The unique power of film lies not in its ability to remain in the mind as a series of images and sounds, but to remain in the mind as something greater than the accumulation of these images and sounds, to remain as an idea, an experience, a sentiment. This is true for more or less all film (the ones I’ve seen, at the very least), but very few capitalise on this unique transcendent power more efficiently, and expertly, than early 20th century director Carl Theodor Dreyer. His films are steeped in powerful imagery, violent montages, and powerfully efficient storytelling.
Vampyr, his 1932 feature, was his first using sound, and it is apparent this transition was not initially his favourite. He was following up 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, universally acknowledged as one of the most powerful and greatest films of all time. Vampyr doesn’t adjust to the use of sound with the seamlessness of other early masters, but consciously keeps spoken dialogue to a minimum, and plays to Dreyer’s obvious strengths in filmmaking: those of image and representation.
Vampyr, a film based off two short stories from the collection In A Glass Darkly from 1872, published by Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, takes place in the village of Courtempierre, France. A superstitious young man named Allan Gray takes up board in a hotel, and notices a series of suspicious happenings going on around the village, which he eventually discovers is the result of the presence of a local vampire. Within this beautifully simple plot, Dreyer excavates an extraordinary amount of character, story, and feeling.
The film is, from the start, haunted. Dreyer’s haunting is universal. It is carved into the face of his protagonist (Nicolas de Gunzburg, who also financed the film). It is in the film’s iconic image of a man near a river with a scythe (which comes to mean very little in the scheme of the plot, but is more iconic and relevant to the art than a vast majority of all cinematic images in the history of film.) It is in the pace with which we enter rooms, it is in the architecture of the houses themselves. Dreyer and his cinematographer Rupert Maté do a wonderful job in portraying the buildings, and all the images, with personality. There is not a single frame in this film without emotion, without a bulging concern with the story.
As well as his precise understanding of the frames essential to the film, Dreyer shows expert understanding of what is is powerful to leave out of the film. When the nefarious village doctor (played by Jan Hieronimko, a non-actor found on a train by the production crew) enters into a room to exact some cruel malice to the innocent Leone, all we see is the slight opening of the door, leaving to our imagination what evils are taking place.
In a dream sequence where Allan imagines himself buried alive as a vampire, he is seen from above in the coffin, and from his point of view facing the sky as the casket is trundled through the street. The duality of the images of a close-up of a vampire, and the religious sky he is carried under, serve as a juxtaposition,an exacerbation, and a horrifying ideology of the place of the vampire in society. All while serving to keep the story moving forward. The filmmaking is of such an efficiency and effectiveness that this subtext of image runs clear throughout the entire 73 minutes of the film, which itself feels, not necessarily longer, but certainly richer a story than you could hope for out of that running time.
To idealise a single filmmaker as the epitome of pure cinema would be to limit cinema to too narrow a confine. Tarkovsky explores the expanse of imagination and dreams, Ozu is invested in fullness of emptiness, Cassavetes was the king of spontaneity, but I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest Carl Theodor Dreyer has his place among these giants as the master of the cinematic montage, of endowing images in a sequence with meanings greater than they could possibly retain on their own.