Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Writer: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Christian Jul
DP: Rudolph Maté
Editor: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Tonka Taldy
Score: Wolfgang Zeller
Producer: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Nicolas de Gunzberg
Starring: Nicolas de Gunzberg, Albert Bras, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Georges Boidin, Rena Mandel, Maurice Schutz
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 1 hr. 11 min.
Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr is rather convincing evidence for the power of images. The narrative is not just extremely simple, but almost incomplete. The central performance is blank and indecipherable. And yet both of these things are absolutely essential, because the way they deprive viewers of the answers we expect creates an opening for us to grasp just how strange and uncanny the things we're seeing really are.
The first thing we see in Vampyr is text introducing us to the main character and the setting. It tells us we're witnessing the story of Allan Gray, a young man who studies the paranormal. His research brings him to the small town of Courtempierre, rumored to be the home of a vampire. This is all we ever learn about Allan Gray; he is an extremely passive character, serving only as our eyes. He doesn't do anything, he just goes to the location of the action so we can observe it. The man who plays him, Nicolas de Gunzberg (credited as Julian West), isn't a professional actor, but one of Dreyer's benefactors in making the film. De Gunzberg gives a non-performance, barely expressing anything on his face and almost never speaking.
That de Gunzberg makes Allan Gray into a blank slate is entirely to the film's benefit. When he moves through spaces full of eerie imagery or observes family tragedy with no visible reaction, Gray himself becomes a disturbing presence. It also makes it easy for us to project our own reactions onto him, but then his refusal to do anything only makes us feel powerless. We want answers, or at least some kind of hint as to what he's thinking. The film gives us nothing, but in the process of explicating vampire lore it proposes any number of ways that a human can be brought to sin or self-loathing. The other performances in the film are more expressive, and exemplify the kind of corruption described in the vampire lore. We see a young woman, under a vampire's influence, express a kind of vicious desire for her own family members. This in turn takes a toll on her servant, an elderly man who seems nearly driven to tears by the horrible events around him and eventually commits the most visibly grisly act of violence in the film.
The town of Courtempierre itself is pretty eerie to begin with; it seems to have a population of about four, and only a few buildings that are spread far apart across the landscape. There's the inn where Allan Gray stays, the mansion that houses the young woman and servant, and a pair of abandoned buildings where time moves backwards, shadows move with a mind of their own, and a mysterious doctor keeps vials of poison. Dreyer establishes the layout well by following the characters as they traverse the distances between these places. Any interior scene is dominated by walls, leaving the characters little space to move around in, while scenes that take place outside give the characters far too much space, making them look absolutely tiny while their surroundings tower over them.
Early in the film is a scene that reflects the dramatic effect of the film as a whole. Allan Gray is sleeping in his room when he realizes that someone is trying to come in. The door opens, and a stranger approaches his bed. The stranger is a menacing presence until we see his face; he's only an old man with a slight frame, and he looks vaguely sad. He no longer seems a threat, but then he says: "She mustn't die. Do you understand?" Then, he leaves without saying another word. The way this scene unfolds, the viewer is first made to feel dread, then a small relief, followed by a premonition of something even more dire. The way the whole film plays out, we at first are introduced to an unsettling mystery, then more information is revealed that gives us some sense of relief. But after what we would expect to be the resolution of the story, we get a scene composed of a series of hazy, half-logical images that suggest that the currents of violence and panic running through the film are not only still present, but even stronger than they were before, letting the film sign off in a much more troubling place than where it began.
Vampyr shouldn't be so disturbing; we should know that everything on the screen is fake and can't hurt us. But because of the absence of direct answers in the film, we have no context for the many violent (subtly or obviously) and out-of-joint things it contains; we wonder exactly what Dreyer intended by showing us these things, what effect they're supposed to have on us, and whether we're experiencing that effect without even realizing it. Then, the film compounds that disturbing prospect by mentioning the ease with which people can be corrupted. It punches holes in your perspective and fills them with mysterious and undesirable things. Obviously, how well this works will vary depending on how susceptible the viewer is to Dreyer's techniques, but even if one isn't frightened or unnerved by Vampyr, it's still satisfying for how truly weird it is, and how it achieves this by being genuinely unique in every aspect of its production.