Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Movie Review: Vampyr
Acclaimed Danish director Carl Theodore Dryer's first sound film is quite nearly a talking picture in name only. Filmed first with the intent of being a silent picture, the resounding popularity of talkies required that dialogue needed to be dubbed in during post-production. Recorded speech was used in the way that intertile cards were utilized in a silent picture, as merely to advance the action forward and to keep the audience from being confused. The European film industry which, never flush with money to begin with, found itself scrambling to manage to afford the extra equipment and special demands of sound to stay current with Hollywood. Most studios were only set up for production of silents and converting to sound often took years. Still, and in keeping with many early sound pictures, the addition of recorded speech appears cumbersome and stilted. Even in its time, audiences booed this glaring technical limitation.
A major reason for this amateurish effect was due to the fact that Dreyer deliberately kept the dialogue simplistic in order to film three separate sound versions in order to market each specifically for different countries. One was made in German, a second was made in French, and the last was made in English, though it must be noted that no print has ever been found of the English language edition. This complicated filmmaking considerably, as the primarily German cast had to learn their lines in three different languages and if one looks closely at the French language print, one can discern easily that certain actors and actresses spoke their lines phonetically and quite clumsily, at that. Today, however, an audience could well find the effect somehow in keeping with the film's strange pacing and horrific imagery. In the early days, vampire films were a novelty. They became a stock in trade decades later. Vampires were so lightly understood by audiences in the early thirties that Dreyer felt compelled to use the text of a book explaining the ways of the undead as an expository device.
As for the film itself, Vampyr meanders along for all of its relatively short seventy-three minutes with a kind convoluted dream logic that would not seem out of place in a David Lynch film fifty years later. Indeed, the whole film might best be viewed in the context of a dream: exposition barely present, events bleeding into others without much in the way of transition, odd happenings, bizarre imagery, puzzling words exchanged between characters, and then a conclusion at the weirdest of moments. Much of this eccentricity falls upon the shoulders of the taste of the buying public, Dreyer's German distributor, and on whims of the German censors. Dreyer, even in his day, was known as a talent with a unique artistic vision and was much respected among his peers, but regrettably his films seldom never made much at the box office. In the director's prior work, he was entrusted with a huge budget to film what many regard as his finest work, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer produced a typically visually gorgeous and inventive work that also quite predictably was not popular with audiences. Vampyr's first public showing in Germany was greeted with boos and uniformly derided in the film press, so a chastened Dreyer was forced to cut several sections that, had they remained, would have attempted to answer key questions that in the final cut remained shrouded in mystery.
Box office receipts and monetary concerns aside, what is interesting to complate in this film is that an already dynamic, inventive filmmaker like Dreyer incorporated so many influences into one work. Three years had separated the filming of The Passion of Joan of Arc from the beginning stages of Vampyr, and in the interim Dreyer had been living in Paris. At his own admission, the wealth of new experimental techniques and creative tactics as employed by the multitude of avante-garde directors also living in Paris at the time made quite an impression on Dreyer. Many underground styles were incorporated into in the shot construction, composition, and overall cinematography. Vampyr is indebted heavily to the German Expressionist school particularly as expressed by F.W. Murnau, most evidently in the usage of the subjective point of view camera, whereby the lens is focused on "seeing" through the eyes of the character himself or herself, rather than being an objective participant with no clear bias to one character or another. The film also uses tactics culled from the surrealists like Jean Epstein or Man Ray. Surrealism is employed particularly in a scene whereby the terrifying nightmare of the main character is presented at face value without the audience being informed of it.
Vampyr was inspired by two literary sources, both written by late Victorian period Irish author Joseph Sherdian Le Fanu---the short story "In a Glass Darkly" and the novella Carmilla. Carmilla, in particular, introduced the idea of the lesbian vampire motif, since propreity would never allow for a lesbian to be presented as she was in reality. Dreyer's screenplay included two character who, we are to assume, carry on a lesbian affair, though in the finished print, the screentime between the two characters was so minimal that it was difficult for all but the sharpest eyed viewer to discern this. In keeping with the demands of the German censors, the lesbian subtext was downplayed considerably by judicious pruning of offending scenes. Only one scene makes the final cut, showing a woman who has, as we've been told, been the frequent victim of a vampire. The fight within herself is evident, as her face convulses against the impulses compelling her to bite the attractive female who kneels before her. The potential victim, an equally attractive young woman, is both paralyzed by fear but is also entranced by the emotional display she eagerly witnesses.
Though a Dane, Dreyer frequently had to request funds and seek employment from countries with much better developed film industries, which in those days meant France, Germany, or both. The Great Depression decimated a European film industry often low on capital even before bad economic times, so Dreyer was forced to seek a patron who would agree to bankroll his next project. A wealthy socialite agreed to provide the funds, provided, of course, that he be cast in the lead role. Dreyer had no choice but to accept the offer, though Julian West (as he was billed in the resulting film) had never acted before and certainly never seen screen time. Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, his proper title, entertained the notion of being a movie star and was hoping to use Dreyer's talents to accomplish this. Sadly, the film was an unrequited disaster among audiences, which dashed Gunzberg's lofty hopes to such a degree that he had himself hospitalized in a psychiatric ward a few weeks after Vampyr's worldwide release. The director himself was so mortified by the end result that it would be eleven long years before he stood behind the lens again.
Though it bears the title Vampyr, the finished film is one of the most unlikely Vampire films ever committed to celluloid. For one, it would be a stretch to denote the picture as purely a horror film, since it doesn't adhere to any of the set formulas that would soon become hackneyed and formulaic. For staters, it lacks the campiness that soon crept into the genre. For another, it contains elements of a conventional Victorian melodrama which was itself a common subject matter for silent film. This was Dreyer's stock in trade for his early silent pictures. Additionally, the art-for-art's-sake experimentation on display puts it squarely within the realm of art house cinema. In many ways, Vampyr is the product of an obsessively fussy director breaking all of his carefully crafted rules and trying something different, even if the end product occasionally appears amateurish. To some extent, this was deliberate on the part of the director but the funding limitations placed on Dreyer constained his expansive vision and forced him to limit the scope of his plans and in doing so, compromise his intentions. These days, a film like Vampyr would be considered independent art house and directed to the proper channels, but in those days, there existed no underground outlet to screen films too self-consciously different to serve mass appeal.