions in unexpected ways – not through a relentless depiction of darkness and death, but achieving more by counterbalancing them with heavenly suffusions of light and space that is close to the manner of Dreyer’s previous silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc. Consequently both Heaven and Hell are contained within the light and shadows of Dreyer’s Vampyr.
The application of Dreyer’s style and technique here is certainly more important then that the thin and barely tangible plot, the director using not only light and shade, but movement and the use of silence to attain the essential emotional pitch of the horror – far more important here than narrative coherence or credibility. The mood created by Dreyer back in 1932 only emphasises what is lacking in the modern horror film, and it’s not just the obvious loss of subtlety and suggestion through the liberal use of jump cuts and gore, but a reminder of how pace and rhythm can achieve a hypnotic effect that is more in keeping with the nature of horror and its true origins – the fears that lie within always being much more disturbing than any external manifestation. The slow pace, the discordant rhythms and unsettling images used by Dreyer and taken from a subjective viewpoint, allow the viewer time to take in the full import of the mounting horror, a slow dawning horror that carries a sense of deep sorrow at the growing awareness of a world beyond our own and beyond our means to control or influence - the unreachability of the past, the unknowability of what lies beyond death. Here they are given form in an immortal creature that lies outside the laws that govern the rest of us - the vampire.
Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr is released in the UK by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format, and is not region encoded.
Considering that the original negatives are lost and only prints from the French and German versions survive, a pristine print was never going to be achievable here, but the new Masters of Cinema edition, taken from the 1998 restoration of the German version, undoubtedly presents the existing materials in the best manner possible. Whether another major restoration removing extant marks and scratches could achieve a greater clarity that would significantly improve the experience of viewing the film is doubtful.
As it is, there are certainly minor marks, dust spots and tramline scratches visible throughout. Some scenes are clearer than others, but this is often down to the condition of the source materials, and even down to the original intentions of the film to remain misty and indistinct in key scenes. Some brightness flicker is evident, as is some larger damage such as reel-change marks and some faded patches in the frame. On the whole however, the image is relatively stable, showing adequate shadow detail (evidently very important in this film) and a marvellous smoothness of both on-screen and camera movements at the correct frame rate. The real pleasure of the presentation lies in that wonderful flow that the film has been gifted with and it’s something that cannot be reproduced in screenshots.
Miraculous though the restoration work was on the Masters of Cinema’s edition of Nosferatu, I must admit that I missed the aura of the film’s troubled history that it bore in every stain and scratch it had gained over the years. Those elements, the haziness and softness, flaring sunlight and indistinct shadows remain part of Vampyr’s strange allure and if a similar restoration or reconstruction could be achieved here, I fear it might compromise the films intangible qualities. It’s not a popular view to hold in the age of High Definition perfection, but in as much as grain is inherently part of the nature of the film negative, perhaps so there should be allowances for the inevitable aging process of a film.
In any case, what counts here is that the transfer presents the existing materials in the best possible manner, with the correct aspect ratio (1.19:1), the correct of the frame rate, retaining the essential intactness of the print (and audio track), and the smoothness with which it moves without too much damage and flicker to distract from the image and take away from the mood. That is certainly achieved here.
The quality of the audio track is quite impressive considering the age of the film and the state of the original elements. Again, the sound is largely intact with no serious issues or drop-puts. Crackle and noise is kept to a minimum without dampening the melancholy tone and range of the string arrangements that are present throughout. Dialogue and sounds are also relatively clear and effective in preserving the essential tone of the film’s soundtrack.
Taken from the German print of the film (an English version was apparently made, but there is no print in existence), all the titles, intertitles and on-screen printed material are original and in German, as is the film’s minimal post-synchronised dialogue. English subtitles, which are optional and in a white font, are placed on top of the original text when it appears on the screen. This doesn’t make it the easiest to read when there are long pages of texts on vampire lore, but there isn’t really a better solution. Personally, I didn’t have any difficulty reading the subtitles.
Commentary by Tony Rayns
The first audio commentary track is a scholarly one by Tony Rayns. He covers the background to the making of the film and spends the majority of the track analysing the film’s unique and unusual shooting style, considering how the method and movements contribute to the film’s overall impact. Although he is never at a loss for words, it’s a struggle to stretch this kind of examination out to 70 minutes, and inevitably there is repetition and plot description of on-screen action.
Commentary by Guillermo del Toro
Not being a fan of the director’s films, I have to admit that I approached the Guillermo del Toro commentary with some degree of scepticism, but his self-deprecation at the start of the commentary soon wins the listener over. He warns that it’s "not a scholarly dissertation", but that said he launches straight into a discussion of momento mori, gothic imagery and bone motifs. You can’t deny that he knows his horror iconography and references and he also clearly knows his Dreyer. Some of his theories on the film’s themes of salvation and Allan Gray as a Christ-like figure are a little overblown, but Vampyr is the kind of film that inspires such leaps of imagination, and it’s true that Dreyer’s films do often relate to the idea of faith transforming the world (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet). He also makes a good point about Vampyr, despite its genre trappings, being a key Dreyer film, taking him beyond naturalism to a new level in his work. There are lots of other similarly good points made, making the commentary, against expectations, the more perceptive and thought-provoking of the two commentaries on the set.
Deleted Scenes (3:41)
Two deleted scenes removed by the German censor in 1932 are presented here, showing two of the deaths in the film in more graphic detail. They are both silent with no soundtrack, and certainly as powerful as anything else in the film.
Visual Essay (34:32)
Using images, photographs and interview clips with Dreyer himself, Casper Tybjerg covers the history of the film, the intentions of the director, the locations used in the shooting and examines the film’s influences from the original Le Fanu stories to imagery sourced from classic paintings. There is some analysis on the film’s mood and perspective, as well as scenes in the original script not included in the final film. This is certainly comprehensive and a better alternative for those averse to commentary tracks.
Carl Th. Dreyer (1966) (28:45)
Filmed at the time of the premiere of Gertrud in Paris (with Clouzot, Truffaut, Godard and Langlois in attendance), this documentary by Jörgen Roos is based around an interview with Dreyer. Covering each of his films and showing clips from them, the director talks about his approach to filmmaking and the evolution of his style over the years. It’s certainly interesting to get Dreyer’s impressions on his own work, but inevitably this is never as in-depth or as informative as you’d like it to be.
This documentary feature about Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (alias Julian West) was not available on my preview disc.
Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla
The story that inspired Vampyr is presented as a pdf file in facsimile reproduction. This also wasn’t available on the preview disc.
The 80-page booklet included with the set is the usual lavish affair filled with fascinating information on the film and heavily illustrated with rare production stills. The text of the original 1932 Danish film programme, detailing the plot of the entire film is included as is a facsimile reproduction of the actual programme. Taking from their book on Dreyer, Jean and Dale Drum’s Film-Production Carl Dreyer provides a meticulously researched and detailed description of the casting, shooting, production and financing of the film as well as some examination of Dreyer’s influences and personal involvement in the film. Some of the production information is repeated in Tom Milne’s Vampyr, which also examines the film’s plot. Martin Koerber’s Notes on the Restoration of Vampyr provide a fascinating insight into the cutting and editing of the original negatives for the international versions of the film and the issues involved in the restoration of the German version used for this DVD release.
The Masters of Cinema release of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr may perhaps not be quite as big an event for most people as their release of the restored Nosferatu, and the image quality may not look as immediately impressive as that 2-disc DVD release, but the work done here is just as deserving of the highest praise, remaining faithful to the film’s particular style and mood. Vampyr itself is of equal brilliance in its depiction of deeply unsettling horrors that arise from subjective fears rather than external monsters, and there is no greater master of evoking those sensations in light, shadow and movement than Carl Th. Dreyer.