Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr and the World of Dreams 


Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr was an abject failure upon release. Parts of the film have been lost, and Dreyer heavily re-edited it due to censorship. Thanks to recent restorations we now have a high-quality version that is at least a facsimile of Dreyer’s work. But assessing the film is not easy because it is so unusual; the moment one grasps the story or its characters, they seem to slip away in the dreamlike mist that suffuses every frame. Strongly influenced by visual art, Vampyr is a work of startling beauty and maddening mystery; it is a vampire film like no other to date.

Keywords Vampyr Dreyer cinematography surrealism vampire seduction dream lighting realism

“Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered; everything in it has taken on another look; the light, and the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed, and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I want to get in my film”

Carl Theodor Dreyer (Tybjerg 2008)

Vampyrs maker Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) was the last director one might expect to make a vampire film, or a horror film of any kind. A Danish director, his most recent film before Vampyr was the 1928 silent La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, a deeply compelling account of the trial and execution of the French female warrior. Based on the transcripts of Jeanne’s trial, that film is notable for the innovative lighting and extreme close-ups by cinematographer Rudolph Maté. So what possessed Dreyer, a master of sparse, emotionally intense dramatic filmmaking, to embark upon a genre film with 1932’s Vampyr?

            It is essential to understand that Dreyer was not just jumping on a vampire-film bandwagon; he shot Vampyr independently in France around the same time Tod Browning made Dracula for Universal Studios. So while he may have shared the same influences as Browning and others, Dreyer’s film was very much his own. Vampyr had no industry support or studio behind it; instead, it was fully financed by its leading actor.  Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg funded the film on the condition that he – a complete novice – would act in the film (credited as ‘Julian West’). With a limited production budget which covered only two professional actors, Dreyer, Rudolph Maté and the company found a semi-derelict mansion in the village of Courtempierre not far from Paris. They used this house and the surrounding area as a location. According to accounts by those who participated in the film it was a dreary, creepy and decrepit place which contributed to the atmosphere of the shots that Dreyer and cinematographer Maté managed to achieve.

The story of Vampyr is strange but relatively straightforward. A young man named Allan Grey, an ‘aimless wanderer’ obsessed with the occult, turns up in a village as evening falls. Grey is unsettled from the start: hearing strange guttural mutterings, he leaves his room and encounters a deformed blind man. Retreating to his room, he gets into bed. As he settles down for the night, a distraught man enters the room, and hands the alarmed Grey a package. Now sleepless, and feeling ‘a sinister force descending upon him’  Grey pockets the offering and wanders out into the ‘eerie moonlit night’. He is startled to see shadows moving about that appear to have no bodies. The shadows lead him to a semi-derelict building, where he sees a stern old woman who seems to command them. He observes a disabled soldier’s shadow split from his body and move about; he watches several couples dance to a lively fiddle player – all shadows with no corporeal form. Following the disembodied shadows to a lonely manor house, Grey is just in time to witness the lord of the manor being shot.

            As Grey endeavors to help the stricken family, he is plunged into a demi-world of nightmare visions. In the house are the dead man’s distraught daughters, the desperately ill Leone and her younger sister Gisele. Waiting for the coachman to return with the police,  Gray opens the package the father has bequeathed him, which proves to be a book about vampirism. In the meantime, Gisele spies Leone outside in the garden. When Gray and Gisele approach they see the old woman bent over Leone’s prone body. The crone flees. The coach returns, bearing the body of the murdered coachman.

            Leone, back in bed, is overcome by bloodlust and almost attacks her sister. The doctor arrives; he is the same man we saw earlier with the old woman. He induces Gray to give his blood to Leone. Wearied, Gray falls asleep, and the doctor leaves the crone’s poison for Leone to take. The old manservant in the chateau reads Grey’s book, which reveals that Courtempierre is home to a vampire.

            The book recounts that the vampire, Marguerite Chopin, was a woman who, a ‘monster’ in life, died without repentance and now preys upon the living. Most importantly, the vampire will compel the drained victim to commit suicide, thus delivering the soul to the Devil. Realizing Leone is one of the victims, the old servant awakens Grey and they rush to Leone’s room just in time to prevent her suicide. The doctor flees, presumably taking Gisele prisoner. Grey rushes outside, falls, then collapses on a bench and has a long dream where he discovers Gisele’s whereabouts, but also witnesses his own death.

            The servant and the awakened Gray go to the graveyard and drive a stake through Marguerite Chopin’s corpse. Leone immediately recovers, whispers ‘My soul is free’ only to draw her last breath. Meanwhile, the doctor and the soldier, unaware of what has befallen their mistress, are attacked by the ghost of the girls’ father. The soldier dies and the doctor escapes to a nearby mill. Gray rescues Gisele, and they make their way, out of Courtempierre and across the river. The old servant traps the doctor at the mill and suffocates him in a deluge of flour.

Vampyr is an original script by Dreyer and Christen Jul and is the only horror movie either man was involved with. Although the film’s own credits indicate that it was inspired by the book In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu, many commentators have pointed out that the film is not a direct adaptation of anything Le Fanu wrote. Instead, Dreyer and Jul seem to have borrowed the figure of the female vampire from Carmilla and other scenes from The Room in The Dragon Volant.

Central European folktales posit the Vampire as either male or female, but Bram Stoker’s 1897 male Dracula is still the most influential vampiric figure. Le Fanu’s earlier Carmilla (1872) is notable for its female vampire and the febrile sexual tension between Carmilla and her victims. Discounting perhaps Murnau’s repulsive Count Orlok,  male vampires are often similarly presented as seductive. In contrast, Dreyer’s Marguerite Chopin is neither grotesquely repellent nor enticing. Instead, she is a wizened old woman, stern-faced and decrepit, leaning heavily on her stick, like a cruel grandmother or workhouse matron. As Kim Newman notes, instead of using any makeup or techniques to render the character horrific, Dreyer makes Chopin frightening ‘simply by dwelling on her careworn face and blank eyes, which the audience invests with malevolence’. (Newman 2008)

            If Carmilla set the scene for vampire seductresses, Stoker continued that direction with the ‘weird sisters’ – sometimes referred to as the three ‘Brides of Dracula’. Dreyer’s vampire,  Mme Chopin, is no seductress but is clearly a predator. Her victim, Leonie, is likewise a predator-in-making, who contemplates her young sister Gisele with a horrific, greedy rictus smile.

A haunted world

‘The people in [Vampyr] glide slowly through a vague, whitish mist like drowned men …. the film is pervaded by nightmare obsession, and it shows a deadsure, calculated use of every means at [Dreyer’s) disposal’

Dreyer’s friend, writer  Ebbe Neergard (Bordwell 1981, 93)

Languid, slow, sometimes moving like a sleepwalker, the hero Allan Grey (as played by Nicolas de Gunzburg) is a good-looking, well-dressed young man who wanders into the haunted world of Courtempierre. In the first intertitle we are told that ‘This is the story of the strange adventures of young Allan Gray, who immersed himself in the study of devil worship and vampires. Preoccupied with superstition of centuries past, he became a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.’  Grey is a dreamer, already obsessed with the occult. To say Grey is wandering the countryside looking for vampires may be going too far, but his curiosity is amply rewarded when he finds Marguerite Chopin. There are other clues that Grey is not quite ordinary. According to Alex Barrett, de Gunzberg’s ‘sullenly stiff performance only enhances the character’s strangeness.’ (Barrett 2022) Dreyer uses the amateur actor’s limitations to create an affectless protagonist, who undergoes the most harrowing of experiences maintaining a fascinated yet calm demeanor. Indeed the character may be experiencing nothing more than a dream, as the film’s English title Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Gray implies.

            The character drifts into somnolence several times. At the start of the film he goes to bed and is woken by the father. Is what we see next a dream? Certainly Grey keeps falling asleep then is roused into another nightmare. After giving his blood for transfusion to Leone, Grey dreams of a skull, then a skeletal hand clutching a vial of poison. He is awakened by the Old Servant, and rushes into Leone’s room in time to push the doctor out of the way and snatch the vial of poison from the girl’s hand. Chasing the doctor outside he falls, weakened by blood loss; the fall causes him to limp to the garden bench where he falls asleep.

            This third slumber offers Dreyer’s most startling and iconic shot:  the figure of Grey rises from his sleeping self and embodies a translucent, insubstantial self which moves away. This spectral Grey passes towards us to an empty stone doorway and finds himself is again in the disused building of the earlier scene. A coffin stands, draped on a sheet, nearby is its glass-topped lid. Ripping the sheet away from the coffin,  Grey sees the corpse: it is himself. From overhead we see Grey lean down over his dead self. The coffin moves: it is being carried by unseen hands. The vampire peers into the coffin, looking directly at him. The spectral Grey, a sentient corpse, embarks upon ‘the most audacious concept in film history: the corpse’s a view of his journey to the grave’. (Rudkin 2005, 87)

            Amateur actor Rena Mandel, playing Gisele, also moves like a sleepwalker, though she has an almost permanent expression of huge-eyed fright. She is the story’s fair, innocent, passive ingenue, witness to her sister’s agony and her father’s death. At the end of the tale, she escapes the village with Grey and though it is implied that they are now a couple, there is no hint of a romance throughout the story.  As David Rudkin points out, Grey and (especially) Gisele are not fully characterized, nor do they conventionally find each other and fall in love. Instead, ‘as embodied by Julian West and Rena Mandel, Vampyrs hero and heroine are best seen as a masculine and feminine principle escaping from thralldom to a Negative’. (Rudkin 2005, 81)  

            The Old Servant, sometimes referred to as Joseph (Albert Bras) has an unexpectedly significant role in the story. It is he whom, taking up the book where Gray left off, understands the nature of the vampire, and is the one who takes decisive action. While Grey is largely passive in the film, the manservant is active: it is he who goes forth to seek the vampire’s grave, where he is joined by Gray. Joseph brings the tools and instigates the destruction of the vampire. However, it is Grey who wields the hammer, the camera ‘framed on the head of the iron shaft stroke by stroke descends with it as it is hammered down into the corpse.’ (Rudkin 2005, 74) As he does so, Chopin expires, transforming into a skeleton. It could be argued that, in terms of action, the Old Servant is the actual hero of the story. He delivers the doctor’s final punishment, burying the servitor in a bright white avalanche of flour. As played by Bras, the character appears phlegmatic, and carries out his tasks as if they are routine. He is resolute and decisive and does not give in to fear or panic.

            Sybille Schmitz, the only experienced film actor in the project, plays Leone. The character of Leone needed a subtle actor who could indicate strong feelings and compulsions in a very short sequence. First, we see Leone in bed, very weak and semi-aware of her condition. Schmitz’s ability to convey Leone’s agony elicits the viewer’s sympathy. Saved from the vampire, Leone expresses a wish to die; her suicide is exactly what the vampire wants, and why it gives the vial of poison to the doctor. The moment of pity is then turned to horror when Leone’s expression changes, she is consumed with bloodlust. This is Schmidt’s key scene: Leone feels the urge and, turning her head with a horrible smile,  fixates upon her beloved sister Gisele. However, she is too weak to attack. In that brief moment, (in extreme closeup, reminiscent of the shots in La Passion de Jeanne dArc) we see the true horror and agony of the vampire’s victim.

            The Doctor (Jan Hieronimko) serves his vampire mistress with enthusiasm. Unlike the other servitors he is not a shadow or a simple minion. He continues to live as the village doctor although, as Gisele notices, he only comes at night. Grey has seen the doctor earlier, and is slightly suspicious, but is persuaded to donate his blood to save Leone. The Old Servant works out what is going on, crying ‘something terrible is happening!’ which awakens Grey and starts the second part of the film: the quest to find and destroy the vampire. They realize the doctor’s complicity and he flees. However, although there is no scene where he takes Giselle captive, we realize that he has done so, presumably to serve as Chopin’s next meal. The Doctor is, in a sense, the most ordinary of the characters, as he appears little affected by the goings-on. He lights his cigar nonchalantly with the candle as he supervises the soldier nailing Grey’s coffin shut. Nevertheless, he is the most active of the two villains, and so it is satisfying when he meets his gruesome end in a deluge of flour.

            The other servitors include the (uncredited soldier) with the wooden leg, and the shadows that seem to obey Chopin. The soldier’s shadow separates from his body to wreak the vampire’s command; the other shadows are entirely disembodied. Apart from being a very clever operation of location camera work, the shadows belong to the film’s eerie nightmare world, where much is left unexplained.

The Vampyr herself

Mme Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard) is horrible, but has none of the doctor’s insouciant air. She is a grim, solid, heavy presence but seldom appears in the film. She has no ‘vampiric’  characteristics, no fangs or Gothic trappings. She looks like an old French bourgeoise, which is what she was in life. But she refuses to stay dead. At her initial appearance, commanding the shadows to ‘Stop!’ she resembles a strict grandmother. Rena Mandel said that Dreyer showed her reproductions of Goya’s work and indicated that was the atmosphere he was looking for. While nothing in the mise en scene replicates a Goya painting or print, Chopin resembles the witchy crones in some of Goya’s prints, those from the ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album of 1819-23 for example. As art critic Jonathan Jones describes them, ‘that mixture of death and life is at the root of the horror that creeps up on you bit by bit. The horror is not just some Gothic schlock. It is a painfully true recognition of corruption, decay and dying’.  He notes that Goya’s witches ‘bodies are round and plump like children painted by Bruegel, but their faces give away the deadly truth’. (Jones 2015)

            The revelation that a vampire is afoot and that the undead creature is the old woman, is finally recognized just after the midpoint of the narrative. We might expect to learn more about Mme Chopin, or witness a confrontation between her and Grey, but nothing of the sort happens. So what can we make of Chopin as a character? It is not clear exactly what era she originally lived in. However, the gravestone above her corpse is well weathered, so we can conjecture that the vampire has appeared periodically over time. This is also indicated by the book Grey receives from the father. Still, one noticeable thing is that the vampire does not benefit much from her blood feasting. She remains very old, slow, disabled. She needs the doctor’s support to move about, and finally, she is blind. In short, Chopin is barely alive, but stubbornly clinging on to life. What she wants even more than blood is authority and influence,  even over shadows.

            The rotund and almost grandmotherly appearance of Chopin hides her ghoulish nature. But did she have another inspiration beyond art? Some critics have noted Dreyer’s unhappy childhood: given up for adoption at birth, he was taken from the orphanage by an unloving couple. According to Peter Swaab, ‘In his own adult life Dreyer came to demonize his foster parents and especially his foster mother.’ (Swaab 2009, 62)  Was Inger Marie Dreyer the model for Marguerite Chopin?

            Chopin’s ravaging of Leonie is age preying on youth; the desiccated, crippled crone feeds on the young and beautiful woman, rendering her almost lifeless. This vampire is a cruel, devouring, problematic mother figure. Peter Swaab suggests that Vampyr is a story ‘about an older generation cruelly prolonging itself by preying on the young. The vampire and doctor are like an old married couple in which the tyrannical wife dominates. The servant Joseph and his wife are benign elders to counter these nightmare parents’. (Swaab 2009, 62)  It is notable that the vampire does not threaten to bite Allan, but seeks to consume the young women. Leonie, who has been made a half-vampire, looks with lust at her sister Gisele, marked as the next victim, whom the doctor subsequently captures as an offering to his vampire mistress.

            Old age preying on youth reminds us of the lost generation of 1914. Is it too much to link the film to the idea of the old condemning a generation to die on the battlefields of Flanders? Was this still a notion by 1932? Is this the meaning of the decrepit, disabled soldier? There does not seem to be any other reason to make the doctor’s helper a soldier. This ruined being, who is most active when he is a shadow, is a diametric contrast to the lithe, well-presented Allan Grey. But Grey, like Gunzburg, would have been far too young to fight in the First World War. Still, the decrepit relics of the war generation were still all around Europe. Either way, the soldier is being used by the old vampire, as is the young and lovely Leone.

            However, the plot and even the characters of Vampyr are less significant than the film’s visual style, which can be described as a recreation of a waking dream.

The art of Vampyr

Vampyr is the residue of the most unsettling nightmare you’ve ever awoken from captured on celluloid. In it, Dreyer pierces the fog surrounding the waking world and renders partially visible the spiritual machinations percolating under what we presume to be the “real”: the linear, unremarkable system of cause and effect we daily encounter, governed by rational laws which preclude supernatural agents of any sort’.

Ian Olson (Olson and Collier 2014)

Dreyer, and his cinematographer may have been inspired by a range of artists and art works. According to Dreyer’s former colleague, writer Henry Hellsen, Dreyer used a number of well-known paintings to set up many of his shots. (Tybjerg 2008) The old man with the scythe, the first truly creepy and unsettling image in the film, is strongly reminiscent of Jean-François Millet’s ‘Death and the Woodcutter’ (1859) which, held in Copenhagen’s Glyptothek, was familiar to Dreyer. Hellsen goes on to associate the penultimate shot, of Grey and Gisele walking through a glade in the morning light, with Corot’s 1861 ‘Orpheus and Eurydice Leaving the Underworld’, which Dreyer may have seen in reproduction. (Olson and Collier 2014)

            But if Vampyr is a film about sleep and dreams as much as it is about bloodsucking, what are Dreyer’s artistic influences? Visual art depictions of the dream and the dreamer range from  Raphael’s ‘Dream of Jacob’ (1518) to Henry Fuesli’s ‘Night Mare’ (1781). ‘Night Mare’ is one of the key pictures that supplied Dreyer with the imagery for Leone’s supine figure, draped in white, with the malevolent crone squatting over her. Closer to Dreyer’s era, the Symbolist painters – active in Central Europe and Scandinavia – were likewise concerned with dreams and dream-states. Finally, as mentioned, Dreyer was interested enough in Goya’s works to show them to Rena Mandel. Goya’s well-known print ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters’ from Los Caprichos (1797-99) suggests that, in the battle between light and shadow, the daytime world ordered by reason gives way to the night and its demonic creatures of shadows.

            In a 1967 interview Dreyer described how, living in Paris for four years, he was drawn to ‘the excitement and imagination which the various artists and movements created, whether Cubism, dadaism, surrealism or what have you. I knew several painters and would be invited to discussions with and about them …  so I was influenced, but not by any particular painter or movement’. (Tybjerg 2008)

            If it is possible to find traces of Fuesli, Goya, Millet and Corot in Vampyr, as well as hints of Expressionism in some of the camera angles, the film seems to have its closest affinity with Surrealism. Not so much the movement itself, as led by Andre Breton, but in the sense of being Surrealistic, as seen in the work of Bunuel (not only his Dali collaborations but in his whole oeuvre, including Land Without Bread and Los Olvidados) and some of Eisenstein’s early films, with an emphasis on the sense of sur-real as in ‘beyond the real’.

            Vampyr is not generally considered to be a surrealist film. Surrealism, an artistic and literary movement that originated in the 1920s, is characterized by irrational, dreamlike elements in works of art. At the time Vampyr was made there were not many explicitly surrealist films, and this has remained the case. Even films often categorized as surrealist, avant-garde works like Germaine Dulac’s The Seashell and the Clergyman or Jean Cocteau’s Blood of the Poet are more surrealistic than definitively surreal. Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and LAge dOr are probably the only two surrealist films of the early film era, the two that incontestably belong to the actual movement.

            However, we can ask, what does Vampyr share with Un Chien Andalou, for example? It does not have the febrile sexuality of Bunuel’s film, nor the gruesome comedy. Nor the heavy-handed anticlericalism of both Bunuel and Dulac.  But like Un Chien Andalou, Vampyr explores a time slippage, where cause and effect are suspended, and time frames follow no recognizable linear progression. In Un Chien Andalou this is achieved with intertitles; in Vampyr it is the cinematography and lighting that suggests ruptures of time. Night is as bright as day, though in the only glimpse we get of the moon it is small and clouded. Grey’s body is simultaneously asleep on a bench and roaming around. The characters’ dress indicates another example of timeslip. We do not know how old the vampire Chopin is, but she appears in modern dress. On the other hand, Gisele wears a long, vaguely old-fashioned dress. Allan Grey is very natty and modern. These are tiny points, but they destabilize the film’s sense of time.

Dreams and dreamscapes

‘With Vampyr I wanted to create a waking dream on the screen and show that the terrifying is not found in things around us but in our own subconscious. If some event provokes in us a state of overexcitement, there is no limit to the inventions of our imagination nor to the unprompted interpretations which we can give to the real things that surround us’. Dreyer (Swaab 2009, 60)

Above all, it is instead Dreyer’s use of irrational, dreamlike elements in the narrative and mise-en-scene that links Vampyr to Surrealism. Vampyrs complex and thorough depiction of the dream state – to the extent that the viewer feels the protagonist’s dreams – that connects with surrealism. Influenced by Freudian psychology, the surrealists were particularly interested in the importance of the dream as a key to the unconscious mind.

‘The funny thing is that the audience is now so used to seeing studio sets that when they see something real it seems unusual and strange – and that is precisely what I wanted to achieve’.  Carl Dreyer (Tybjerg 2021, 35)

            Dreyer was interested all his life in psychological realism but that didn’t mean that his films had to be realist. In any case, different eras in different film cultures have their own stylistic approaches to realism. (McIver 2016, 53–67) In the case of Vampyr, the realism we see clearly in the modern dress of the protagonist, the absolute ordinariness of the inn and the house, even the bourgeois solidity of the vampire herself.  Dryer used real locations throughout the film. Dreyer’s assistant Eliane Tayara later described the director’s obsessive concern for realistic detail: he wanted the semi-derelict house of the vampire’s helpers filled with real cobwebs; the crew had to find, feed and place a lot of spiders to spin their webs in the designated places. Dreyer insisted that all the bones be real, and that the skeletal hand holding the poison bottle in Grey’s dream must belong to a female skeleton. (Tybjerg 2021, 35)  Maté went above and beyond the real with the camera, which shows us things that cannot exist, such as the disembodied shadows, Grey’s several spectral forms and the ghost of the dead father at the window.

            Although Freudian psychology is not an important part of Vampyr, in the spirit of that age we can read some Freudian imagery that Dreyer employed. The vampire Chopin leans heavily on a stick when she moves, laboriously and heavily, an earthy rather than an ethereal being. She also uses the stick to rap on the wall to command the shadows. Mirroring her, Grey also has a stick, a light fishing pole which he carries upon his arrival at the village. Useless, it is soon discarded. But in the final confrontation with the vampire, the passive man finally wields his stick: the stake he drives into the vampire’s body. From this point on, Gray is active: he rescues Gisele and escorts her out of the village and across the river, claiming her as his.

            Many of the scenes in the film are lit by candlelight, but it is obvious that the candles are not the source of light, since the scenes are usually lit by a hazy yet rather bright diffused light that is neither day nor night. However, the candles create a flickering, ethereal quality that adds to the film’s mystery and supernatural atmosphere. Likewise, Dreyer and Maté’s technique of filming with a layer of gauze over the lens casts a phantasmagoric fog over many of the scenes. This filter mediates everything we see:

‘In Vampyr […] lighting leaves locales or objects ill-defined. Most outdoor shots are veiled, diffusing the light thickly; often the shots are so indistinct that one can barely pick out the subject – e.g. Grey crossing a field, Marguerite Chopin bending over Leone. Dreyer carries the same principle further by interposing semi-opaque surfaces between characters and camera. the various windows through which grey peers – the window at the inn’s bar, chateau’s veined and shuttered parlor windows, the ground-glass at the door of the room in which Gisele is imprisoned, even the glass plate on Grey’s coffin  – all have different refractive effects obscuring the image to various degrees. Similarly the fog which envelopes the fleeing lovers at the end is as texturally dense as the sifting powder which suffocates the doctor at the mill’. (Bordwell 1981, 300)

            The camera shapes the film’s spatial relations too, but crucially Maté’s camerawork is not in the service of establishing the causal log of the narrative. For example, ‘no fewer than five times the camera moves away from a figure and glides off on its own, dwelling on atmospheric elements and giving short shrift to the cardinal story point’. (Bordwell 1981, 104) Vampyrs uniqueness as a film is due in no small part to  Maté and Dreyer’s understanding of how to foreground the active role of the camera in not only constituting but also questioning cinematic space.

Editing and censoring as bricolage

            The concept of bricolage, which is important to Surrealism, is also significant in cinema and in Vampyr in particular. Bricolage means construction or creation from a diverse range of available things. It therefore fits in with the Surrealist idea of chance. (Watson 2020)  The Surrealists believed that there is meaning in experiences that occur outside of conscious control, what happens outside the conscious realm is central to surrealistic thinking. While pure chance is very difficult to achieve in filmmaking, the situation caused by Dreyer’s need to keep a tight budget and then re-edit his film, offered a type of chance outside the director’s control.

            The peculiar production processes Dreyer resorted to for Vampyr demonstrate the challenges he faced in making a film independently, and in making the reluctant transition from silent to sound. Dreyer opposed the use of subtitles, so he filmed Vampyrs dialogue scenes in English, French, and German. Unfortunately, the dialogue was not captured synchronously, but was later dubbed in each language. The dialogue scenes then had to be spliced back into the film, to synchronize with the rest of the soundtrack. However, once the production was complete, the German authorities censored the film. Dreyer then re-edited all three versions of the film (the English version is lost). The version released in 2022 for the 90th anniversary of Vampyr is a 2K restoration by the Danish Film Institute using materials from several European archives. Although the restored film has been acclaimed as the most faithful version of Vampyr, it is in fact a bricolage, made up of a diverse range of available clips. Following the screenplay does not help; there are scenes and sequences there for which there is no footage. Was it lost, edited out or never shot?

            Vampyrs bricolage manner of making – and subsequent re-editing and restoring – emphasizes just how nonlinear the story actually is. The synopsis given above implies that the film narrative conventionally follows a timeline, and is moved by cause and effect. Nothing could be further from the truth.

            The story happens over one night, from dusk to dawn, though the lighting does not really follow this timeline. Grey arrives at the inn at dusk; we assume this, because he goes to bed so soon. At the end, the doctor dies in the mill with morning light pouring down upon him along with the flour, and Grey and Gisele escape though a dappled woods. But there are significant parts missing from the narrative.

            Early in the film, when Gray first meets the doctor they have a mysterious exchange about dogs and a child. It seems like a conversation in a dream, a non sequitur:

Doctor: did you hear that

Allan: the child

Doctor: there is no child here

Allan: but the dogs

Doctor: there are no children or dogs here

In fact there is a missing scene that is in Dreyer’s original script: the vampire was supposed to command a pack of dogs to hunt down a young child, her prey, but this is missing from the film. Was it even shot? If so, why did Dreyer include the dialogue if he cut the scene? Other aspects of the story are not explained in any way in either the script or the film, such as the dancing shadows or why the father seeks out Grey at the inn. Why does the dead father later appear as a giant disembodied head? And who is the deformed blind man at the inn? We never find out.

            Even the usual techniques of cutting are challenged by Dreyer here. Instead of continuity editing or montage, Dreyer’s cuts disjoin any continuity – from corner to staircase and room to roof, leaving the viewer constantly decentered. The cuts disturb any sense of spatial geometry. Yet, the shots offer – almost paradoxically – a heightened, almost claustrophobic, sense of place, from the small stair and corridor of the inn, the over-furnished manor house, the mess of the semi-derelict building, to the coffin itself that bears Grey to his dream-grave.

            It is largely pointless to assume that the story in Vampyr is told in a logical order. Instead, at the core of his storytelling method, Dreyer challenges order and interpretation. Instead, he suggests, we must question the terms of readability that the film proposes. Sometimes the viewer must simply notice the instances of transgression, conflict, omission, inconsistency, and loss — instances in which the film astonishes us and representation fails.

            Still, we need to be clear that it was not an ideal way to make a film, and was very different to Dreyer’s previous experiences. As well, Gunzburg sponsored the film but he was not particularly flush with cash; his inheritance was not particularly lavish. (Keller 2008) It is unlikely that Dreyer would have had the opportunity to do any reshoots should he have wanted to. To pile on the misery, Vampyr failed at the box office and with most critics, and so the investment Gunzburg made could not have seen any return. Dreyer returned to journalism and did not make another film until Day of Wrath (1943) which also has an occult theme but is much less avant-garde in style.

            Vampyr – together with Jeanne dArc – proved to be a substantial calling card for Rudolf Maté however. He relocated to Hollywood where he lensed some of the iconic films of the era (Stella Dallas, 1937), was nominated for an Oscar five times, then moved into directing. His last film was the 1962 epic The 300 Spartans.

            Despite being told by the opening credits that Vampyr is based on a literary source we know that any similarity to Le Fanu’s stories is tangential. Vampyr is a genuinely original screenplay, albeit one that has been altered a number of times: during the shoot, in the editing process, in the post-censorship recutting and finally, in the restoration. If Dreyer’s claim to a literary antecedent is questionable, the film does in fact hinge upon the use of text.

            Vampyr is not a silent film but the first third of the film is narrated through intertitles which provide important information, such establishing Grey’s interest in the occult. Intertitles explain why Grey goes out into the night:  ‘a soul in mortal distress was crying out for help, and a voice within him urged him to heed that call’. (Keller 2008)

            The intertitles are not the only significant use of text. The book given by the father is shown several times in detail, as first Grey and then the Old Servant consult it. Once the book is opened, there are no more intertitles, as the necessary information is supplied by the book. As Dreyer pointed out ‘the book is an actor, just as much as the others’. (Tybjerg 2008) The characters never converse about the vampire: only the book discloses the information. But, as a student of the occult, surely Allan is familiar with the ways of vampires? The Old Servant’s reading about the vampire is intercut with the shot of Grey in an armchair after the drawing of blood. He dreams about a skeletal hand holding a vial of poison. ‘The film thus suggests that Allan already knows what the manservant learns about the vampire’. (Weber 2016, 197) By the time he encounters the Old Servant opening the Vampire’s grave he is ready to wield the stake. Finally, Allan Grey is putting all his occult knowledge to use.


So where is Dreyer’s Vampyr in the history of vampires? It is a work of uncanny realism merged into grotesque imagery; a film made up of shocking moments and unexplained gaps. The protagonist is largely passive. Even the vampire in Dreyer’s film is not a monster or evil antagonist who must be fought, but is a mysterious old blind woman who is rarely seen and does little. Vampyr, then, depicts a dystopian environment tainted by evil. While not particularly frightening, it is suffused by a sense of dread. In Vampyr, Dreyer achieves what Cocteau described as ‘creating a world that is superimposed upon the visible and to make visible a world that is ordinarily invisible through “acts of magic” manifesting the “invisible world” ’. (Baker 2016, 449)

            Vampyr is not as much a film about vampires, but about the fissure between what we see and what is real. Dreyer wants us to question the validity of our surface impressions and continue exploring beyond the immediately sensible, in our own world and in the world of the film. The film needs to be watched several times as each viewing is different experience. Rewatching Vampyr returns the viewer to the closed loop of Grey’s nightmare in the village of Courtempierre. Repeating the experience offers new depths and appreciation of Dreyer and Maté’s craft.


Baker, Brian. 2016. ‘The Occult and Film’. In The Occult World, edited by Christopher Partridge. Routledge.

Barrett, Alex. 2022. ‘Vampyr at 90: How Carl Dreyer Conjured a Waking Nightmare’. BFI. 6 May 2022.

Bordwell, David. 1981. The Films of Carl-Theodore Dreyer. Los Angeles, CA: University fo California press.

Dreyer, Carl Theodor, dir. 1932. Vampyr. Eureka.

Jones, Jonathan. 2015. ‘Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album Review – Staring at Monsters’. The Guardian, 23 February 2015, sec. Art and design.

Keller, Craig, dir. 2008. The Baron. 14 min. The Criterion Collection. 2008.

Khondji, Darius, and Declan McGrath. 2016. ‘Painting Darkness with Light: An Interview with Darius Khondji’. Cinéaste 41 (2): 40–43.

McIver, Gillian. 2016. Art History for Filmmakers. London: Bloomsbury.

Newman, Kim. 2008. ‘Vampyr and the Vampire’. The Criterion Collection. 2008.

Olson, Ian, and Blake Collier. 2014. ‘“Is This Real Life or Is This Just Fantasy”: Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932)’. Mocking Bird (blog). 10 June 2014.

Rudkin, David. 2005. Vampyr. 2nd 2013. Palgrave Macmillan.

Swaab, Peter. 2009. ‘“Un Film Vampirisé”: Dreyer’s Vampyr’. Film Quarterly 62 (4): 56–62.

Tybjerg, Caspar, dir. 2008. The Rise of the Vampire. 36:01. Short documentary. The Criterion Collection.

———. 2021. ‘Waking Life: The Psychological Horror of Dreyer’s Vampyr’. BFI. 29 October 2021.

Watson, Kerry. 2020. ‘Surrealism, Chance and the Extended Mind’. In Distributed Cognition in Victorian Culture and Modernism, edited by Miranda Anderson, Peter Garratt, and Mark Sprevak. Edinburgh University Press.

Weber, Johannes. 2016. ‘“Doctor! I’m Losing Blood!” “Nonsense! YoUr Blood Is Right Here” The Vampirism of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Film Vampyr’. In Vampires and Zombies : Transcultural Migrations and Transnational Interpretations, edited by Dorothea Fischer-Hornung and Monika Mueller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Art and Pre-History in Cinema and Painting

Artists and filmmakers depict pre-history: the art of imagining the unimaginably real

part of the series ‘A History of the World in 16 paintings, and the films they inspired’ Here I feature Thomas Cole’s The Savage State

Gillian McIver

By Thomas Cole – Explore Thomas Cole, Public Domain,

Thomas Cole’s The Savage State, The Clan of the Cave Bear and Quest for Fire

How to artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? You might be surprised to find that it is actually very uncommon for them to try to do so. Jurassic Park is not pre-history, it just has dinosaurs. Pre-history is different: the term means history before recorded information. It is the long period between the use of the first stone tools (3.3 million years ago) and the invention of writing (9000 – 3400 BCE).

This is a long time! But be careful not to imagine that prehistoric humans lived like animals. We made a lot of visual art, architecture and jewellery, for a long time before writing appeared.  Most of it is fabulous. In fact, even the idea that writing is the mark of civilization ignores the sophisticated oral and visual cultures which never developed writing because they really didn’t need it.

Anyway, for the purposes of this article, the term pre-history really is about history; it’s about what popular culture has long referred to as the ‘caveman (and cavewoman)’ era. As you’ll see, it takes a lot of imagination to conjure up what ‘caveman world’ might have been like. Fortunately, a handful of artists have actually tried to do this.

First, painting. Given that pre-history predates most of what we might consider urban society, it stands to reason that depicting pre-historical scenes would be about landscape and nature, and humans within that. Of course, there are plenty of paintings which are pure landscape, but it is rare for an artist to depict an explicitly prehistoric scene.

Even the spectacular painter of light, Claude Lorraine, felt obliged to add human narratives to the landscape. See, for example, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo; it’s clearly about the trees and the clear golden light, not about the mythical figures.  (Actually, Claude got other painters to paint the people). I digress.

Closer to our topic, British-American Thomas Cole painted The Savage State in 1833. It is a remarkable painting that seeks to depict a primeval scene. In The Savage State,  Cole imagines a world before human civilization.

Cole is best known as America’s first great landscape painter, founder of the Hudson River School. The Savage State is part of Cole’s series The Course of Empire,  five paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary city.

In it, he protests the ruin of the landscape by ‘civilisation’ (a theme he returns to in other paintings). Cole’s series follows a coherent narrative, tracing the story as a primeval community develops into a vast empire, then falls into decadence.  It is almost a film storyboard,

I will return to The Course Of Empire in another article. Here I want to isolate The Savage State as a distinctive and possibly unique painting of pre-history. We will use this as a starting point to consider how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history.

Thomas Cole THE SAVAGE STATE artists and filmmakers depict pre-history
The Savage State

In The Savage State, primeval humans live in a sublime landscape of swirling sky and rough terrain. Landscape dominates the image. There are indications of human ‘savages’ in the picture. You can see them off to the right in a small encampment.  They do not represent any specific ethnicity. Nor do they represent conquered people. Instead, Cole meant to show ‘the origins of modern society’.

The figures in the picture are tiny, and we can barely see them, never mind understand any details. It does look like Cole’s ‘savages’ reference aboriginal North American life. You should know that Cole also painted scenes from his friend James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. It’s unlikely that Cole had any experience of actual native communities. These had been largely eradicated from the Hudson River region, where Cole worked.

In his writings, Cole made it clear that he intended the human settlement to be  European. However, in the 19th century, before archaeology of pre-historical sites, there was little knowledge or understanding of what pre-historical communities in Europe might have been like.

Unfortunately, the political conditions on America at the time meant that European settlers, of which Cole was one, believed that the Native Americans were less ‘civilised’ than Europeans. Therefore, they might serve as models for pre-historical imagery.

So, while aspects of the ‘generic savages’ in The Savage State are probably appropriated from Native American cultural imagery, Cole did not consciously intend to depict Native Americans as prehistoric. Nevertheless,  the prevailing colonial mindset he inhabited led him there.

In the 1980s, two films came out, both of which went to great lengths to try and imaginatively and credibly depict prehistoric human life. The first was 1982’s Quest For Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The second was directed by Michael Chapman, in his film version of the novel Clan of the Cave Bear (1986, from the novel by Jean Auel). Both of those films are almost entirely forgotten today, and I was not expecting much, but I was both surprised and fascinated by them.

Quest for Fire

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE
Quest for Fire. Source: IMDB

Quest for Fire originated as a fantasy novel written in 1911 (by two Belgian brothers under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny). This was long before today’s carefully-excavated knowledge about pre-history. But it indeed reveals the author’s fascination with both evolution and human behaviour. I’m not particularly concerned about whether the book or the film is accurate; first of all, I would have no idea because it’s not my area of specialism.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE
how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE

However, one can ask the critical question: is the film at least credible? It deals with human emotions and behaviours, which we would recognize today: group solidarity, domination and submission, conflict, love and loyalty, and pride in overcoming adversity. The Quest For Fire story begins with a small nomadic group carefully protecting its precious fire. But they don’t have the Promethean ability to make fire from scratch. When the fire goes out, three young males from the group go off in search of fire.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE RAE-DAWN CHONG SOURCE: IMDB
Rae-Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire

Along the way, these vaguely apelike humanoids make contact with a seemingly more ‘evolved’ group that lives in villages, has much more language and uses tools. The coming-together of a woman (Rae-Dawn Chong, excellent performance) from the sophisticated group and a man from the unsophisticated group symbolizes some kind of dialectic: the last frame shows the couple in peace and harmony, the woman pregnant.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE

The visual depiction of the ‘caveman world’ in Quest for Fire is achieved through excellent cinematography  by Claude Agostini and the work of Production Designer Brian Morris and his art department (which won Oscars and BAFTAs for makeup). Morris and his team had a very challenging job. Unlike Cole, they couldn’t merely look to (recent or historic) aboriginal communities as a shortcut to depict what prehistoric humans may have been like. So, they had to try to make it up from archaeological research while at the same time creating a richly exciting and relatable world for audiences to inhabit for the duration of the film. As a Franco-Canadian co-production, there was a substantial budget for location shooting. Jean-Jacques Annaud (who is, of course, one of the great French directors of our era) was able to film in some of the world’s most sublime unspoilt landscapes: Kenya, British Columbia, the Bruce Peninsula and the Scottish Highlands. The landscape cinematography by Agostini and his crew offers up a continent, unlike the ones we are familiar with now. And thankfully no dinosaurs.

Commenting at the time of the film’s release, the critic Gene Siskel noted that at first the film seems ludicrous and the depictions a bit forced, but then you start to think ‘I wonder if that’s the way it did happen?’ And when that happens, ‘Quest for Fire’ has you hooked.” Roger Ebert concurred, writing that “by the time the movie was over, I cared very much about how their lives would turn out.”[1]

Clan of the Cave Bear

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
Clan of the Cave bear still; source: IMDB

Clan of the Cave Bear also has a plot that hinges upon the interaction between a primitive tribe and a more evolved individual. It is an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Jean M. Auel, published in 1980, which spawned a series that only concluded in 2011. Auel did plenty of research for the book, but has no academic background in pre-history studies; you cannot go to either the book or the film for “facts.” Yet both books and movies offer much in the way of atmosphere and ideas.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
group solidarity and co-operation are foregrounded in both films

 Because the film is based on Auel’s recent book (cashing in on its bestseller status), it has less scope to develop its own way – in contrast to Quest for Fire. Screenwriter John Sayles has done what he can with Auel’s story, and it is an absorbing one, though somewhat hampered in its ending by the fact that Auel clearly planned sequels.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
the humans are dominated by nature, they do not dominate it

In Clan, Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon woman (Daryl Hannah), is separated from her family and orphaned during an earthquake. Found by a group of cave-dwelling Neanderthals, she is raised as one of their own. Her intelligence presents a challenge to the tribe’s young future chief Broud (who unfortunately looks and acts like a member of an 80’s metal band). But the film is less about understanding some fine points about human development than it is about championing Ayla’s female emancipation and empowerment. As Ebert put it, ‘Neanderthal man is on the way out, and Cro-magnon woman is on the way in.’ As such, it’s an uplifting film in the 80’s tradition of Flashdance, although Chapman and his team don’t soft-soap the brute details of caveman life. The British Columbia locations are again breathtaking and versatile, as is the production design by Anthony Masters (Papillon) and especially the set decoration by Kimberley Richardson.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
the interior of the cave, as decorated by Richardson and lit by DP Jan de Bont, is highly painterly and evocative. Still: IMDB

What grates in Clan is the juxtaposition of the fascinating story of Ayla’s self-discovery, her challenge to the patriarchal Clan and the finely-wrought visual storytelling, against the dated 80’s costume and makeup styling, not to mention the framing of the characters, which is pure 80’s cliché. Although Darryl Hannah’s performance is good, the studio just could not resist making the most of her blonde locks and leggy beauty. As Ebert bracingly put it, “Instead of people who are scarred, wind-burned, thin and toothless, it gives us graduates of the Los Angeles health club scene, and a heroine who looks as if she just walked over from makeup.”[2]

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR DARRYL HANNAH
not Raquel Welch but … see the much more convincing styling of Rae-Dawn Chong, above.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Clan of the Cave Bear, and I can’t help thinking that the narrative of female self-discovery just did not sit that well with the audience of 1986; I could not find any reviews by female critics. Dated the film may be in some respects, it is definitely worth a watch.

So, what about the pre-history?

What do we learn about the depiction of pre-history shown in these films? How do artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? When he painted The Savage State Cole was already a committed conservationist preoccupied with human depredations on landscape. In both Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear we see humans dwarfed by the landscape, dominated by it, unable at the stage of human development to do anything more than simply survive in it.

I did find something particularly fascinating when I was watching Clan of The Cave Bear. At one point there is a shot of a river which seems to be a direct reference to Thomas Cole’s most famous painting, known as The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm). The picture and the film still both reveal the winding switchback of the river. Many art historians interpret The Oxbow as insinuating the confrontation between wilderness and civilization. In the left foreground the wild untamed landscape represented by a large, thunderstruck tree amid a tangle of bush. This gives way to the far view, which takes up most of the right-hand side of the painting, depicting a peaceful, populated and cultivated landscape intersected by the serpentine Connecticut River. While the wilderness is depicted as dark and the cultivated territory as light filled, Cole’s own feelings about human encroachment on the territory were decidedly ambivalent. It is not too difficult to feel the same ambivalence when we watch Quest For Fire and Clan Of The Cave Bear – how we humans came to our tendencies towards violence and acquisitiveness, and how these dark things coexist with our tendency to innovate and create, and to care for one another and cooperate.

Cole was engaged in painting ‘The Course of Empire’, the series The Savage State belongs to, and took time off from that to paint The Oxbow.

Director Michael Chapman, who is mainly known as a cinematographer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is on record as having a strong sensibility for art and painting and I wonder if perhaps he was influenced by Cole’s Oxbow, which is held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
this still from Clan seems to refer to Cole’s famous painting The Oxbow

THOMAS COLE The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton 1836) Source: wikimedia

Both movies are of their time: the 1980s. However, they display that era’s willingness to embrace stories that were really different. They tried to find ways of envisioning things that demanded a lot of imagination but were still very much rooted in realism. Today so many big-budget films are about worlds of pure fantasy that we have no real connection to (e.g. superhero films). It is interesting to see these pre-history films attempting to understand something real yet almost ungraspable and try to recreate it. It hardly matters that they don’t actually succeed.  Like Thomas Cole’s painting, they are trying to approach more significant themes and invite us to engage our brains in a vast imagining of the human story. In this respect, neither nor Quest for Fire nor even Clan Of The Cave Bear are escapist: they are challenging works of imagination that raised questions and in the end – through the vehicle of entertainment ­– they do invite us to confront ourselves.

[1] |


Cole, T. (1833–1836)  The Savage State from ‘The Course of Empire’ [painting series]. New York: New York Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Fair Use applies: critical and educational use

Cole, T. (1833–1836) The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton 1836) – Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain,

Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir

History in Art and Film

Today’s painting depicts a moment in Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir which happened in Egypt during the war between Napoleonic France and Britain.  The history of what happened is explained below. This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros  Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 is in the Palais de Versailles. 

The picture shows the successful charge by General Joachim Murat at Aboukir. The general is on the white horse in the centre of the composition. In fact Murat himself commissioned Gros to make the painting in 1806. It was brought to Versailles, hung in the Coronation room, in 1835.

Battle of Aboukir
Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 Battle of Aboukir. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Fair Use applies, critical and educational use.

This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’

Let’s start with LIGHTING

Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action. 

Battle of Aboukir detail


Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of the General’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.

Battle of Aboukir detail


Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.

Battle of Aboukir detail
podcast by Gillian Mciver of The Battle of Aboukir

Cinema Battles

This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of General Murat’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. As a depiction of Colonial History, the Battle of Aboukir may not be realistic but it is spirited.

However, from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon’s great general, Murat. Additionally, it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course, if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact, even in this picture, it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.

The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is a good guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because it demonstrates very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.

Some great battles in cinema history:

Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan

The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk

Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault

Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers

Gladiator, Battle In Germania

Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner

Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift

The History

What Actually Happened at Aboukir?

There were several battles called Battle of Aboukir (or Abu Qir) during the period of war between Napoleon’s France and Great Britain.

You may be familiar with the battle of Trafalgar which is commemorated in London’s Trafalgar Square, although Trafalgar itself is in Spain You may be familiar with the battle of Waterloo which is commemorated in Britain by a railway station and a bridge and is also the name of a town in Ontario, Canada – as well as a number of towns in the English speaking world. But the actual Waterloo is in Belgium.

The point is,  often we understand history through particular moments but we don’t understand how those moments arrived. How on earth did the French and the Turks and later the British end up having a fight at a place with an obviously non-European name like Abu Qir?

Where is Aboukir?

here it is!
Modern City of Alexandria to the left, the bay on the right

Abou Qir is in Egypt; you can go there*: it’s  a town on the Mediterranean coast near the ruins of ancient Canopus 23 kilometers northeast of Alexandria. It is located on a peninsula, with Abu Qir Bay to the east. The bay is where, on 1 August 1798, Horatio Nelson fought the Battle of the Nile, often referred to as the “Battle of Aboukir Bay”, an event also painted by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1800) among others.

The battle depicted by Gros took place a year later on land between the French expeditionary army and the Turks under Mustapha Pasha (acting as an ally and agent of the British, though the Ottomans later switched sides). The French claimed it as a victory but it didn’t resolve anything.

Two years later they fought the Battle of Alexandria (aka Battle of Canope), on 21 March 1801 between the French army under General Menou and the British expeditionary army under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who died in the battle . after this the British marched on Alexandria and laid siege to the city.

*I’ve been very near to it but didnt actually make it there. Next time!

Colonialism depicted

There are no paintings of the siege of Alexandria, or what happened in this essentially civilian city. Alexandria was one of the most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean. There’s no record left by Europeans of the suffering that happened to Egyptians as a result of being caught in the crossfire between two European empires and the dying, opportunistic Turkish empire.  

As you can see there’s something very uncomfortable and disconcerting about the idea of British and French and Turkish armies battling it out on Egyptian soil.

What is interesting about Gros’s painting is that, for all its attempt to depict the excitement of battle and the man on the White Horse as a symbol of European domination, when you know the actual history, the painting becomes a testament to the brutality of the colonial project, whether it’s English, French or Ottoman.  It’s a very honest picture of what was at the root of colonialism: violence. A testament to real Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir is an important painting and we shouldn’t forget about it.  

If you want to see more of Colonial History the Battle of Aboukir by Antoine-Jean Gros  [Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799] is in the Palais de Versailles.

Note: the colonisation of Egypt

Europeans were very aware of Egypt and regularly train traded with this outpost of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had not been an independent country since the Roman conquest and by the 18th century was firmly established as a very lucrative, revenue-giving province of the Ottoman Empire. The French had considered trying to get hold of  Egypt for over 100 years but the expedition that sailed under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 was connected with revolutionary France’s war against Britain. Napoleon hoped that, by occupying Egypt, he would damage British trade with the East Indies and strengthen his hand in bargaining. But he had other aims. He wanted to free Egypt from the Ottomans and establish it as a progressive territory of Revolutionary France, Egypt was to be regenerated and would regain its ancient prosperity. Together with his military and naval forces, Napoleon sent a commission of scholars and scientists to investigate and report the past and present condition of the country.


Adieu Bonaparte

The story of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt is told very sensitively and dramatically in the film Adieu Bonaparte by the Egyptian film maker Yousseff Chahine. The great actor Michel Piccoli plays one of the French scientist-engineers sent by Napoleon (who appears in the film played by Patrice Chereau) and his relationship with Ali, a young Egyptian man caught between traditional culture and his resentment at the reality of colonialism,  and his fascination with European science. The film is available in French and Arabic .

WRITTEN BY GILLIAN MCIVER, 2017 CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International



The Arts of Cinema Part II: Admiral and the Golden age of Dutch Painting

Dutch art of the 17th century has a lot to teach the film maker. During this period, Dutch painters such as Rembrandt, Jan Vermeer, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter de Hooch and others developed a kind of painting that combined intense realism with drama and emotion. They did this largely through a deep understanding of how lighting works within the image.

They learned from the Caravaggists, the followers of Caravaggio (the Italian painter who I’ll write about in a later post ) who was one of the first to really demonstrate how careful manipulation of light is one of the chief tools of the visual storyteller.

The film Admiral follows the visual style of the Dutch painters and the Caravaggists in using light as a way to model the physical characteristics of the films characters, to create painterly shots, and  – as a self-reflexive motif that runs throughout the film – to include paintings within the films mise en scéne* to remind the viewer that the story of the film is deeply connected to the historical world which we chiefly know through the paintings . Here are some examples of how that works in the film:

Vermeer’s Milk Maid

shot from Admiral
Jan Vermeer The Milk Maid, c.1660

Early on in the film we catch a very, very brief glimpse of the admiral’s maidservant working alone in the kitchen. This shot, which only lasts a couple of seconds, is a recreation of the very famous Vermeer painting The Milkmaid. The recreation of this painting in the film indicates not only a connexion with Vermeer and the Dutch Golden Age’s great achievements in art, but alludes to Vermeer’s representation of domesticity and the beauty of the everyday – which in the context of the film is the one thing that the Admiral is never able to truly experience, because he sacrifices his family life in order to save the nation.   

Later (and I don’t want to give away too much of the plot), there is a terrible scene where one of the main characters in the film is killed in a particularly vile way by a baying mob in the streets of Amsterdam The film shows the painting being done from life; as the characters pass through the street, we catch a glimpse of an unseen painter painting the picture. We have no idea whether or not the painting was done in situ (probably it wasn’t).

Jan de Baen painting the painitng below, shot from Admiral
Jan de Baen

Realistic Sea Battles

In my previous blog post, I showed you the recreation of the sea battles in the film, and how they are based on the marine pictures by Dutch artists. However, what is particularly interesting is that the nature of movie-making is that you can actually go onto the ships and participate in the battles, rather than – as the painters had to – portray them at a distance. Roel Reiné’s camera brings us right onto the deck in the middle of the fighting.


still from Admiral

At one point we are taken below deck and the lighting of this particular shot is strongly reminiscent of a painting by the Caravaggist Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera (see below, Ribera’s St Jerome, a good example of the lighting effect).

It is a technique known as tenebrism which is very extreme contrasts of dark and light. This is an important shot because it really brings home to the viewer the human experience of the battle, the terror that the participants must have felt, yet at the same time, the framing of the picture gives us a sense of something spiritual – perhaps the worthiness of the sacrifice.



* mise en scéne is a term that refers to everything that appears in the frame of a shot: what is before the camera and its arrangement: composition, the set/location  and all its props, the actors and where they are placed, the costumes, and the lighting. It can also include the use of colour and tonality. The term originated in the theatre and means ‘placing on the stage’. In film, of course, there isn’t a stage; the camera substitutes for the stage. The camera is much more mobile and so the mise en scéne of a film is constantly changing

to learn more about Art History and film, read my book ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS

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and you can order it from your local bookstore



Giorgione - Three_Philosophers [Google_Art_Project]
Giorgione – Three_Philosophers [Google_Art_Project]
Since cinema’s earliest days, literary adaptation has provided the movies with stories; and so we use literary terms like metaphor, metonymy and synedoche to describe visual things. But there is another way of looking at film, and that is through its relationship with the visual arts – mainly painting, the oldest of the art forms. Art History for Filmmakers is an inspiring guide to how images from art can be used by filmmakers to establish period detail, and to teach composition, color theory and lighting.

The book Art History for Filmmakers – published by Bloomsbury Press and available for all good book dealers – looks at the key moments in the development of the Western painting, and how these became part of the Western visual culture from which cinema emerges.

As the author of this book I’m looking forward to readers’ comments and questions. I will also post my own short film and exhibition reviews and information.