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When Allan Gray arrives in a small town and rents a room at an inn, he finds himself caught up in a series of uncanny occurrences. A stranger enters his room at night and leaves him a sealed book with the inscription "to be opened in the event of my death." Allan learns that this man is a local nobleman with two daughters. One of the daughters, Leone, is suffering from a mysterious illness. The cause, Allan discerns, is an aged vampire, Marguerite Chopin, who controls the forces of the night with the help of a sinister doctor. Together with the nobleman's faithful servant, Allan must find a way to rid the village of the vampire and free Leone from her spell.
For many years Vampyr (1932) was regarded as an unfortunate detour in the career of Danish director Carl-Theodor Dreyer between his two masterpieces, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Day of Wrath (1943). At the time of its release, Vampyr had a mixed critical reception; like Dreyer's previous film, it lost money and Dreyer was unable to make a feature film again for over ten years. Since then, thanks to the efforts of film historians and critics such as William K. Everson and Tom Milne, the film's reputation has risen dramatically; today it is often considered one of the most artistically accomplished horror films ever made.
After the financial disaster of The Passion of Joan of Arc, the Societe Generale de Films, with whom Dreyer had a contract, refused to fund his next project. This was due no doubt in part to the company's weak financial state after expensive failures such as Dreyer's film and Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927). Dreyer sued the company for breach of contract and won the case in 1931.
Eventually, the Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg, a young Dutch nobleman with a passion for cinema, was cast in the lead role under the pseudonym Julian West. He also agreed to produce Vampyr when the original backing fell through. Work progressed slowly; shooting lasted for approximately a year, starting in the spring of 1930. The sound was recorded by July 1931 and the film was released in May of 1932.
An international film if there ever was one, Vampyr was directed by a Dane, produced by a German studio (Tobis-Klangfilm), and filmed entirely on location in France, in the towns of Senlis and Montargis outside of Paris. Separate German, French, and English-language versions were prepared for distribution. The Baron de Gunzberg recalls: "Each scene was shot three times for the French, English and German versions whenever there was any dialogue involved. It was shot silent with all of us mouthing the words. The sound was put in later at the UFA studios in Berlin, as they had the best sound equipment at that time." Today the film survives in a variety of cuts, most of them incomplete to varying degrees - including a severely cut, redubbed 60-minute English-language print entitled Castle of Doom. The print being shown on TCM is the German-language version, the one Dreyer reportedly preferred.
Vampyr is above all a stylistic tour de force. Dreyer and his cinematographer Rudolph Mate made effective use of the morning fogs rolling through the landscape and the mist rising up from the ponds to add to the ambiguous mood of the picture. Dreyer also insisted on filming the exterior scenes only at dawn because, according to Baron de Gunzberg, "the light gave the best effect of sundown." The film's unique look came about accidentally; Dreyer says: "We had begun shooting on the film - starting with the opening scene - and after one of the first screenings of the rushes we noticed that one of the takes was gray. We wondered why, until we realized that a false light had been projected on to the lens. We thought about that take, the producer, Rudolph Mate and I, in relation to the style we were looking for. Finally, we decided that all we had to do was deliberately repeat the accident. So after that, for each take we arranged a false light by directing a spotlight hung with a black cloth on to the lens." Dreyer's use of sound is equally remarkable; what little dialogue the film has is fragmented and at times difficult to hear, becoming part of the hazy sonic landscape of tolling bells, barking dogs, and echoing calls. The soundtrack was constructed entirely in the recording studio; even the animal cries were created by skilled human imitators. Dreyer also deliberately plays with the concept of a cinematic point of view throughout, especially in the celebrated sequence where the protagonist dreams of his own burial, which he witnesses as a gaping-eyed corpse through a small window in the lid of his coffin.
The Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg moved to the United States in 1934 and worked for magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and Town and Country, before becoming the longtime senior fashion editor for Vogue. Sybille Schmitz, who plays Leone, the sister who falls under the spell of the vampire, is one of only two professional actors in the cast; the other is Maurice Schutz, who had worked with Dreyer previously in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Schmitz started her career in silent films such as G. W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) and later became a favorite actress of Goebbels during the Nazi era, but she fell out of favor and later became a drug addict, committing suicide in 1955. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, fascinated by her story, used it as the basis for his film Veronika Voss (1982). Wolfgang Zeller, who composed the haunting score for Vampyr, worked with some of Germany's most accomplished directors in the late 1920s and early '30s, among them G. W. Pabst for the film L'Atlantide (1932). Zeller later composed the score for the Third Reich's most notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film, Jud Suss (1940).
Vampyr is often described as an adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Carmilla, part of his popular 1872 collection of stories In a Glass Darkly and an enduring classic of vampire literature. While the film retains the novella's lesbian vampire motif (with less of the original's strong sexual overtones), just about everything else is changed. It would be more accurate to say that Dreyer's film borrows freely from motifs in Le Fanu's collection as a whole. Later films such as Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1960) and Hammer productions such as The Vampire Lovers (1970) are arguably closer to Le Fanu's Carmilla - at least in terms of plot, if not psychological depth. Chief among Dreyer's many inspired inventions is the film's protagonist Allan Gray; in the novella, the tale is told from the point of view of the young girl who falls under the vampire's spell. In Vampyr, through the film's probing camera movements we share the unsettling passivity and incomprehension of Allan Gray as he witnesses the supernatural events unfolding around him.
Producer: Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Nicolas de Gunzberg
Director: Carl-Theodor Dreyer
Screenplay: Carl-Theodor Dreyer and Christen Jul, based on In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu.
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Editing: Frederick Richards
Music: Wolfgang Zeller
Art Direction: Hermann Warm, Hans Bittmann, Cesare Silvagni
Principal Cast: Julian West, aka Nicolas de Gunzberg (Allan Gray); Henriette Gerard (Marguerite Chopin); Jan Hieronimko (the Doctor); Maurice Schutz (Bernard); Sybille Schmitz (Leone); Rena Mandel (Gisele); Albert Bras (Joseph); N. Babanini (Jeanne); Jane Mora (the Nurse).
By James Steffen