The Life of a Vampyr

By David Rudkin

vampyr-carl-theodor-dreyer.jpgVampyr, 1932

Dreyer’s extraordinary work has been revived in a fine and loving restoration

The lonely legendary figure of Dreyer haunts world cinema like a part-forgotten ancestor. Serious filmmakers know his presence; audiences (not their fault) hardly at all. To place him historically: born a year before Ibsen wrote Hedda Gabler, already a young journalist when Strindberg died, he was inspired to a career as director by Griffith’s Intolerance at (1916) its first Danish showing. Three years later, Dreyer would experiment with fourfold narrative in a film of his own. He was already into the decade of his greatest creative abundance: nine films in as many years, no two of them alike, but each developing the visionary quality that would especially characterise his work. His onscreen world is revelatory: natural textures – water, wood, white walls, the ‘landscape’ (his word) of the human face – illumed as from within by sacramental light.

Deeply informed by a Nordic Puritan tradition, these films of Dreyer’s silent period are lustrous with the sacredness of all things living. They culminate in the iconic Passion of Joan of Arc, where, as though to make visible the moral essence of Joan’s captivity, that lustrousness is absent; the light a uniform sourceless glare, walls a bleak grey. Notoriously, Joan thrusts silent cinema to its expressive extreme. It does more: where till now Dreyer’s shot-by-shot syntax has respected - and celebrated - the natural continuum of things, here his images are often to expressive purpose so singularly angled and framed, they fracture our sense of spatial coherence. The effect is to situate Joan’s ordeal in a metaphysical space. This has bearing on Vampyr that (after a four years’ silence) is to follow.

Vampyr exhibits Dreyer’s aesthetic in reverse. Its opening sequence brings the somnambulistic-looking ‘Allan Gray’ (apparently on a fishing trip) to a French riverside inn. Within 20 shots he, and we, are in a world where laws of space no longer hold. Pure cinema achieves this. These opening shots are cut together in a syntax so transgressive of optical logic, we cannot locate ourselves within any linear or vertical coherence. Thus we are set adrift, into a landscape of textures drab and cold, touched with no sacramentalising light, only the wearying ever-grey night-in-day of the Undead. As in a nightmare, we have to strain to see. And strain to hear: skirls of eerie laughter, mocking yelps and cries, thinly screech from the far edge of our hearing. And what apparitions come… Before an empty river-bank, the reflection of a peg leg soldier hobbles in haste along the water’s face; severed shadows of cartwheels reel in abandon high on a wall; spectral half-forms of children flicker through the pale-lit grass.

vampyr-carl-theodor-dreyer-2.jpgVampyr, 1932

Vampyr ’s phantoms are uniquely awesome - and authoritative. Any fool could superficially imitate them electronically now; but it’s the fact that Vampyr’s physical impossibles are achieved by physical photography, that invests them with meaning. We are amid a nature that moves and has being indeed, but from which all life has been drained. Even from the few human survivors, the blood is ebbing. (And how lovingly does Dreyer’s fluid camerawork bind into a unity the group around the sickbed: here’s spatial integrity indeed, that living coherence the film has denied us till now.)

But Vampyr as we have known it is not altogether as Dreyer made it. Filmed in German, French and English language versions, and triply synched and re-edited on primitive sound-equipment, it was subjected to censor’s cuts before the Berlin première; then, greeted there with hostility and mockery, it was (on a reflex, it would seem) drastically cut further by Dreyer himself. It has circulated ever since in versions ill-botched together from various sources, sometimes with the languages mixed, and with inconsistent screen-proportions and print-values. Most frustrating, is that all surviving versions play at least some ten minutes shorter than as passed by the censor. Dreyer’s cuts post-première presumably account for this. Those ten minutes’ footage has disappeared.

In Koerber’s restoration, therefore, Vampyr is still essentially the film as we know it – but represents a proper re-assembly from all available prints, re-negatived and printed back, yielding a cogent German-language version, in correct aspect-ratio throughout and with consistent light-and-shade values. There’s new, superior subtitling, and an enhanced soundtrack (carefully respecting its economy and effect of distance). The book-shots (clumsy inserts in English-language prints: ill-framed, and with ragged text at the page-turns) are a revelation in their German version: a truly visual event, full-screen width, the pages increasingly shadowed and strangely blemished. All in all, frame by frame a painstaking labour. One needs to love a film to do all this.

Vampyr comes with a rich crop of ‘extras’, most significantly the censor’s deleted footage - some morally accurate surprises, here, in the handling of the iron stake, and the Doctor’s ghastly dying; plus a booklet of essays, documentary and technical information, culminating in twelve pages of stunning production stills: some could even be glimpses of what Vampyr has lost. And Koerber leaves us with a hint of promise: the French-language version perhaps now to be restored? Even more tantalising, an allusion to a Danish-version nitrate print that is ‘largely complete’. Dare we hope?

Vampyr by Carl Th. Dreyer, in restoration by Martin Koerber and the Cineteca di Bologna, is released in the UK by Eureka

David Rudkin is a visionary writer, dramatist and screenwriter. See