Monday, 31 October 2011

Vampyr - Carl Th. Dreyer

Carl Th. Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) is a masterpiece every serious film buff studies frame by frame. But Dreyer's Vampyr (1932) is equally remarkable. The two films are very different. Joan of Arc is shot with extremely harsh lighting, bleaching out unnecessary detail, so every line and pore in Joan's face is exposed, like she herself is exposed and alone in her torment.  Vampyr, on the other hand, is a study in ambiguities.  What is happening? Who is the vampire, the old man, the old woman or the protagonist himself?

Vampyr is also fascinating because it's a sound movie with a score written by Wolfgang Zeller (1898-1967), one of the most innovative composers of film music when it was still an experimental art. The music for Vampyr ia a lot like the film - tonally ambiguous, mysterious, spare. Single instruments (wonderful brooding cello), merging in and out of a mist (mainly strings). Low rumblings, sudden sharp chords. Listen to the music without watching and it works on you emotionally - very unsettling. Film noir music before film noir existed.

Zeller worked with Walter Ruttmann whose Dadaist abstract films can be seen HERE on this site, and were made to be  shown with live music. (Ruttmann is the creator of Berlin, Symphony of a great City, which you can see in full download with analysis HERE)  Ruttman's credentials as a moderrnist are impeccable, yet he went on to write music fotr the Nazi film The Jew Suss, which I can't bring myself to watch for more than a few moments. After the war, he wasn't blacklisted, so I don't know what his denazification file says. We can't aassume anything. 

In Vampyr, a young man with a butterfly net (important detail) stops at a country inn. Already we know something's not right. A peg legged old soldier sits on a bench, and his own shadow comes down to sit beside him. In the inn, shadows of dancers are seen, and their music can be heard, but they don't exist in the real world, whatever that is. Then there's the star himself played by "Julian West" who looks Indian or something exotically swarthy, quite alien to whatever country the story is set in (anywhere from Northern France to the Baltic). "Julian West" is in fact Nicolas de Günzburg, whose family were Russian Jews, bankers to the Tsar. Günzburg, who financed the film, was supposedly fabulously wealthy but when his father died in 1933, it turned out the family was broke.  So Günzburg goes to New York and ends up editor of fashion glossies.

Watch Vampyr and see how Dreyer uses odd angles, so you're seeing things from odd perspectives. He makes the most of the discipline of black and white, using darkness and light as a palette to paint ideas. Details, like the Grim Reaper on the inn sign, and the peasant with the scythe in the field.  Just as the film seems to develop a narrative, Dreyer throws all into confusion. Julian West sits on a bench in the park, but his shadow gets up. It's so subtle you might not notice until you see his figure is transparent. Then he finds a coffin, and looks in. As the coffin is carried out, you see the treetops, the tower, and hear the tread of dull footseps. Is West now looking out, upwards from within? Watch the final sequence frame by frame. It's the mill, where the doctor, who may or may not be the vampire's helper, gets trapped  Fantastic shots of the machinery, wheels and cogs like infernal mechanisms. The machine grinds flour which suffocates the doctor. Will the bread (the staff of life) be tainted? Meanwhile, West and Léonie, the young girl who is saved from the vampire (whom we never see) are in a boat in a fog. They call out, echoing the doctor's cries. But they cannot hear him, nor he them.
PLEASE see here for Marschner's opera Der Vampyr (nothing like the movie)

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