From various reviews of ”Vampyr” I can see that this movie is not much loved and certainly ranks lower than Dreyer’s earlier Jean d’Arc movie. I just finished my second viewing of “Vampyr” and found I actually liked it and better this time than first time. It is what I image a vampire movie made by David Lynch would would look like. Very little dialogue, few things explained, but a lot of mystic, troubling scenes and a lead who is more an observer than an actual protagonist. Yes, very Lynch’ish.
The story itself is, like in the case of “Passion of Joan of Arc”, of minor importance: A man arrives in a little French village and strange things start happening around him. A mysterious man appears in his hotel room giving him a package to open not before the man is dead. The man sees shadows, disconnected from any bodies, having a party and hears children and dogs, yet there are none. And he meets the mysterious Dr. Death who is the custodian of the local Count Dracula (here in a female version, though you could have fooled me).
At the local manor he witness the killing of the very man he saw in his room and, failing to save him, meets the steward of the manor (the real hero of the story) and the man’s daughters of which one of them is the current victim of the vampire. She is getting frequent visits from her dark master who drains her lifeblood and makes her more and more of a raving lunatic. When Dr. Death arrives to kill the girl with his poison our lead, Allan Grey, prevents the killing as the almost only active intervention of his throughout the movie. Up to this point he has only been an observer. An example of this is his dream in which he sees his own death and burial at the hands of the doctor and his Vampire.
Finally the steward takes action, goes to the graveyard to find the tomb of the vampire and rams a rod through his heart. This breaks the spell of the vampire and the steward moves on to dispose of the doctor at the local mill. His death under a mountain of grain is particularly gruesome. The possessed woman is now free and she wanders off with Allan Grey.
No, it is not for its basic plotline that this movie wins. It is the way it comes about it. Like in his Jeanne d’Arc film Dreyer is very concerned with the people involved and the intensity of the pictures. The ambience is goth beyond goth. Every second picture is to remind us of the sinister aspect of what is going on: The man with the scythe, the grave digger digging backwards, the sign on the hotel, the shadow of the one-legged soldier, and the skulls in the doctor’s office. I could go on and on. There is a lot of German expressionism is the way shadows are used, not just as ghosts but to create a supernatural place of twilight between real and nightmare. Don’t tell me Lynch did not see “Vampyr” more than once.
Yet maybe where this movie really stands out is in the use of the actors. In general they act rather than talk. This may be a leftover from the silent era, but it also allows the actors to express themselves in non-verbal ways and doing it without overacting. In fact none of the acting feels really forced. Instead it takes place in a slow-motion, sleepwalking pace that emphasize the dreamlike nature of the story. Allan Grey, played by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (the financial backer of the movie) is walking through the film in a daze with hardly an expression except lazy bewilderment. He is the observer and so he is like us the audience a witness to what is going on. Therefore he is not really a hero or vampire killer, no van Helsing. He reads the book the owner of the manor left him in his hotel room and here we get a lot of background info about the vampires in general and some tips to how to get rid of them, yet he has only little part in that, that is mainly left to the steward, an earthbound practical man who does what needs to be done.
Dr. Death (Jan Hieronimko) is kept really scary, mostly by saying very little, but also his countenance is frightening as well as his spooky study. The vampire (Henriette Gerard) is very enigmatic. We see her rarely and indeed I thought at first it was a man. Her features are very forbidding, and while she is at the crux of the story she seems to work her evil at a distance, so that she is more like a frightening presence of evil than an actual character.
This may be the earliest movie with a real capacity to scare the viewer, though I fear that most are just left in bewilderment because of its inaccessibility, but watching it a few times it really gets under the skin. I would not compare it to the other early vampire movies, this is not a Dracula story, but a unique story of the occult, like “Twin Peaks”, which happens to use vampires, a creature sadly abused in countless productions since.
Finally I should mention that this is truly an international production: It is a movie in German, taking place in France using a largely French crew but with a Belgian lead playing an Englishman. And oh, the director and screenplay writer were both Danish. That just has to have been messy. A few years later this just could not have been done.