Saturday, August 27, 2011

Scarface (1932): The Artistry of Violence

Howard Hawks made a career out of delivering various masterpieces in differing genres. Within the screwball comedies genre, both Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940) are classics. Hawks was responsible for many westerns as well, with Red River (1948) and Rio Bravo (1959) as quintessential viewing. Hawks also helped secure Humphrey Bogart’s legendary status with legendary film noirs To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Yet before Hawks fostered Bogart’s anti-hero image, he made Scarface (1932), a film that is a predecessor to his noir classics. Scarface’s deservedly ultra-violent reputation challenged Production Code rules, and in doing so caused some severe cutting to the film and even led to a re-shooting of the ending. Despite the changes that were enforced, Howard Hawks came up with some creative ways circumvent the Production Code, especially within scenes concerning gun violence.

The establishing scene of gun violence in Scarface (1932) begins (4.25) with the death of Big Louis Costillo (Harry J. Vejar) who is gunned down by Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) while answering a telephone call. Howard Hawks cleverly conveys the cold detached violence with merely a shadow and a whistle. As Tony approaches Big Louis, he leisurely walks up, with his hands in his pockets, while whistling a tune. The menacing shadow that approaches Big Louis conveys a casual approach to murder. Tony shoots him three times, cleans the gun with a handkerchief and tosses it towards his body. Tony strolls out of the scene still whistling, and unfazed by his own actions.

In previous expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), M (1931), or even its then contemporary Vampyr (1932), the use of shadowy figures often represented a manifestation of one’s worst nightmare. Shadows can take the form of a crazed murderous somnambulist, maybe a ghoulish vampire, or a child murderer and can even project the incomprehensibility of a fever dream. Yet Hawks creates something different, by introducing a comical approach of a strolling, whistling murderer. According to the Production Code (between 1930 to 1934): “No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” Yet, Hawks uses a formulaic introduction to a murderer and switches the tone. The film viewer is not meant side with the villain, but already they find him more intriguing than Big Louis (who comes across as a shady, gluttonous, Italian stereotype). Though Tony is the villain of the film, he is also paradoxically the lead protagonist, and ultimately an anti-hero.

The Production Code also stipulated that, “methods of crime should not be explicitly presented.” Hawks cleverly maneuvers around this censorial objection, by showcasing all the violence behind shadows. The Code furthers, that “the use of firearms should be restricted to essentials.” Thus the scene never shows a firearm but rather indicates it with sound effects. Similarly, in the scene where Tony goes to the hospital to finish off one of the hoods that didn’t previously die (28.25), gun sound effects are used while Tony’s body is off screen. Hawks again uses Tony’s shadow as indication of his presence in the victim’s room, and he comically throws flowers on the victim’s body as a final farewell. Hawk’s consistently uses humor to downplay and distract from the perpetual violence. Soon after (28.38), Hawks cuts to the rapid flipping of a calendar, moving to the speed of the sound of a machine gun, and indicating the many deaths occurring within that time span.

Reoccurring constantly in Scarface is the symbol of an X, which can be seen throughout many of the death scenes in the film. When Big Louis is killed by Tony (4.25), a cross (or sideways X), can be seen reflected on the wall as his shadow approaches. When the hospital victim is killed (28.25), an X accompanies Tony’s shadow on the left side. Yet, Hawks most creative use of the X symbol happens at the massacre of the seven mobsters (48.08), where the scene actually opens on multiple X shaped wooden rafters. Hawk uses the multiple X shaped wooden rafters to foreshadow the fate of the mobsters. As the camera pans down, Hawk reveals the shadowy silhouettes of the seven mobsters about to be executed in a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre style. Yet as the sound of machine gun fire explodes on the soundtrack, the room is filled with gunfire smoke, and the silhouettes disappear one by one. Again, Hawks manages to convey the ultimate amount of violence, while showing little bloodshed. As the last shot is heard, the camera pans upward revealing the same seven X shaped wooden rafters.

Though Scarface has plenty of examples of hardcore violence, Howard Hawks utilizes expressionistic filmmaking to convey some of the violence in a more subdued manner. When Gaffney (Boris Karloff) is hiding out from Tony and his gang (50.00), a lighted X appears in the background marking him next for death. Right before Gaffney is finally killed at the bowling alley, he scores a point knocking all the pins down, and one of his men marks an X on his scorecard, which again foreshadows his death. When Gaffney is shot down, Hawk’s camera again pans away from the violence and follows the bowling ball, which knocks all the pins down. Hawks uses the symbolism of toppling bowling pins to convey the human massacre. When Tony kills Guino (George Raft) (120.50), a lighted X appears in the background, signaling again the mark of death. Even Tony’s sister Francesca wears a dress, which has straps in the back that crisscross into an X (101.20). It comes as no surprise that she will not be around by the end credits.

Scarface is by no means a subtle film, and it uses direct examples of gun violence throughout. When indirect means of violent representation is used though, Hawks is at his most creative. The use of shadows and lights effectively penetrates the psychological imagination, where raw and visceral violence does not. Howard Hawks proves himself to be a true artist, one who is able to convey his vision of violence, despite the stringent Production Code restrictions that were imposed on him.

I Hired A Contract Killer (1990)

Aki Kaurismäki’s I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) is a detour from the Finnish filmmaker’s usual language and country, for he sets the film in London and has a French actor in the lead. Based on an idea by film director Peter von Bagh, Kaurismäki’s original screenplay bares similarities to both Robert Siodmak’s German film Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (1931) and Ernst Neubach’s French film On demande un assassin (1949). Yet, I Hired a Contract Killer presents Kaurismäki’s reoccurring themes and his dark sense of humor. Similar to the pacing of his previous film The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö) (1990), Kaurismäki’s follow-up deals with loneliness and desperation with more optimistic results. Kaurismäki brings his Finnish perspective in concerns of cultural immigration, communication (or lack there of), and the dismal and empty conditions of the working class. The film’s setting, however, is in London, the main protagonist is French and the soundtrack is made up of mostly old American songs, lending to the film a very surreal environment (especially when viewing with un-removable Japanese subtitles). Though he is a Finnish director, Kaurismäki’s vision encompasses the influences of other westernized cultures.

The story concerns Henri Boulanger (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who works in the drab registry office of Her Majesty’s Waterworks. The viewers are introduced to Henri through the appearance of a miniature replicate of the Eiffel Tower used as a paperweight on piles of reports. Because he is French, Henri is also an outsider to his British surroundings. A diligent worker, Henri eats by himself (while all his co-workers fraternize), is the last to leave the office, and lives alone in a small apartment. The one thing that Henri nurtures in life is a couple of plants on his rooftop, though he manages to topple them over when watering them. Henri spends his night eating biscuits and drinking tea while staring out his window at a brick wall. The next day, the head of department informs him that the government has decided to privatize the Waterworks, and the new owners want to downsize employees, beginning with foreigners. After fifteen years of service, Henri is fired without warning, and given a broken golden watch as compensation. The solitary and reclusive Henri realizes, after looking at his phonebook, that the only two numbers he has is of the company that just fired him and a deceased aunt. Feeling desperate and hopeless, Henri decides to kill himself and purchases a sturdy rope; however, he fails to hang himself successfully. He then tries to put his head in a gas oven, but unfortunately for Henri, London is in the midst of a gas strike. Henri finally convinces a cab driver to take him to a seedy part of town, to a place called the Honolulu Bar, where he places a contract out on himself to be killed.

Henri waits for his killer to come for him but gets bored, leaves a note on his door, goes to the local pub, and decides to begin smoking, drinking and falling in love. After meeting Margaret (Margi Clarke) a local flower seller, he decides he wants to live after all. Yet, when he returns to the Honolulu Bar to cancel the order, the place is demolished. Henri spends the rest of the film trying to elude his killer; unfortunately, things get even more complicated when Henri walks into a botched jewelry burglary and is framed for murder. While Henri has a newfound love for life and Margaret, his killer is terminally ill with cancer. Eventually Henri is forced to hide out and work at Vic’s French Hamburgers, a tiny restaurant securely hidden away in a cemetery.

Finnish Sensibility
Aki Kaurismäki’s films often focus on characters of working class backgrounds who either commit themselves to banal jobs or avoid responsibility all together. For example, in his film The Match Factory Girl, the female protagonist works a dead-end position at a match factory, financially supporting her parents who do nothing all day. In Kaurismäki’s The Bohemian Life (La vie de bohème) (1992), all the characters (a writer, an artist, and musician) avoid conventional lifestyles and occupations. His characters are people of few words, and conversation is kept to a bare minimum. Kaurismäki often showcases Finnish culture as a depressed, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking society of lonely romantics. Though his films are often short (usually under 80 minutes), Kaurismäki’s languid pace, stationary shots, and minimal dialogue give the illusion of a longer film. The director also incorporates a great deal of dark humor to off set the gloomy predicaments his characters face. Kaurismäki’s continuous fascination for early American rock n’ roll, is showcased in most of his films, and is often used with a sense of irony. For instance, Andrew Nestingen writes, “Kaurismäki’s films exhibit recurrences of static camera, laconic and marginal characters, low-key lighting, American cars, and idiosyncratic musical choices, among many elements.” (Nestingen, pg 110.) In I Hired a Contract Killer, Kaurismäki depicts characters who are not so far removed from his depiction of Finnish culture. The characters are interacting as they would in any other Kaurismäki film.

French Influence
Aki Kaurismäki and his brother Mika Kaurismäki have been making films in Finland since the early eighties. Both brothers set up a production company called Ville Alfa, which was based on a character Aki played in Mika’s first film The Liar (Valehtelija) (1981). In The Liar, Aki’s performance greatly resembles actor Jean-Pierre Léaud’s manic escapades in such French New Wave films as Antoine and Colette (1962), Masculin Féminin (1966), Stolen Kisses (Baisers voles) (1968) and The Mother and the Whore (La maman et la putain) (1973). Aki Kaurismäki not only mimics Léaud’s unpredictable nervous energy, but he even embodies a similar physicality to the actor. The character and company’s name “Ville Alfa” is even a direct nod to Jean Luc Godard’s film Alphaville (1965) (on which Léaud coincidentally was one of the assistant directors). In fact, Kaurismäki has said that, “he (Leaud) was my hero as an actor, when I was a young film buff. He was the best! Maybe five John Waynes or three Robert Ryans match one Jean-Pierre.“ (Leaud L’unique.)

Throughout the sixties, Jean-Pierre Léaud was the quintessential symbol French youth. Many of the major European film directors of the sixties and beyond grew up on a diet of films by Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, and consequently strived to include Léaud in their films. Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini worked with Léaud on Porcille (1969) and Bernardo Bertolucci cast him alongside Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris (1972). Polish second wave director Jerzy Skolimowski utilized Léaud’s quirkiness in Le Depart (1967) and Dialóg 20-40-60 (1968), while even Brazilian political director Glauber Rocha directed him in The Lion Has Seven Heads (1970). In the film I Hired A Contract Killer, Kaurismäki interprets Leaud’s previous cinematic incarnation to inhabit a mirrored space in cinema reflection. For example, Kaurismäki reflected, “When working with him, I was acting first for him, to show him how he should act. But I in fact was acting him acting, and then he imitated me acting him acting. So it made a whole circle.” (Leaud L’unique.) Kaurismäki would again use Leaud in his next film The Bohemian Life, which draws more influence from the French New Wave and is even shot in Paris.

Besides the influence of Jean-Pierre Leaud, Kaurismäki also channels French New Wave directors like Godard and Truffaut. I Hired A Contract Killer uses exaggerated colors in the interior spaces, where walls are painted in deep reds, golden yellows, or royal blue, reminding one of Godard’s use of color in such films as Contempt (1963), Pierrot le Fou (1965), or Made in U.S.A. (1966). It’s interesting that Kaurismäki’s next film The Bohemian Life was shot in black and white, presenting a stark contrast. Incidentally, Godard would jump from splashy color to black and white from film to film as well. In addition, Kaurismäki references the film poster art for Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses in I Hired A Contract Killer when Margaret kisses Henri and leaves a lipstick imprint on his forehead (33.20). This shot mimics the iconic poster art of Leaud’s earlier film, where his character Antoine is painted with a lipstick imprint on his forehead.

British Influence
Though Kaurismäki uses a French character’s perspective to drive the narrative of I Hired A Contract Killer, he uses London’s landscape and its culture as the backdrop. This film derives some cinematic influence not just from France, but also from the United Kingdom. Dedicated to the memory of British filmmaker Michael Powell (who had died in 1990), I Hired A Contract Killer explores the theme of mortality, which was also a recurring idea in Powell’s work. In the Powell film Stairway to Heaven (1946), a wartime aviator must plead for his life with a celestial court, after he has cheated death in a plane crash and fallen in love with a woman. Similarly, in Kaurismäki’s film, the protagonist Henri is in a state of running and pleading with a contract killer for his own life, after he has fallen in love. Also, despite the plot similarities between Siodmak’s and Neubach’s films, Kaurismäki claims that it was the British made Last Holiday (1950) that influenced his film. The movie Last Holiday concerns a terminally ill agricultural machinery salesman who takes a final trip and finds his true value as a person. Kaurismäki states, “I made I Hired A Contract Killer because when I was ten years old I saw the film Last Holiday by Henry Cass, and since then haven’t been able to dispel the impression it made on my mind, in spite of mixed stages of life thrown by puberty, youth and later, manhood. I don’t think that I Hired A Contract Killer resembles in any way its model, and it’s not meant to, either.” (Toho Laserdisc.) Though differing in plot points, the life-affirming message in Stairway to Heaven, Last Holiday and I Hired A Contract Killer are similar.

Despite the film’s British setting, the soundtrack to the film is made up of early American songs that punctuate the isolation of the characters. “Body and Soul” by Billie Holiday emphasizes the loneliness of Henri’s landlord, while Holiday’s “Time on my Hands” illustrates the dead-end patrons of the Honolulu Bar. Reoccurring rhythm and blues numbers like “Need Your Loving So Bad” and “Suffering with the Blues” from Little Willie John are aural manifestations of Henri’s internal state. In addition, through the inclusion of Joe Strummer (ex-member of The Clash), a British lyrical perspective is formed. Joe Strummer makes a small cameo performing “Burning Light” in a pub, where a picture of Elvis Presley hangs behind him. (If Kaurismäki is referencing his connections between himself and his cinematic hero Leaud, then he is also bonding Strummer with his idol Elvis.) Strummer’s “Burning Light” lyrically conjures up Americana images of deserts and California roads, reminiscent of highway life found in Kaurismäki’s earlier film Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). It is Joe Strummer’s appearance that lends a real sense of British authenticity, legitimizing its London setting. Though Kaurismäki claims that, “I made the film in England because people there speak a civilized language that I passably master myself. It greatly facilitates the shooting if one understands at least a part of the dialogue.” (Toho Laserdisc.)

Despite the ever-growing interest in Aki Kaurismäki, and the recent release of three films through the Criterion Collection, it’s surprising that I Hired A Contract Killer has not ever had an official release in America. What makes it especially surprising is that it’s one of the few Kaurismäki films presented in English. Yet, the film has never been released on VHS or DVD in America, and one has to hunt down a copy of the 1991 Japanese Laserdisc just to see it. Despite the rarity of the film, its influence can be found in such films as Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998) and the lesser-known Killing Emmett Young (2002). Hopefully one day I Hired A Contract Killer will earn the audience it deserves, and Kaurismäki’s films will have wider availability. Kaurismäki’s vision encapsulates many westernized influences, and projects a very unique Finnish perspective.

Kaurismäki, Aki. Interview for I Hired A Contract Killer Japanese Laserdisc Insert. Toho Laserdisc TLL 2423. 9 March, 1991.
Leaud L’unique: Un Documentaire. Dir. Serge Le Peron. Universal, Canal + Wide Eye Pictures. 2001.
Nestingen, Andrew. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film, and Social Change. University of Washington Press, 2008.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Life As A Dog (1985)

Lasse Hallström’s Mitt liv som hund (aka: My Life As A Dog) (1985) was a major success in Scandinavia when released in 1985, and it continued to find success in the U.S. art house market, when finally released in 1987. By 1988, the U.S. nominated the film for two Oscars for best director and writers, and the film won a Golden Globe for best Foreign Film. Through the popularity of My Life As A Dog, the director Lasse Hallström launched a career in America finding much success with films like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999), and Chocolat (2000). Yet, none of the following films were as personal as My Life As A Dog, nor did they speak as intimately about Swedish cultural values and sexual politics. At the time of its release, the film nostalgically appealed to Swedes who were children during the late 50s and early 60s. My Life As A Dog’s basic premise is about growing up within family difficulties, and this universal topic appealed to American audiences as well, who were looking for insight into Swedish culture within the confines of the cinema art house.

Before Scandinavia would be recognized internationally for its late 80s heritage films like Babettes gæstebud (aka: Babette’s Feast) (1987) and Pelle erobreren (aka: Pelle the Conqueror) (1987), two important films came out that reflected the misguided youth of the late 50s and early 60s, Tro, håb og kærlighed (aka: Twist and Shout) (1984) and My Life As A Dog. Where the Heritage films told stories that strengthened Scandinavian pride or appealed to a sense of cultural history, both Twist and Shout and My Life As A Dog reveled in unsentimental nostalgia, while simultaneously illustrating the darker and colder aspects of Scandinavian family life. Both films deal with children handling a sexual rite of passage while dealing with difficulties within the familial structure and the sickness of a maternal figure. Though similar in their time placement and themes, Hallström’s film encapsulates a real sense of the Scandinavian identity, where Twist and Shout’s protagonist is merely a general reflection of youth (his penchant for The Beatles’ music can be seen as emblematic of a universal trait). Where Twist and Shout was sneakily exported and sold to American theaters and video stores as a possible U.S. product, My Life As A Dog embellishes the quirkiness of its culture and reflects its society’s values concerning sexuality, gender roles, sporting interests (soccer and boxing), art, and animal (pet) treatment.

My Life As A Dog concerns 12-year-old misfit Ingemar (wonderfully acted by Anton Glanzelius) who has problems assimilating to his surroundings and a mother dying of tuberculosis. Plagued with nervous ticks like bed-wetting and an inability to drink in front of people (he constantly spills his milk), Ingemar is often bullied by his brother Erik and is uncared for by his ailing mother who would rather read books all day. Yet, Ingemar manages to find some short-lived happiness with his dog Sickan and his blonde girlfriend Lilla, (Little Frog) who enact a blood-bound relationship of a married couple. After numerous incidents between Ingemar and Erik (who usually brings out the worst in his brother), they are split up to live with different family members, so that their mother can get some rest. It must be noted that Ingemar causes a lot of trouble around him, for he accidentally sets fire at a dumpsite, gets caught on top of Lilla by her father, and makes a mess in the kitchen fighting with his brother; Ingemar is definitely a handful for even the healthiest of parents. Yet, Hallström’s film makes Ingemar out to be a victim of circumstance, whose childlike naiveté is comically endearing in such seriously sad surroundings.

If Hallström’s presents Ingemar as a metaphor of a newer and more sensitive Swedish value system, then his brother Erik represents the older and colder sensibility of the past. Erik points a gun at Ingemar’s dog, foreshadowing the pet’s fate. Erik also sexually exploits his brother (by having him put his penis in a bottle in front of many children) and constantly emotionally abuses him by telling him he is to blame for everything. His mother’s illness has turned her intolerant, angry and irrational, leaving Ingemar little room to be a kid. In Hallström’s world, family members have a consistently cold view towards Ingemar, who tries desperately to hold on to happier memories of his mother enjoying a sunny day on the beach or photographing him and Sickan.

Throughout everything, Ingemar constantly compares his life to that of Laika, a dog Russia sent into space without enough food or oxygen to survive. Laika’s fate is thus juxtaposed with the situation of Ingemar’s own dog Sickan, who is callously put to death after Ingmar leaves to live in Småland with his uncle. Hallström depicts a time when humans were less sympathetic towards the fate of a dog, or (in Ingemar’s case) a child. In an atomic age where Russia uses a dog as a guinea pig for scientific advancement, Hallström prefers the less advanced Småland mentality.

After Ingmar settles in Småland to live with his Uncle Gunnar, Aunt Ulla and family, the film’s tone shifts dramatically to that of lightheartedness, sentimentality and whimsy. Ingemar’s uncle is obsessed with soccer and building his summerhouse (even though it’s on a rented property). Both Gunnar and Ulla greet Ingemar with a positive attitude even stating that he brought the nice weather with him (suggesting that he’s good luck). The new village embraces Ingemar’s quirkiness, and his two new best friends are Manne (a boy with green hair) and Saga (a girl who is forced to disguise herself as a boy to stay on the all male soccer team).

What is most surprising is that Hallström illustrates Småland to be a very sexually curious and progressive area. For example, their house neighbor Mr. Arvidsson has Ingemar read to him from brassiere advertisements, and Ingemar constantly views his Uncle Gunnar gawking at the town’s busty blonde beauty Berit (who asks Ingemar to go with her when she poses nude for the town artist); Hallström seems to be suggesting that the rural village’s attitude about sexual identity is far more liberal than the more urbanized areas of Sweden. Emily E. LeBeff writes:

“A significant concern in the film is the sex role learning shown in Ingemar’s interactions with his uncle and other men at the glass factory as they model traditional masculine behavior. “

The director sees this liberal attitude to be a more progressive and a healthier perspective. When the uncle gets on all four chasing after Ulla like a dog in heat, Ingemar reads this as a familial connection of play and joins in, barking and crawling like a dog. The uncle becomes the father (dog) leading Ingemar (the pup) into a sexual initiation of which Ingemar is unaware (all while the mother-in-law just sits by knitting). The door shuts on Ingemar, leaving him confused and sexually innocent. Yet as Ingemar stays in Småland, his sexual desires and confidence grow (through the mentoring of Gunnar) to the point where he slaps Berit on the butt and even climbs on top of the roof, risking life and limb to see her nude.

My Life As A Dog seems to be influenced by Swedish childhood films of the 70s as well as by writer Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking films. Though the tone is far more complex its perspective on village dynamics is similar. Coincidentally author Lindgren grew up in Småland, and one can’t help but feel this influenced Hallström’s location. Tytti Soila writes,

“The later Lindgren films in particular portray a world that is possible even more idyllic and designed to please than the first films made in the 1940s. The events take place in a small town or in the countryside in an idyllic community at the turn of the century, usually in a middle class environment. People live in peaceful communities where illness, hunger and war have no place.” (pg 230).

In this pastoral landscape, Ingemar has not to worry about his ailing mother or his sadistic brother; instead, he is free to express himself and explore his natural sexual desires that are concomitant with the coming of age journey. Hallström uses this village setting to explore a utopian environment, for the community constantly displays a sympathetic attitude towards it inhabitants. For instance, when the village oddball is bathing in ice-cold water, the town rushes to bring him to the glass factory to warm him up. A sense of unity permeates throughout, and when Ingemar’s friends witness his tearful breakdown they look upon him with sympathy yet with an almost curious look as if they rarely see such expressions of grief. Not only is hunger and illness non-existent in this community, but neither is sadness. Though the film never brings up politics per-se, the village in Småland is presented (by Hallström) as encompassing a socialist-like political structure.

My Life As A Dog is a meaningful coming of age story that reflects Scandinavian society in the late 50s as well as reflecting elements of Astrid Lindgren’s childhood tales. Lasse Hallström manages to hit just the right balance of a child’s dramatic journey without suffering the weight of over-sentimentality. Though childhood nostalgia is often skewed by time, Hallström keeps the emotional drama realistic and never falls into sugarcoating Ingemar’s experience. With the 50s paving the way for scientific advancement, the film suggests that simplicity equals a far more harmonious lifestyle, the future in science is for the dogs.

LeBeff, Emily E. “My Life As A Dog.” Teaching Sociology, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan. 1989), pp. 139-140.
Soila, Tytti. “Sweden: The Societal Mirror.” Nordic National Cinemas. New York, Routledge, 1998.

Vampyr (1932)

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) works like a fever dream that mixes fragmented moments of surrealism and German expressionism to create a unique vampire tale. The story concerns a young traveler who investigates a remote castle, where the lord of the manor and his two daughters have been plagued by a vampire. The film opens with the following introduction message: “This is a tale of the strange adventures of young Allan Gray who immersed himself in the study of devil worship and vampires. Preoccupied with superstitions of centuries past he became a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred.” As Allan Gray walks through the uncanny surroundings, he follows eerie mumbling voices and elongated shadows, which seem to belong to evil apparitions. The surrounding and shifting phantasmagoria has a haunting effect on the viewer, adding to a sense of uneasiness. Though released one year after Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), Vampyr is different from its predecessor and is more connected to the earlier silent horror films that emerged from Germany in the 1920s. The gothic spirit of Vampyr is closer to the vampire tale of Nosferatu (1922), while its dreamlike elements recall The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (without its abstract set designs).

Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer had previously helmed the fatally foreboding The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which delved into the persecution of an individual by a superstitious and religious society. In Dreyer’s follow-up film Vampyr, the inhabited village is made up of haunted superstitious townspeople, who seem trapped in a trance or ghost-like state. Dreyer is cinematically interested in the disconnection of the individual from that of his surroundings, or that of dream and reality. When lead protagonist Allan Gray sleeps, he is awoken in the middle of the night by an old man who unlocks his door and cryptically proclaims that “she mustn’t die” and leaves a note on a package that should be opened upon his death. Important information appears in his sleep state, while the waking day appears to look like a dream.

Dreyer creates an unclear world of logic with constant camera probing and unsettled movements. The inhabitants are made up of the elderly who are unable to protect their young. As Allan Gray investigates the castle, he witnesses a crippled one-legged guardsman, and the dream-like shadows of days past when the townspeople laughed and danced joyously, only to be silenced by an elderly witch lady with a cane. The Lord of the Manor’s daughter, Gisèle, looks after her sister Léone, who is ill and is slowly turning into a vampire. Allan only seems to witness things in fractions, and when the Lord is murdered, Allan can only see a shadowy figure with a rifle. Unable to discern the voices and noises that he hears, he is in a constant state of incomprehensibility. After the Lord of the Manor is murdered, Allan opens the package, which turns out to be a book about vampires. In one of Dreyer’s more effective and atmospheric moments in the film, Léone is discovered lying unconscious (with a neck bite by Allan and Gisèle) outdoors, where the landscape is shot in a hazy dream-like quality. Other surreal moments include Allan’s outer-body dream of his own death and funeral, which gives the film a poetic Poe quality. The film in some ways can be seen as a forerunner to some of the Avant-Garde films that were released during this time, such as the dream-like short of Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

Dreyer seems more concerned with atmosphere than logic. The haunting film seems to be about the religious conflicts between the town and the Satanic old lady with a cane. The village doctor appears to be a servant of evil and is murdered in a flour-mill (though by whom is unclear). Yet, the scene of the doctor suffocating under the weight of the flour that pours down upon him, juxtaposed with Allan and Gisèle searching through the fog on a boat, is chilling and hypnotic. Though slower paced than Dracula, Frankentstein (1931), The Wolf Man (1941) and all the other Universal horror films at the time, Vampyr gets under one’s skin and into the subconscious more effectively. Unlike the typical vampire film that includes bats, fangs, coffins, crosses and holy-water, Dreyer’s film creates a foreboding mood of paranoia, dread, and sadness. Interestingly, the character Allan Gray is never shown to exist in a world outside the confines of the village and castle. The viewer never sees Allan interact in normal surroundings; he just appears on the landscape like the beginning of a dream. This dreamscape quality stays with the film until the very end, where Allan and Gisèle reach a heavenly spot in a forest, the final fantasy state.

Though filmmaker Dreyer is Danish, Vampyr draws its inspiration from various European sources. A German production, Vampyr was shot in Abbaye de Braye, France (near Paris). Vampyr is loosely based on In A Glass Darkly by Irish, gothic writer Sheridan Le Fanu, who also penned the female vampire novella Carmilla. The film was cheaply financed by Dutch Baron Nicholas De Gunzberg who also happened to be an amateur actor and used the film as a vehicle to jumpstart an acting career. The Baron westernized his name to Julian West and played the leading role of Allan Gray. A considerable amount of credit should be given to Polish cinematographer Rudolph Maté for the expressionistic look of the film. Rudolph Maté previously worked with Dreyer on The Passion of Joan of Arc, and his camera work lent itself well with film noir masterpieces like Foreign Correspondent (1940), Gilda (1946), and The Lady From Shanghai (1947). Maté eventually turned his hand at directing and delivered two film noir gems himself with The Dark Past (1948) and D.O.A. (1950). According to Bergman and Karney, Maté was instructed by Dreyer to create the eerie mood of Vampyr by “reflecting light off gauze.” (Faber 675)

Due to its experimental nature, Vampyr was a financial disaster when released. According to Thompson and Bordwell, “Vampyr was so different from other films of the period that it was greeted with incomprehension. It marked the end of Dreyer’s international wanderings. He returned to Denmark and, unable to find backing for another project, to life as a journalist.” (Film History, pg. 158) Dreyer did eventually make his way back into making films, but it would be in ten years.

Vampyr may have been different from films of that time, but many years later it can be seen as an undeniable influence on future European filmmakers dealing with the vampire genre. French filmmaker Jean Rollin owes a cinematic debt to Dreyer’s vision, as does Spanish cult icon Jesus Franco. Rollin’s minimal setting and atmospheric approach to the vampire genre is much closer to Dreyer’s than Browning’s Dracula. Also, Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) disposes of genre expectations in the same way as Dreyer, creating a similar pace in terms of narrative development. Often a form of hypnosis is integrated into the vampire genre, with Dracula usually using this on his intended victim. Dreyer uses different techniques as cinematic hypnosis on the viewer, as a means to inhabit this psychological space. The cinematic approach is similar in style to director Jacques Tourneur and his films like I Walked with a Zombie (1943) or Curse of the Demon (1957). Unlike most vampire films, Vampyr works on a cerebral level that begs for a patient and closer examination.

Not only is Vampyr one of the most original adaptations of the vampire genre, its artistically challenging and moody. Though not successful at the time it has developed a strong and influential reputation, enough so to warrant a Criterion Collection release. Not concerned with typical genre specifics, the film realizes the artistic and atmospheric possibilities of a horror film.