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)
Vampyr’s 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, Vampyr’s 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 d’Arc) 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 L’Age d’Or 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. Vampyr’s 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) Vampyr’s 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 Vampyr’s 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?
Vampyr’s 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 d’Arc – 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. https://www.bfi.org.uk/features/vampyr-carl-dreyer.
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. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/560-vampyr-and-the-vampire.
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. https://mbird.com/film/is-this-real-life-or-is-this-just-fantasy-carl-dreyers-vampyr-1932/.
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. https://www.bfi.org.uk/sight-and-sound/features/waking-life-psychological-horror-carl-theodor-dreyers-vampyr.
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.