The Shadows Know
Vampyr (1932) is a strange work and a strange, if welcome, inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s essential four-month Weimar Cinema, 1919-1933: Daydreams and Nightmares, seventy five-features and six shorts, many unseen since before the Second World War.
Strange in the first case because the plot, remotely from Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla -- only in the vampire’s being female, and that the hero collects supernatural experiences -- is barely coherent, understood rather than followed by the viewer’s outside knowledge and intuition; and because that hero himself is uninvolved both in that his modern clothing is different from others’ and that nothing he says much affects those others. His one apparent connection, his own famous chilling burial -- unmatched until Corman’s 1962 The Premature Burial -- is after all merely a nightmare caused by loss of transfusion blood, and at the de rigueur final staking he is observer more than participant.
Strange, though not unfitting, in the second, Weimar sense in that director Carl Theodor Dreyer was a Dane forced abroad by his country’s shaky economy. Although he did work in Sweden and in Germany, thence to flee the Nazis later, this his first film since The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was shot in France in 4 am mist to give an illusion of moonlit dusk; and it was independently produced with a Dutch and/or White Russian exile baron, Nicolas de Gunzburg, who played hero Allan Gray under the false name Julian West to shield his family.
Less frequently known as Vampire, The Strange Adventure of Allan Gray, Castle of Doom and Not Against the Flesh, the then commercial and critical flop was the director’s first talkie (of only five in all), postsynchronized into German-, English- and French- language versions. It did not matter that the MoMA German print was not subtitled and a promised introductory summary did not come to be, for dialogue is minimal and mumbled in the first place, and the undead have become so familiar to generations of filmgoers that missing or ambiguous links are automatically interpolated. Inordinate minutes of the seventy-five are given to The History of the Vampire “to be opened in the event of my death,” whose printed German pages serve in lieu of titles and in which figures some explanation about Selbstmörder, suicide being one path to vampirism.
A work of pieces, Vampyr is the dreamily related experiences of Gray, one whose sensitive “imagination is so developed that their vision reaches beyond that of men.” As his eyes, Rudolph Maté’s camera tracks along corridors and stairways, through leaded glass darkly or along lines of trees; on walls and earth it catches the disembodied shadows of people and things unseen, to be used to similar stunning effect in Tourneur’s Cat People (1942).
The elderly man (Maurice Schutz) who enters traveler Gray’s inn room to leave the explanatory book, is master of the neighboring manor. He is shortly shot to death -- who and why are unclarified --leaving daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) wasting away from anemia, though “she must not die.” (Aside from these two and “West,” the cast are non-actors picked out locally.) The attending doctor (Jan Hieronimko) looks like Albert Einstein but is a sinister character seconded by a uniformed peg-legged man (Georges Boidin) and furnished with poison by a white-haired crone (Henriette Gérard) whose face looks as much male as female.
In post-transfusion weakness, Gray falls into a double-image stupor and sees the old woman as vampiress and hallucinates observing his own burial through a face-windowed coffin. Sometimes with readily fainting heroine Gisèle (Rena Mandel), the manor keeper’s daughter, Gray looks around and then assists a little while an old servant (Albert Bras) levers open Marguerite Chopin’s tomb and finishes her off with the metal rather than wooden stake. A couple of frames, and the fleshed living dead is a skeleton.
Just as quickly, Léone recovers beatifically, Gray and Gisèle are transported to safety from the mist that shrouds their rowboat, and in a master touch of turning millwheels the doctor is buried alive in ground white flour. (An added outtake does it even better.) The recurring shadow of man as death with a scythe claims the last of Vampyr’s living and living dead.
Like its genre mates from Universal, this too avoids the concretely horrific. In psychological effect, beautiful individual shots are contrasted and related one to another as in dreams or emotions rather than logic, perhaps all really in Gray’s gift of second sight that is also a curse. With few establishing shots, many abrupt cuts and filming hazed through a piece of gauze, Vampyr bombed in Berlin. Dreyer retreated back to journalism and did not direct again for another decade, and that a non-fiction short.
(Released by Image Entertainment; not rated by MPAA.)