STEVE GARDEN’s DVD appreciation of ‘Vampyr’ on the Eureka Masters of Cinema label.

FILM CAN mark you for life. In the late 70s I became aware of cinema – not just movies, but film-as-art. It may not have happened if it wasn’t for the Film Society; the 8th Wellington Film Festival; and a chance viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974). This seemingly plotless film (a rather cryptic and decidedly Russian expression of personal and collective memory) went right over my head... or so I thought. In terms of the movie expectations I had at the time, Mirror made little obvious sense, and yet I left the theatre exhilarated. It was an epiphanic, near-religious experience, a life-changing encounter with a language that spoke directly and intimately through sound and image. It wasn’t just what was being said, but how. Mirror required full concentration, perception and intuition, a film one had to discern rather than simply wait to be entertained by.

So began my quest for ‘cine-fire’. Within a relatively short period (thanks to the acute and edifying film society programming of the early 80s), I received a crash-course in world cinema that introduced me to the likes of Miklós Jancsó, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, R. W. Fasssbinder, Theo Angelopoulos, Victor Erice, Ozu Yasujiro, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer. These (and other) elliptical/poetic filmmakers shaped my appreciation of cinema, and the films of Dreyer were pivotal. Vampyr (1932) and Gertrud (1964) have had me in their spell for more than 25 years. Critical consensus settled on Jeanne d’Arc (1927), Day of Wrath (1943), and then Ordet (1954) as Dreyer’s defining works – with their weighty spiritual overtones and sombre sobriety – but Vampyr and Gertrud have grown in estimation over the years to take their rightful place as jewels in the crown of the cinematic canon.

With only the 1998 Image Entertainment DVD available until recently, a good version of Vampyr has long been anticipated. The recent Masters of Cinema release fits the bill perfectly – or as perfectly as is likely short of a better print being discovered. This is the best version of Vampyr I’ve seen. While the restoration could have gone further perhaps, the fact is that even the worst prints fail to undermine the extraordinary power of Dreyer’s images. One might even say that the grungier the reproduction the more effective the film can be. As it was, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Maté strove to give the film a grainy, filtered, otherworldly appearance characterised by a strange and unsettling half-light, as if the film had been shot in fog. They wanted to suggest a perpetually dissolving and detached dreamlike reality, and to infuse each image with a palpable feeling of dread. Its somnambulist quality creates an atmosphere of limbo and spiritual malaise, and the ‘through a glass darkly’ tonality of both the visual and narrative ‘fog’ evokes the kind of dream-logic we now associate with David Lynch. This pervasive unease was accentuated by Dreyer’s brilliant formal discontinuity, and the murky sound design added to the sense of a parallel reality of tangible and threatening forces. The result is one of the most affecting horror films of all time – a horror film for those who don’t generally care for them.

There are two commentaries on the MOC disc: one by film scholar/critic Tony Rayns, and the other by director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). Both are interesting: Rayns mostly discusses the formal aspects of the film, while Del Toro offers a personal reading of the metaphysical meaning of the work, attempting to get to the heart of Vampyr’s compelling fascination. For Del Toro, it’s a film about spiritual transcendence: rejecting Darkness; embracing Light. He sees it in religious terms, but for me (and possibly Dreyer too, given his comments on the subject) the allegory is more generally philosophic. Yet Del Toro’s commentary is rich with perceptive observations, like that of Time being the biggest vampire; the Memento Mori aspect of the film; the use of off-white to signify death; and the effectiveness of non-professional actors, a career-long practice in which Dreyer cast actors according to their emotional resemblance to characters, evident in the performances of Henriette Girard as the vampire and Baron de Gunzberg as David Gray, where their lack of skill as actors only served the compelling ‘otherness’ of their roles.

The horror and vampire genres have often been used by filmmakers as vehicles for sub-textual commentary – such as the implicit depiction of an anxiety and guilt-ridden, divided society in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968); and personal and national guilt in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995), which equates vampirism with imperialism. It’s difficult to say some 75 years down the track just what Dreyer’s sub-textual intentions were, but the fact that De Gunzberg brings a homosexual dimension to his Christ-figure role some 35 years before Pasolini makes for interesting speculation. At the time, Dreyer railed against what he called the “holy organisation” of the film industry, which dominated film production everywhere by the 30s. With financial support from De Gunzberg he set up an independent film company. It’s interesting that he chose a vampire story as his first (and as it would turn out, only) independent production: a film about bloodsuckers that transcends the limitations of film industry expectations by producing a fragmented cinematic mood-piece that challenged (and continues to challenge) formal conventions and the ‘vampiric’ tendencies of commercial film production. Just as the story depicts a battle between carnal passion and spiritual piety within the souls of those infected by destructive and insatiable lust, so the film reflects the battle for the poetic soul of cinema against the infection of artistically limiting dictums and an insatiable commercial lust! Dreyer used the generic tropes of spiritual hope and renewal to express an aspirational passion for his beloved art form. This self-reflexivity is nicely described by online reviewer Acquarello (, who likens the rays of light beaming across the landscape in the penultimate image of David and Giséle emerging from misty woods and walking towards a luminous sunrise, to that of the light projected in a cinema. He also equates the gears stopping in the mill (as if by divine intervention) as a metaphor for filmmakers as the creator and conscience behind their work. This is one of the essential themes in Michael Haneke’s widely misunderstood Caché (Hidden, 2005). Of course, self-reflexivity was far from Dreyer’s ultimate aim. Vampyr, like all of his work, is above all an attempt to articulate the essential substance of human experience and emotion.

It would be decades before Vampyr received its critical due. Despite seminal evaluations by the likes of Bordwell, Schrader and Burch, many continued to dismiss the film as a technically and artistically flawed aberration. Bordwell wrote about Dreyer’s use of ‘absent cause’, an obfuscation of the narrative by withholding motivational information so that we only see the “late phases of an implicit sequence of actions”, as Bordwell put it. In other words, we are shown consequences rather than causes. Not only are causes absent, they are (crucially) rarely explained. Classical cinema relies on relatively unambiguous spatial, temporal and narrative relationships, coherence central to that unspoken contract between filmmaker and viewer. But cinema-poets like Dreyer subvert this in order to allow greater freedom for filmmaker and viewer alike. Such strategies can be taxing for audiences today, let alone 75 years ago. It’s little wonder that Vampyr was a financial failure, but it is one of the reasons why it is influential and affecting today. It deserves its place in film history if for no other reason than showing that great cinema need not be bound by the constraints of the classical narrative style, but it’s the essential humanity and poetry of the work that ultimately endures. Dreyer was a compassionate filmmaker who made films from the heart. They may seem somewhat formal and austere at first, but behind his Danish reserve lay a genuine regard for people: their capacity for selflessness, honesty and love, and their inspirational ability to express the most profound and affecting truth through simple human interaction – and of course, through art.