Release Year: 1931
Country: Germany, Denmark
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Christian Jul
Starring: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gérard, Albert Bras
There is a moment in Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr, a relatively unimportant throw-away couple of seconds, where the nominal hero of the story catches sight of a couple of shadows — shadows with no physical source to cast them — creeping across a field. Either because of the particularly old source material or the specific intention of the director, the film is grainy, hazy, gauzy. And it captures perfectly the prevailing atmosphere of Vampyr and why I love the film so dearly. Ostensibly a vampire film — thus the title — the hypnotic power of the movie flows not from the more visceral terror of bloodsuckers and murderers, but rather it comes from a much vaguer, ethereal place, something to do with ancient beings glimpsed from the corner of the eye, from unnerving mysterious powers, from murky forests and glens that are at once idyllic and unnerving. There is something very pagan about Vampyr that places it, for me, not so much among the famous works of vampire film and fiction, but alongside stories like Arthur Machen’s “The White People” and films like The Wicker Man.
At the time he set about making Vampyr, (around the same as Universal’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff) released in 1932, Carl Dreyer was a director of high critical regard and dubious financial success. His previous film, 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, was a critical darling and is regarded today as one of the great masterpieces of the silent era. But it was a box office dud, meaning that Dreyer, for all his talent as a filmmaker, found himself at the turn of the decade casting about for a new project and someone willing to pay for it. Perhaps out of cynicism, perhaps out of genuine interest, he decided he could and should make a “genre” picture. Such films were generally undemanding and seemed to resonate with crowds both in Europe and the United States. While seeking out source material for his prospective new film (no one wanted a repeat of the legal nastiness surrounding Nosferatu and the estate of Bram Stoker), Dreyer came across the book In a Glass Darkly by Irish novelist Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. And within that book, Dreyer found the inspiration — if not exactly the source — for his movie.
First published in 1872, In a Glass Darkly — a purposeful corruption of a phrase from the Bible, “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12, in case you have your Bible handy or are in an American motel room) — is composed of three short stories and two novellas with supernatural or otherwise macabre elements to them. They are surrounded by a framing device of no particular importance, in which they are proffered as cases from the files of occult investigator Dr. Martin Hesselius. The two novellas in particular caught Dreyer’s attention. One, “The Room in the Dragon Volant,” is a Victorian melodrama that takes a turn for the Edgar Allan Poe when one of the characters is buried alive. It was that scenario alone — the premature burial — that Dreyer co-opted from the story and placed in his film. The other, more influential and far more famous story was “Carmilla,” the account of a young woman who finds herself under the spell of a beautiful female vampire.
The lesbianism present in “Carmilla” gives it a sensational appeal, but buried beneath the juvenile tittering of a modern (and probably Victorian) reader is a truly exceptional example of the vampire tale — really only the third major work of prose vampire fiction in the English language, the first being The Vampyre, frequently misattributed to Lord Byron but in actuality written by his personal physician and traveling companion, John Polidori — who, it seems, meant his lascivious blood-sucker to be a parody of Byron; and the second being the massive and meandering Varney the Vampire, by James Malcolm Rymer, published between 1845-1847 as a series of penny dreadfuls). Other earlier works of poetry had mentioned vampires, but as the central subjects of short stories and books, they were still a relatively new creature when Le Fanu wrote “Carmilla.” Bram Stoker wouldn’t get around to overshadowing them all until 1897, when the success of his novel Dracula became the best-known and most-used template for the vampire until American author Anne Rice gave them their influential goth rocker make over with 1976’s Interview with a Vampire — an image which itself endured until it was tweaked again and turned into the teen melodrama and sparkling vampires of the Twilight series.
Which is to say that anyone who ever complained about how the Twilight vampires aren’t “real” vampires (I count myself among those ranks, though I am now reformed) doesn’t understand just how fluid the definition of a vampire has always been. Culled from multiple folk tales from multiple regions over multiple decades, the idea that there is any single definitive set of vampire characteristics (besides their thirst for blood and, presumably, an enthusiasm for opera capes) is folly. Polidori’s vampire for example, Count Ruthven, is perfectly capable of striding about in the daylight, though he is always possessed of a ghastly pallor and lustful hunger for decadence — a lust that culminates on every full moon, when he must slay a victim and drink their blood. Beyond a certain hypnotic skill and the uncanny ability to annoying whisper “Remember your oath!” into the ear of the story’s protagonist any time he needs to, Ruthven is possessed of no particularly supernatural powers to accompany his supernatural hunger.
The serialized nature of Varney the Vampire means it suffers from many of the inconsistencies typical of long-running serials, when an author has to keep track of an increasing number of details over a period of years. The vampire of the story — who I cannot help but think of as Jim Varney the Vampire, which is substantially less yet so much more terrifying than the actuality of Varney the Vampire (sort of like my insistence on imagining that vampire guy from Twilight doing everything as it is described in the books or portrayed in the films, only while wearing a Dracula cape) — is sometimes a literal vampire and other times merely a figurative vampire, and the author can’t seem to decide whether he is draining his victims of blood or money. Sometimes it is both. But for the most part, Varney describes the vampire as we were coming to know them. He has fangs, drinks blood, and has the power of hypnotism and superhuman strength. On the other hand, he is still a vampire who has no problem strolling around in the daylight. Nor does he fear crosses or all-you-can-eat garlic bread.
While we might initially find Lord Ruthven rather a fun-loving, rakish hedonist, he quickly becomes a loathsome predator. Varney, on the other hand, grows into an increasingly sympathetic character as his story winds its way through its mammoth 667,000 words (the average for a modern book is about 300 words per page). It’s likely that the sympathetic nature of Varney was an influence on Le Fanu when he conceived of Carmilla, a bloodsucker who, like Varney, has been cursed with the affliction and doesn’t seem overly thrilled with her inescapable urge to feed off the living and destroy the innocent. Carmilla, like the others, can walk about in the day, though it tires her out quickly and she prefers to sleep late. Nor to crosses or churches have any adverse affect on her well-being. She has a number of powers, including hypnotism, the power to turn into a giant black cat, and the ability to dematerialize in a pinch. It is suspected that Le Fanu drew from works of folklore and “vampire studies” like the snappily titled Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des demons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie, et de Silesie, written by Augustin Calmet in 1746 and later republished under the slightly more manageable title The phantom world, or, The philosophy of spirits, apparitions, &c. Basil Hall’s Schloss Hainfeld; or a Winter in Lower Styria is proffered as the inspiration for the setting of “Carmilla.”
If The Vampyre is a thinly veiled roast of Lord Byron, and Varney the Vampire is a massive, muddled chore, it is “Carmilla” that truly elevates the vampire story. Although one can read a bit of lesbian panic into the text (though I truly believe that Le Fanu’s use of a lesbian vampire who seduces a young woman was done purely for “promotional” purposes rather than to forward any sort of homophobic agenda) it is a gorgeously written story with two characters — Carmilla and her intended victim, the lonely Laura — that are well-written and surprisingly sympathetic. I say surprisingly because Victorian writing is often, for me, more about enjoying the atmosphere and the purple prose than making any sort of genuine emotional connection with the characters, who often remain somewhat remote to me. The story moves deceptively quickly, with a seemingly languid and lyrical pace that, upon reflection, is actually quite speedy. It is the dreamlike quality that lends it an air of moving more slowly than you think, though “slowly” never means it becomes dull.
And it is a sensual sexy story, even within the confines — likely because of them — of what was permissible even in the more disreputable corners of mainstream Victorian literature. Le Fanu’s primary motivation seems to be to tell a moving horror story. The titillation that comes with the territory is secondary, and as a result, more interesting than had it been front and center or more vulgar in its presentation. Le Fanu accomplished a far greater air of eroticism while being far more circumspect about what he shows than the more notorious and celebrated writers of saucy British literature that would emerge in the coming century (D.H. Lawrence, I am talking about you). Perhaps it’s because Le Fanu seems to have honest affection for his creations, even the doomed monster Carmilla. Because it bothers to bid for the reader’s sympathies as well as their arousal, the story is so much more affecting than your average Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Hilariously, for our purposes as relates to Vampyr, almost none of this matters, because almost nothing of “Carmilla” actually appears in the movie. Dreyer takes the idea of a female vampire from Le Fanu, but that’s about it. Where Carmilla was young and sensual, Dreyer’s imposing Marguerite Chopin is an elderly crone who yells at the cavorting shadows to pipe down and at times resembles an even sterner version of William Hartnell, the first actor to play Doctor Who. Beyond sharing a gender, nothing about Marguerite Chopin seems to have been drawn from Carmilla. And while Marguerite does prey on a woman, the main character is a man named Allan Grey, played by a small-time French baron named Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg. He was the man who would eventually put forward the money so Dreyer could make the film. Although not a particularly powerful royal, de Gunzburg was well-known for throwing lavish costume galas to which he frequently invited the luminaries of the Parisian art world. Nicolas himself dreamed of a career as an actor, so when it came to his attention that Carl Dreyer was looking for funding, he made a deal with the director: the film’s budget in exchange for the lead role. As Nicolas was a good-looking, well-liked young man, and as the film wasn’t really going to have dialogue of note, Dreyer accepted the offer. Petty baron Nicolas Louis Alexandre de Gunzburg became the actor Julian West.
Production problems began before production itself. For starters, by the 1930s, silent film was rapidly falling out of fashion. Since the beginning of film, filmmakers and technicians had been trying to figure out how to get sound into the pictures. There were experiments here and there — phonographs synced with the film, for example — but for the most part it was simply too complicated. So by and large silent film remained silent save for the orchestra that usually accompanied a screening, and sound technology remained the purview of laboratory experiments, one-offs, and later, occasional newsreels. It was in 1927 that The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson became the first successful, mainstream feature film with sound. For decades, the language of the art form known as silent film had been investigated, developed, and eventually refined and perfected. Silent film came with its own “language,” its own way of expressing itself and making its plot and the emotions of its actors known. Almost overnight — almost, but not quite — silent film became a thing of the past. Rarely has an art form suffered so abrupt and total a collapse.
As the technology for sound film became more common, a number of films found themselves caught in an uneasy transitional period. They had been planned as silent films, but now all of a sudden, everyone wanted “talkies.” Some, like 1928’s Lonesome, coped by adding sound effects and shooting limited dialogue scenes surrounded by otherwise silent film. 1929’s Canary Murder Case, starring silent film veteran Louise Brooks and a rookie by the name of William Powell, called for emergency reshoots so that extensive dialogue and sound effects could be added (a process Brooks refused to participate, as hers was a small role and she was in Europe making substantially more prestigious movies with G. W. Pabst; in retaliation, the producers of Canary Murder Case used a stand-in for new scenes and dubbed Brooks’ with a grating “why I oughta…!” sort of voice totally unlike her own).
The sound revolution took place in the United States and quickly spread to England, where silent film directors like Alfred Hitchcock (whose 1929 film Blackmail was the first big non-American talkie hit) proved particularly adept at the transition. But continental Europe was slow to get access to and take advantage of sound technology. Critics and filmmakers alike were ambivalent about sound, feeling that the addition of dialogue would prove to be a corruption of the medium of film. Initial European forays into sound film were extremely limited: a single scene of dialogue or just a song. Vampyr was already in pre-production when sound began to sweep through the world, and Dreyer decided to shoot it largely still as a silent film, with a few lines of dialogue sprinkled through the run-time. What’s more, Dreyer filmed every scene in three different languages: German, French, and English, so that it could be easily distributed. But it was clear from the finished product that the dialogue in Vampyr takes a distant back seat to the film’s visuals.
As mentioned, the film’s protagonist is Allan Grey (Julian West), described in a title card as a man steeped in the study of the occult and macabre secrets of the world and prone to wandering the land in search of mysterious experiences (inspired, some claim, by the character of Dr. Martin Hesselius from In a Glass Darkly). That might be one of the earliest examples of the “informed attribute,” when a movie insists that a character embodies a particular skill or trait despite all evidence on screen to the contrary. Allan Grey seems to have absolutely no knowledge of the occult or any sort of competency in identifying it or dealing with it. In fact, his sole skills seem to be looking in windows and bugging his eyes out in confused terror. He proves throughout the film to be nothing more than a spectator, one who influences almost nothing and impacts the story only just barely.
His aimless wandering (without luggage) brings Grey to a small inn where, almost immediately, strange things start to happen. He is visited in the night by a mysterious old man who, rather than explaining himself (or knocking) simply wanders into Grey’s room in the middle of the night, makes scary old man faces at him, then leaves after dropping off a package on which he writes “to be opened upon my death.” There’s no real reason for any of this mysterious breaking and entering, nor for the man to insist that the package only be opened upon his death. But Vampyr, one learns quickly, is a not film overly concerned with the sensibilities of a logical world. This is very much a dreamscape, a story that takes place in the subconscious where things happen for no reason, images appear with no connection to anything else, and the need to make sense doesn’t apply.
Unable to sleep after that creepy old rich guy came stalking into his room, West decides to go for a random walk in the middle of the night, coming across a disembodied shadow limping along a river bank. He follows the shadow to a nearby crumbling estate and begins to snoop around (in a half-hearted concession to the presumption such activity should be executed covertly, he sort of hunches his shoulders). The building seems populated almost entirely by shadows that have no source. West eventually catches sight of a slumbering one-legged guard — the owner of the shadow West followed to the house. He sees other shadows, including a gravedigger (who is un-digging a grave), a band, and an assortment of revelers who are eventually chastised for their rowdiness by a stern old woman. The only person who seems to notice the trespassing West is a haggard, mad-looking old doctor (Jan Hieronimko), who sort of…not so much shoos West aways as just acts creepy enough that West decides to leave of his own accord. I’ll crazy you away, boy!
Outside, West once again runs across disembodied shadows, this time following them to a stately manor that turns out to be the home of the creepy guy who visited him earlier (played by Maurice Schultz) and his two daughters: Leone (Sybille Schmitz), who is dying of a mysterious ailment, and her lovely younger sister Gisele (Rena Mandel). When one of the shadows turns out to be an assassin gunning for the old man, West finally has reason to open the mysterious package, discovering that it contains a book about vampirism (maybe this is sort of a Casino Royale origin story deal, explaining how West came to be a great occult detective). In short order, West discovers — ha ha, no, I’m just kidding. West doesn’t discover squat. In short order, the mansion servant (Albert Bras) discovers poor Leone is being preyed upon by a vampire, Marguerite Chopin, and that the one-legged man and the spooky doctor are in her thrall.
Upon its release in Europe, audiences booed Vampyr and yelled insults at it. One particularly unruly crowd stormed the box office of their theater and demanded a refund of their ticket prices. When they were refused, a small riot broke out. And where The Passion of Joan of Arc failed with audiences but succeeded with critics, the critics were equally as vicious as the crowds in their attacks on poor ol’ Vampyr. Dreyer attempted to salvage the film by recutting and re-releasing it, but to no avail. The film was a megaton bomb. Dreyer’s career was finished (it would be over a decade before he returned to feature films, with 1943’s witch hunt melodrama Day of Wrath). Poor Baron de Gunzburg’s acting career was dead on arrival — though one needn’t weep for him. The production of Vampyr and accompany years of a lavish lifestyle left him near broke (though that’s “rich person” near broke, which always seems to involve still having way more money and connections than regular poor people near broke). Still popular with the aristocratic party crowd, de Gunzburg decided to go out in a blaze of glory, throwing one last, massive costume gala, after which — one assumes with a dramatic flourish of a cape — he vanished.
Or at least, he moved to New York and started running with the likes of Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Cole Porter, and Coco Chanel. He lived a discreet but openly gay lifestyle and soon discovered his true talent: magazine editing. He secured a job at Town & Country, and later at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion editor. He mentored up-and-coming designers like Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein and was himself regarded as one of the most stylish men in the country. In 1971, he was inducted into Vanity Fair‘s Best Dressed Hall of Fame. He was obviously a much better style icon and fashion editor than he was meandering investigator of the occult. When he passed away in 1981, he was much beloved by those around him and regarded as one of the most important behind-the-scenes figures in the fashion world.
As for the rest of the cast, few of them had been actors to begin with, and the disastrous reception of Vampyr assured than few of them would remain actors afterward. Maurice Schultz, who played the strange lord of the manor who delivers West the book on vampirism (which West never finishes reading, leaving that — as well as the hunting down and slaying of the vampire — up to the manor servant; aristocrats…am I right, folks?), was one of the few players to come into Vampyr with acting experience (he’d even appeared in The Passion of Joan of Arc ), and he managed to maintain a career despite the reaction to Dreyer’s otherworldly horror film. He appeared in Paul Fejos’ Fantomas the same year as Vampyr and remained a regularly working actor until 1952, when failing health and old age forced his retirement.
Sybille Schmitz, who plays the doomed Leone, came into the production of Vampyr having appeared on-screen once before, in the high-profile 1929 Louise Brooks film, Diary of a Lost Girl, directed by the legendary Georg Wilhelm Pabst. As Leone in Vampyr, she spends most of her time in bed, but her one stand-out scene, in which she is beseeched from afar by the predatory Maguirite Chopin, allowed her a stand-out moment and a chance to show off a mad, wild-eyed, yet childishly enthusiastic smile that easily made her the measure of even the most deranged of Dracula Renfields. Schmitz, like Maurice Schultz, maintained an acting career after the disaster of Vampyr, but hers was a difficult and tragic road. Considered too “Semitic” looking by the Nazis ascending to power in the 1930s, she had a difficult time securing roles. Considered “just too weird looking” by American studios, she was unable to successfully flee to the US from Nazi Germany. Still, she managed a fairly regular schedule of films, but the dwindling quality and size of her roles propelled her into a state of depression and drug addiction which, sadly, ended with her suicide in 1955.
Although Julian West’s Allan Grey is the main character, the actual hero of the film is the old servant, played by the final member of the cast with any substantial acting career, though his came entirely before Vampyr and did not continue after. Played by Albert Bras, who had been working in film since 1913, it’s the old servant who makes the connection between the book on vampirism and what ill fate has befallen poor Leone. It is he, not West, who discovers that the vampire is Marguerite Chopin and tracks her to her crypt. And it is he who digs up the grave and delivers the inevitable stake through the heart — though to be fair to West, he shows up to hold a couple wooden planks during the finale.
The almost totally useless, if handsome, lead was just one of the many problems people had with the film. Perhaps if it had been released earlier in the decade, it would have found a home among the Expressionist horrors of early German cinema. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) seem far more the contemporaries of Vampyr than its actual contemporaries, Universal’s Frankenstein and Dracula. Although influenced by the Expressionist films, Universal’s horror films were much cleaner and scientific (by horror movie standards) in their approach. Their narratives were straight-forward, their plots logical, their characters’ motivations easy to decipher. Although destined to be measured against those films, Vampyr was a wholly different sort of beast — not better, not worse, just different — and an early indicator of the increasingly divergent roads that would be taken by American and European horror. It’s a film like Vampyr that begets the meandering dream/nightmare logic we see in films like Mario Bava’s Gothic classic Kill, Baby…Kill!, and later in the bizarre and semi-plotless vampire films of a director of like Jean Rollin.
But audiences, even European audiences, were over that and not yet back into it in 1932, and so Vampyr was chased off the screens by a torch-wielding mob and forced to huddle in the misty swamp, hidden away until later generations of film fans could, removed from that initial hatred, re-evaluate the film on its own terms. And while issues remain, as they do with any movie, what emerges is a film of striking beauty, of thoroughly magickal and otherworldly atmosphere, and of sheer brilliance in terms of its visual innovation. I stated at the beginning of this article that Vampyr was more a procession of haunting images than it was a fully cohesive film, and that comes probably because it was an old-fashioned silent film that found itself forced to play in the thoroughly modern world of 1930s cinema. It is simply gorgeous, though, and is one of those films — like Tartovsky’s Solaris or Tati’s “M. Hulot” films — that I could sit and watch all day, forever, for as long as the film kept playing. If it never ended, I would still be mesmerized.
Though Vampyr couldn’t be modern in 1932, it is substantially more successful at being modern in 2014. It’s assembly of gorgeous yet disturbing images, the number of things that are striking yet have nothing to do with the movie itself (the most common image associated with the film — that of a man with a scythe, ringing a bell — is nothing but an incidental shot of a farmer hailing a river ferry), and the burying alive of a relatively simple plot under layers and layers of confusing, engrossing mystery and convolution, make watching Vampyr a similar experience to watching a David Lynch film. It plays with many concepts and themes that would surface in Lynch’s work as well, most notably in the weird role of shadows and disembodied doubles — presented not just by the many shadows without physical bodes that roam the strange, fairyland world of Vampyr, but also in the scene in which poor, lunkheaded Allan Grey is making an earnest attempt to be an action hero, only to trip while trotting across a field, causing him to have an out-of-body experience in which he witnesses Gisele being kidnapped and bound by Marguerite and her minions as well as his own burial. When his spirit finally returns to his corporeal body, some of the events that he witnessed — the imprisonment of Gisele — have truly taken place in the waking world. Others, like his horrific live burial, have somehow been averted. Probably by the old servant, who has to do everything in this movie.
Some of the most gorgeous elements of the film might not have even been intentional. I compared it to German Expressionism, but there are parts of this film that are very Impressionistic, thanks to a preponderance of grain in the film stock and gauzy, out-of-focus style of shooting. Whether this was intentional on Dreyer’s part, a result of working with cheap equipment, or simply due to the age of the film source, I do not know. But the end result could not be better suited for the atmosphere of the film. It turns a normal woods and field into a hazy dream. It reduces human characters to barely discernible smudges floating through a world that truly has been rendered as a dark fairytale reflection of our own, where the indecipherable motivations and actions of characters match their physical presence on film and make sense — or at least, where it doesn’t matter if they don’t make sense. I invoked the name of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, who specialized in stories in which the gods, fairies, fawns and nymphs of ancient Pagan culture dance just on the periphery of the perception of the human characters. His novel The Green Round is about a man who visits an ancient Pagan site and finds afterward that he has acquired a second shadow. While nothing of his is specifically used as source material for Vampyr as far as I know, his stories and this movie are of a like spirit, far more than this movie and the beautiful but relatively logical “Carmilla.”
Just as “Carmilla” was really only the third major work of vampire fiction, Vampyr was only the third major vampire film, preceded by F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula, though Dracula and Vampyr were neck and neck (such as it were) and should more realistically be considered to have come out at the same time. Both Nosferatu and Dracula were adaptations (the former illegally so) of Bram Stoker’s novel. Despite claims of “Carmilla’s” influence, Vampyr is the world’s first wholly original vampire film property. I can’t really predict how modern vampire fans might react to it. Maybe the ones who liked Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight” video and read Propaganda magazine will appreciate its incredibly eerie visuals and dream world logic. I suspect younger fans, raised entirely on the current pop culture interpretation of vampires, will have little patience for a movie this old, this oblique, and this weird. Not to mention one where the vampire is a mean old lady rather than a cool high school loner.
But who knows. People tend to sneer at whatever the kids like, but the kids can surprise you. It’s unfair of me to make up their minds for them. Those darned kids not withstanding, that small population of modern film fans who obsess with the old, the abstract, and the surreal have come around to Vampyr. It is now widely regarded, justifiably so, as a masterpiece, albeit one that was out-of-place in its own time. Carl Dreyer’s vision of a dark, supernatural world resulted in a film of profound beauty and an ability to unnerve rather than shock or scare. Like a vampire itself, the movie has the uncanny power to hypnotize the viewer, to pull them deeper and deeper into its murky, macabre procession of images.