Shadow Puppets: ‘Vampyr – Der Traum des Allan Grey’

This 1932 silent horror was truly a delight to my 6th sense, the sense for all things uncanny. 🙂 Loosely based on Sheridan LeFanu’s now almost legendary cult piece, ‘Carmilla’, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film follows the steps of Allan Grey (played by baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, better known under the stage name of Julian West), a young man fascinated by the darker side of the occult. Throughout the film, Allan struggles to save two young sisters, LĂ©one (played by Sybille Schimtz) and GisĂ©le (played by Rena Mandel), from the clutches of a mysterious vampire (in fact a nefarious elderly woman played by Henriette GĂ©rard) and its faithful assistant, a Faustian country doctor (played by Jan Hieronimko).

What is most fascinating abot Dreyer’s film is, first of all, the atmosphere he manages to create. Despite the abundance of plot summaries one can find on-line, the storyline of ‘Vampyr’ is not, I would say, so simple. A lot of what is happening is suggested, rather than clearly shown. There is a lot of play with shadows, which set a surreal, eerie mood, and, I would add, a lot comes also from the sheer use of facial expressions, a nice play on phrenology. All in all, the film is a feast of sensations, and can be read as a display of effects of human fear. Allan Grey’s point of view in the movie is constantly ambiguous, leaving room for doubt. It might well be that nothing of what he (thinks) he sees is, in fact, real. It might all be a trick of his imagination and sickly fascination with the occult.

There are other elements which suggest that all might not be quite as it seems, and which allow for a double (or multiple) reading of the storyline. Some of them are to be found towards the end of te film, like Allan’s obsessive vision of himself in a coffin, or his escape with GisĂ©le in a boat over the misty river.

Dreyer reportedly told his cameraman, ‘Imagine we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in is completely altered: everything in it has taken on another level; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because “we” have changed… This is the effect I want to get.’ This is cited in numerous on-line sources dealing with Dreyer’s movie (here, for instance), and I feel that this is precisely the effect that ‘Vampire’ manages to produce. The blurry shots and many-faced symbols Dreyer uses keep the viewer constantly on the edge. ‘Vampyre’ is a wonderfully uncanny trompe l’oeil.

For those who wish to watch it, the film is currently available in its entirety on youtube.

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