Vampyr (1932)


Director Carl Theodor Dreyer is known for some emotionally dramatic and visually distinct films such as The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ordet. He’s as interested in the intensity of the drama as the relentlessness of the camerawork, marrying the artistic qualities of film with tightly crafted drama. His step in the surreal firmly divorces him from one discipline, creating a film which indulges itself in the images.

Allan Grey (Julian West) arrives at an inn and knows something is up when he spots a strange man along the shore of the lake with a giant scythe. But this is far from the only strange happening. Once in his sleep an old man awakes him, mumbling something about a girl and then writes upon a packet “to be opened upon my death.” He hears a child, but the others in the inn assure them there is no child in the inn. All these oddities, plus the fact he’s seeing shadows detached from any caster, create a surreal environment which the film immerses itself in.


A lot of the film is preoccupied with creating images of the surreal and paranormal, specifically the unknown. The detached shadows must have some caster somewhere, but we rarely see the source. Likewise, there are a lot of moments and scenes where we get the sense that something is going unsaid or unseen. This is best typified by a book about vampires the film constantly uses as intertitles. It will go on about something only to cut off in the middle of the sentence, you expect another intertitle but it isn’t there. It’s as if there’s always that one other thing and by the end of the film we find out what it is…or do we?

This obsession with the unknown gives Dreyer the freedom to work with a lot of crazy images. There is an excessive use of shadow and darkness used to create bizarre and odd images. He often finds really interesting ways to frame and cast them on surfaces that make them even more bizarre and surreal. The other major obsession of the film is a preoccupation with an imaged dissolved into another, creating that ghostlike effect. It adds to the already nightmare like state the film exists in, making it a rather visually flashy picture.


The film is so preoccupied with all these surreal images and flashy techniques that the narrative falls by the wayside. At times it’s near incomprehensible. It’s apparent that the film is too busy creating cool and crazy images to be bothered with storytelling. By the end I couldn’t tell you who was bad, why one person died, why another didn’t do a certain things and what the hell I just saw. All I remembered was a bunch of crazy images that looked cool but didn’t actually make any sense.

© 2009 James Blake Ewing

Vampyr – Criterion Collection [DVD]