Filmed during the transition from silent to sound, Vampyr also represents a creative transition for Carl Theodor Dreyer. Having ended his association with Société Général de Films, the production company that had brought him to Paris and financed The Passion of Joan of Arc (he subsequently broke his contract and filed a lawsuit against them for undisclosed reasons), Dreyer was motivated to start his own production company, Film Production-Carl Dreyer with the financial backing of a young nobleman, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg on the condition that the baron would be given a role in the film. Also, having immersed in the culture of late 1920s Paris with its fertile avant-garde community, Dreyer was attuned to incorporating Dadaist and surrealist imagery into the medium of film, and a story based on the supernatural seemed ideally suited for integrating such a novel aesthetic. Within this framework, while Vampyr would seem an aberration in Dreyer’s body of work in its darker themes of occultism and the undead – and especially within the context of a “religious director ” label usually attached to him – it is a film that, nevertheless, closely embodies his realization of personal filmmaking.
Set in an otherworldly landscape of autonomous shadows, ghostly apparitions, and wandering, lost souls that may or may not be the figment of a fanciful passing stranger, Allen Gray’s imagination (who is played by Gunzburg, but credited as Julian West), Vampyr also articulates Dreyer’s recurring themes of sacrifice, unreconciled death, and transfiguration – themes that, in a way, reflect his own personal demons (his biological mother accidentally died by her own hand during his adoption as a young child, and the film alludes to the morality of suicide as a way to deliver a tormented soul from eternal suffering). Using fractured, often mismatched cuts, and a transection of the space between shadow and light to create an atmosphere of imbalance and dislocation, Dreyer also suggests shifting points of view and an inconcreteness of place that reinforce the viewer’s consciousness of the film’s construction and permeable logic (an ambiguity that is also signified by the hero’s surname). In essence, by cultivating an awareness of seeing a fictional construction, Dreyer evokes the spirit of Georges Méliès in the idea that cinema is simultaneously an act of conjuring and the art of the spectacle – for which the most spectacular act lies in the conjuring of the dead. This self-reflexive gesture crystallizes in the closing image of Allan and Giséle (Rena Mandel) emerging from the mist in the woods towards a clearing at sunrise, the rays of light triangulated against the contour of the land, resembling the scattering of projected light onto a screen. Cutting to a shot of mysteriously stopped interlocking gears at a mill, the seeming act of divine intervention becomes a metaphor for the role of the filmmaker as creator and conscience of the ephemeral image.
© Acquarello 2008. All rights reserved.
First published in The Auteur’s Notebook, 08/20/08.