On the small screen, silent films can often seem either static or awkwardly melodramatic. Yet viewers are left shocked, elated and soon enough haunted after seeing Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
At the time, many filmmakers were just discovering how to stage scenes and create continuity. Yet Dreyer’s 1928 film envisioned Joan of Arc through a varied series of closeups, through which she became an object of oppressors and spectators alike. For years to come, filmmakers and critics hailed Dreyer, who made films all over Europe, as a visionary of a medium that was blossoming too fast for many behind the camera.
But “Passion” was a box office failure, and left Dreyer to steer his next feature, the self-produced “Vampyr,” closer to an established tradition. This genre piece would not sacrifice his ingenuity, though it would deploy the visual inspiration of the German Expressionist movement.
Similar to early Americans filmmakers, the pre-World War II Germans were inclined to dramatize the popular entertainment of other mediums. Yet, this group of innovators, in the tradition of German art and theater at the time, highlighted the psychological dimensions of the filmgoer’s experience. Scenery and action would depict mood as much as content, thus making the experience expressionistic and dually truthful to viewers. The fantastic style of these films served early cinema well, as they played like dreams removed from the mind to a vast landscape. The landmark films of the movement, such as Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” and Fritz Lang’s “M,” excited and inspired viewers, and eventually laid paths toward various genres on the continent and overseas. The darkest genres of the early Hollywood studio, the horror film and film noir, wouldn’t have taken shape without the German influence from abroad and the arrival of many German directors to Hollywood post-World War II.
“Vampyr” appeared in 1932, as cinema fully embraced the use of sound, though Dreyer was not too enthused about the development. He chose to film “Joan” as a silent, and even wanted the film to be played without musical accompaniment – a worthy choice considering its massive visual impact. Dreyer was so fond of the silent aesthetic that most of his first sound entry, “Vampyr,” plays silently. (He originally wanted the entire film to be silent like “Passion,” but then filmed it MOS and post-synched the dialog and sound effects.)
The expressionistic style of the horror film served Dreyer well, as his vampire operates as a quiet creeper within the director’s calculated, often disruptive use of sound. Dreyer’s inspiration, Sheridan Le Fanu’s story collection In a Glass Darkly (and the story “Carmilla,” in particular), sports the brooding gothic style that inspired Germany’s original cinematic breakthroughs preceding Dreyer. When a young man named Allan Gray (Baron de Gunzburg) arrives at a castle, he encounters a series of bizarre images, including a boatman with a scythe and an elderly man sans eye sockets. From the start, mood trumps clarity in “Vampyr,” as the point of view is restrained to the protagonist and his reality shrouded in mystery. When a man enters Gray’s room to intone “She must not die!” the murky dread is now layered with culpability. Gray is more than just a visitor.
With Gray caught in mysterious machinations, genre norms take a backseat to visual invention; hence, “Vampyr” becomes very much an experimental piece. At times, Dreyer seems to go gaga over new-found camera tricks, like a gravedigger’s shadow played in reverse and a trick shot of a seated man’s shadow walking up behind him. These moments recall the most dated bits in “Nosteratu,” when Murnau undercranks a running Max Schreck, scenes intended to imply terror, but today looking like wrongheaded slapstick.
Yet much of “Vampyr” moves quietly, the way an “old dark house” tale delivers dread the best. To depict the tensely investigative Gray – who soon discovers, then helps, a woman in thrall to the vampire – Dreyer moves the camera to reveal new compositions at every turn, as did Welles. With the shifts and glides of grayish-white background (much like those in “Passion”), “Vampyr” plays like a musty old photo that wakes to jolting life.
To accent the literary roots of the film, Criterion expands its fine double disc set with a sizable booklet titled “Writing Vampyr.” Along with Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” a tale as a haunted as any in the gothic tradition, “Writing” includes the screenplay, written by Dreyer with Christen Jul. Any fears that this book (about the size of the DVD pack alongside it) is cheap filler will die after a few pages. Readers learn that Dreyer fleshed out his film in full as he scripted it – for in a documentary featurette on the supplemental disc, Dreyer notes that the two most important elements in his filmmaking are the writing and casting stages.
A real treat in this set, “Vampyr’s” script shows the gestation of a film that was quite common for the Germans and Dreyer. The writers of the Expressionistic movement were a universe away from our modern blueprinters – those who construct grounds for the director’s inspiration. The early Germans treated their scenarios as literary works in themselves, and in the “Vampyr” script Dreyer and Jul conjure up all the gothic mood possible, though occasional stage direction is cumbersome and hinders the script from being a pure storytelling experience.
In the disc pack, Criterion includes another booklet full of essays, not unusual for the company, but once again a welcome component. In “Carl Th. Dreyer,” a documentary featurette by Jørgen Roos on Disc Two, Dreyer walks us through the visual inspiration of each film in his important but minimal career. (He had a long break during the war years.) Roos’ film was made when Dreyer premiered his final film, “Gertrud,” in France. The event brought out filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot to welcome Dreyer for a touching moment between the two innovators. It also attracted New Wave pioneer Godard, who even in Dreyer’s presence carries himself like a rock star, while Truffaut provides scholarly commentary in another clip.
A thorough visual essay on Disc Two by Casper Tybjerg makes a good case for Dreyer being very familiar with “Nosferatu,” while clarifying that Tod Browning’s “Dracula” didn’t go into production until after “Vampyr’s” completion. More background comes with a commentary track on Disc One, and a 1958 radio broadcast by Dreyer, who was a good sport while struggling big time to speak in English.
Overall, this full-bodied set portrays a project very much of its time. The visual flair of “Vampyr” emerged while German Expressionism’s influence spread through Europe and beyond. Yet, this doom-laden tale hints to the approaching demise of European cinemas in the hands of the Third Reich.