Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: Indelible Imagery, Past and Present

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday August 28, 2008 - 09:44:00 AM

Ten years after the release of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), the first and greatest of all vampire films, Carl Th. Dreyer released Vampyr (1932), the next great vampire film, and one that took the genre in a new direction. Vampyr is the vampire film reduced to its essence, to an unrelenting flow of eerie imagery, off-kilter camera movements and a hushed soundscape consisting of sparse, enigmatic dialogue and a muted, foreboding score. Less plot than impressionist montage, the film is an almost surrealist blend of unexplained actions and haunted faces. Imagine Dracula as presented by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. 

Criterion has released the film in a two-disc DVD set, complete with bonus features that include an interview with Dreyer, a commentary track, and a book containing the original script and the novella on which Dreyer claimed the film was based—though the final product bears little resemblance to its source. 

The film itself looks superb, though it is still not quite the film Dreyer would have wanted us to see. It’s a sound film—the director’s first—produced in several different languages. Dreyer shot Vampyr silent, his actors reading the lines in several languages and later synching the different scores for release in various countries. However, the only version that currently exists in a form suitable for restoration is the German, and thus we are left with something he tried mightily to avoid: his mesmerizing images are overlaid with the distraction of subtitles. Still, given the fate of other Dreyer films, we’re lucky to have any version at all. 

At the time, Vampyr seemed a most unlikely project for Dreyer. While it was certainly within reason to expect another masterpiece from this uncompromising filmmaker, Dreyer isn’t the first name that comes to mind when discussing the horror film. After all, this was the man who made The Passion of Joan of Arc just a few years earlier, a powerful and uncompromsing avant garde film that to this day remains one of cinema’s artistic masterpieces.  

Dreyer made just 14 films in his career and no two of them alike, altering his style and approach, often radically, to fit his subject matter. He began his career in the silent era in his native Denmark, creating several well-regarded works before venturing into the greater European film industry in search of more plentiful resources and increased autonomy. One of his films from this era, Mikaël (1924), a German production that showed at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is considered one of the landmarks of early gay cinema.  

But nothing in that oeuvre would quite prepare a viewer for what came next.  

Dreyer went to France to make a film based on the trial of Joan of Arc. Joan had only recently been sainted after centuries of excommunication, and though the French were eager to see a film about her, they were more than a little chagrined to find the task handed over to a Dane, and the role of Joan given to an Italian. Rene Falconetti was a stage actress and a very successful one; The Passion of Joan of Arc would be her first and only screen appearance, and thus for decades she has been associated in the public mind with this role, a stunning performance of grace, passion, dignity and sorrow.  

Stylistically, it is a radical departure, not just from Dreyer’s previous work, but from virtually anything that came before it. Dreyer relied almost exclusively on close-ups and text to tell the tale, relegating the vast sets to relative obscurity, only allowing them to be glimpsed in a few sequences. The film was a commercial failure, and was recut and altered into many different forms, depending on the prevailing political forces in whichever county it was being presented in. The original negative was lost to fire, and Dreyer re-composed the film from alternate takes; that version too was lost to fire. For decades Passion then was considered lost forever, with no surviving prints of Dreyer’s original film known to exist, until one was accidentally discovered in 1986 in a supply closet in a Norwegian mental institution.  

After observing the fate of Passion, Dreyer sought a bit less controversial and more commercially viable project for his next film, and settled on horror as a genre which was not only popular, but conducive to artistic independence; horror films of the silent era had managed to go relatively untouched by censors while remaining uncompromising in artistic merit.  

The result is a moody, atmospheric film modeled on the horror genre but more restrained, more obscure and more elliptical in its examination of terror, mystery and the occult. Dreyer’s expressive camera work involves wonderfully disorienting movements that shuttle the camera from one indelible image to another. As the camera circles around rooms, the lens distorts the field of vision, causing walls to appear to shift and move, leaving the viewer at all times on uneven ground, with little in the plot or in the visual terrain to anchor oneself. This is not your typical horror film; it is a dreamlike and hallucinatory experience that is content to leave much of its mystery unresolved. 

Consecutive commercial failures left Dreyer unemployed for more than a decade afterward, either unwilling or unable to mount another production. He returned in 1943 with Day of Wrath, followed by Ordet (1955) and Gertrud (1964), all of which, along with The Passion of Joan of Arc, are also available in Criterion editions.  


Vampyr (1932). 75 minutes. $39.95. 


Early films by Victor Sjöström 

One of the most significant influences on the work of Carl Dreyer was Victor Sjöström, the great Swedish filmmaking pioneer who was instrumental in establishing cinema as an art form capable of great psychological complexity. 

Even before D.W. Griffith, says film critic Andrew Sarris, “it is possible that Victor Sjöström was the world’s first great director.” Sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t. Though he is primarily known today for his work as an actor in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Sjöström not only made masterpieces before Griffith did, he made more of them. But, aside from an extensive retrospective mounted by Pacific Film Archive a few years back, and a single showing of The Phantom Carriage at the Castro more recently, Sjöström’s Swedish films have been difficult to track down.  

The restorations presented in the PFA series lent hope that his work would finally be released on DVD in quality editions, and now a couple of them are finally here. Kino has released three films on two discs, and hopefully more are on the way.  

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) showcases two of the most distinguishable traits in Sjöström’s work: psychological depth, and a magnificent use of the natural world. Sjöström would use landscape throughout his European filmmaking career, and as much as he was allowed in his Hollywood sojourn, to lend greater realism, poetry and atmosphere to his probing dramas. In The Outlaw and His Wife, Sjöström plays a man who takes a job as a laborer on a widow’s farm. The two fall in love, but his troubled past catches up with him, resulting in a dramatic climax in which the couple battle the elements and pursuers amid a stunning backdrop of majestic mountains and panoramic vistas. This, one of Sjöström’s greatest works, is paired with a documentary that tracks the director’s career from his pioneering work in Sweden to America—where he directed Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928), and Lon Chaney and Norma Schearer in He Who Gets Slapped (1924)—and back again. 

A second disc contains A Man There Was (1917), based on an epic poem by Henrik Ibsen, in which Sjöström again takes the lead, playing a fisherman who, during the era of the Napoleonic Wars, is forced by his family’s destitution to break through a British blockade. Once again, nature plays a significant role as the turbulent sea mirrors the fisherman’s mental state.  

Also included on the disc is Ingeborg Holm (1913), an early Sjöström masterpiece that Bergman would later recall as “one of the most remarkable films ever made.” 


The Outlaw and His Wife / Victor Sjöström (1918/1981). 70 minutes and 65 minutes. $29.95. 

A Man There Was / Ingeborg Holm (1917/1913). 53 minutes and 72 minutes. $29.95. 


Brand Upon the Brain! 

Canadian cult director Guy Maddin has made a name for himself with offbeat, low-budget films that invoke the spirit and methods of silent cinema. With Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) Maddin produced an essentially silent film that he then blanketed with evocative scoring, sound effects and narration. It’s not so much a silent film as a disjointed, Cubist version of a silent cinema that only exists in memory, like a broken-down print found in a dusty archive, filled with jumpy images and disintegrating stock.  

Maddin has acknowledged his debt to silent-era filmmakers, including Carl Dreyer, but this is not some sort of post-modern homage. Despite all its technical flash, it’s a deeply personal film, apparently part of a trilogy of which the third installment, My Winipeg, has just recently been released. The plot sees a character named Guy Maddin returning to his childhood home—a lighthouse on a remote island where his parents ran an orphanage. It’s a whirlwind tour of memory and psychological pain, narrated madly by Isabella Rossellini. 

Criterion has released the film on DVD along with a few extra features that go a long way in illuminating the virtues of the film for those who might otherwise find it baffling. Several narrator options are available, as well as commentary and an interview with the infectiously ebullient Madden, who repeats the cinematic philosophy he articulated in a guest appearance at this year’s San Francisco Silent Festival: that melodrama, too often relegated to the lower realms of art, is not life exaggerated, but life liberated—a version of reality unfettered by the restrictions of the everyday world, like a cathartic dream. Or nightmare. Or, as with Brand Upon the Brain!, both.  


Brand Upon the Brain! (2006). 99 minutes. $39.95.