Sometimes a movie just comes right along and punches a hole in your gut, and for me, Vampyr was just such a movie. Like any halfway decent connoisseur of paranormal horror and inordinately artsy European films, I've known about Carl Theodor Dreyer's first sound film for ages, but somehow I'd managed to go without seeing it until just this weekend. Shame on me.
It's the easiest thing in to world to make excuses for atmospheric horror pictures with a plot that don't make a damn bit of sense (see also: Argento, Dario, films of), but I don't think I've ever come across a movie in any genre outside of Surrealism - which was in its heyday in the early '30s, when Vampyr was produced and released - where such a masterpiece could arise from such terrific indifference to storytelling. Though there is a story, and I defy anybody to figure out exactly what it is after just one viewing, what narrative logic is to be found in Vampyr is the logic of a waking nightmare, where uncanny experiences tumble one after the other in a seemingly disconnected chain. So much so that when the hero actually does have a nightmare, or maybe it's closer to an out-of-body vision, it hardly even registers that the film's visual palette has shifted.
In a nutshell, the "story" follows one Mr. Gray (Allan in the German prints, David in the French, played in both by the non-actor "Julian West", about whom more later), a student of the occult who journeys to the village of Courtempierre, where strange events have been rumoured of late. There, Gray finds inexplicable happenings such as shadows walking around without any bodies, a mute man with a scythe walking the riverfront, and an elderly gentleman (Maurice Schutz) who presses a package into his hand upon which is written (in Dreyer's own Danish) "To be opened upon my death." Elsewhere in the village, Gray finds an shifty pair of characters, an angry old man with wild hair (Jan Hieronimko) and a grim-looking old woman with a cane (Henriette Gérard). From here he arrives at a château owned by the same gentleman who gave him the package, who lives there with his daughters Gisèle (Rena Mandel) and Léone (Sybille Schmitz), the latter of whom has been taken ill recently. When the gentleman is shot by a vanishing assassin, Gray opens the package to find a book on the history of vampirism, and he begins to put together all the clues from what he has seen in the days he's spent at Courtempierre: it is stricken with a vampire named Marguerite Chopin, who is slowly snuffing out the lives of all the townspeople.
Even from that stripped-down synopsis, I think it's clear that most of this film is not about what happens, but what is happening, if that distinction makes sense. Basically, Gray walks around and looks at things, and those things are tremendously eerie, even more than 75 years later. He's not much of a hero - indeed, his heroing duties are briefly taken over by the château's trusty old servant (Albert Bras) just when things are starting to get really exciting - but more of a passive receptacle, letting the horrors he witnesses wash over him without complaint. At least in part, this sense is thanks to West's tremendously disaffected performance, consisting of one single expression, though I suppose he arches his eyebrows a little bit more when he's really scared. I mean this in a good way; the lack of passion in the leading man is one of the utmost reasons that it's so tempting - necessary! - to think of Vampyr as a nightmare, and not an actual "film". At any rate, we should not blame poor West, who was in reality Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, a dandified playboy who agreed to finance the film out of his great love for Dreyer's previous picture, The Passion of Joan of Arc. He only stepped into the role (that of another dandy who follows his whimsical passions primarily because he has no actual obligations) when the lead actor dropped out at the last minute.
It's a stiff lead performance that suits the film very well, given that Vampyr never tries particularly hard to function as a movie according to any rules you could come up with. It'd be lovely to claim it as the final gasp of German Expressionist horror, or even the first gasp of a new sound Expressionism, but Dreyer creates mood using a wholly different set of tricks from that movement. Despite its lack of a forthright, coherent narrative, it's clearly not a Surrealist film. And it has virtually nothing in common with the American horror films coming out at the same time (and which the filmmakers doubtlessly had not seen), save that it's not afraid of the paranormal. It doesn't even play by the rules that are supposed to govern all of early sound cinema; visually, this could just as easily be a silent film (it even has intertitles!), and the sparse dialogue isn't really functional or ornamental. But this could only ever be a sound film, given how much of its uncanny effect derives from the music composed by Wolfgang Zeller, a virtually uninterrupted Gothic soundscape that must surely rank as among the most important film scores in history. I can't personally think of another film from this period that uses sound in the same way; perhaps it has to do with the deeply flawed recording techniques used on the production, perhaps Dreyer just wasn't willing to leave the silent aesthetic behind, or perhaps he actually wanted to screw with the audience's expectations.
Against that soundtrack, his highly idiosyncratic visuals play out like almost nothing else in cinema (the film's closest relative, stylistically, that I can think of is possibly Eraserhead). Prior to shooting the film, Dreyer and his cameraman Rudolph Maté had all the raw film stock flashed, giving the shot footage a washed-out, soft appearance that reads, to the modern eye, like the film has been heavily damaged over the decades (and this being a Dreyer film, that of course happens to be the case, as well), but even with that unfortunate sensation, it's still impossible to shake the hazy feel of the movie as being something otherworldly. There are a few missteps throughout, most of which can doubtlessly be traced to the film's cramped production: a few scenes have some harder-than-necessary lighting and inappropriately "stagey" shadows (a weird lapse, given how tremendously the lighting effects are controlled elsewhere, in the creation of the disembodies shadows); the dialogue, what little exists, sounds a bit grating and loud. But any complaint must be no more than a mere quibble in the face of Dreyer's tremendous skill with the camera - few if any directors in history can get more power out of something as simple as a sideways tracking shot - and it's not hard to regret that in his long but deeply un-prolific career, he never managed to return to the genre which he ultimately did quite a bit to invent.