The Power of Nightmares

Revisiting the shadowy visions of Carl Theodor Dreyer
by Joshua Land  posted July 21, 2008
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But realism in itself is not art; it is only psychological or spiritual realism that is so. What has value is the artistic truth, i.e., the truth distilled from actual life but released from all unnecessary details—the truth filtered through an artist’s mind. What happens on the screen is not reality, and it cannot be so, because, if it were, it wouldn’t be art. — Carl Dreyer, “Thoughts on My Métier” (1943)

1. Essential Cinema

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s place in the Western canon has never been in doubt yet there remains a nagging sense that he has never truly gotten his due. His general reputation is still far too dependent on the 1928 silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, while his other films remain unknown to most casual cinephiles. Retrospectives of his work have been few and far between, and compared to other giants of European cinema (as well as some arguably lesser lights), Dreyer has been the subject of few books, critical articles, websites, etc. Major studies like David Bordwell’s long out-of-print 1981 book are difficult to come by without paying a premium. The upshot is that Dreyer stands in danger of becoming history-bound, taken for granted like a Griffith or an Eisenstein. Much of this relative neglect is no doubt because, up until the past decade, most of Dreyer’s films had been nearly impossible to see in quality versions. Happily, Criterion’s new release of Vampyr means that all of his major late works, as well as several of his silents, are now easily accessible on good DVDs.

Released in 1932, Vampyr was Dreyer’s first sound picture, with a soundtrack recorded separately in German, French, and English. (The 1998 restoration by Martin Koerber on the Criterion disc is based on the German version; the French version contains extended cuts of two violent scenes trimmed by German censors, and the English version has apparently been lost.) As the director’s sole foray into the horror genre, the film has long been regarded as an oddity in the Dreyer catalog, with few obvious connections to the rest of his work. And despite the heavy theological overtones of the film’s treatment of the vampire myth, Vampyr has also been upheld as one of Dreyer’s nonreligious pictures, ostensibly eschewing the overtly Christian subject matter of most of the director’s best-known films. The matter of Christianity in Dreyer has been the subject of persistent controversy: upon their initial releases, some Dreyer films—particularly Ordet (1955), an explicitly Christian-themed work that ends with a miracle—were treated by some reviewers as tracts of religious propaganda. It is perhaps such absurd characterizations that accounts for the eagerness of some later critics to downplay the role of religion in Dreyer’s work, perhaps as the next best thing to drumming it out entirely.

But Dreyer’s exploration of Christian themes and subjects is entirely consistent with an oeuvre allergic to simplistic solutions and seemingly addicted to seeing situations from multiple points of view. Concerned with the nature of religion, and with spiritual life more generally, to an extent that goes well beyond a mere penchant for historical subjects, Dreyer sought not to banish the spiritual but to demystify it, to render it in rigorously physical, material terms (as early as Passion, he was using the phrase “realized mysticism” to describe the goal of his work). His never-produced dream project was a film about the life of Jesus that by all accounts would have wound up far closer to Pasolini’s vision than to Mel Gibson’s. To the extent his films share a theological worldview, it could be described as a sort of anti-Gnosticism; his oeuvre balks at any attempt to divorce soul from body, the spiritual from the physical. It’s an attitude analogous to Dreyer’s particular notion of realism, cogently articulated in the quote at the top of this essay, as the physical expression of psychological and spiritual conditions, abstracted from the surrounding world. Indeed, abstraction lies at the heart of Dreyer’s artistic project and guides his stylistic choices as a filmmaker, his decision to shoot Passion almost exclusively in close-ups being only the most obvious of innumerable examples.

This relentless peeling away of the inessential, far from simplifying reality, serves to call attention to its complexities. Particularly in the trio of late masterpieces—Day of Wrath (1943), Ordet, and Gertrud (1964)—nothing is simple or dogmatic. Nothing is ever definitively resolved in these rich and confounding films, which deepen with repeated viewings, less by revealing new meanings than by prompting viewers to continually reexamine the meanings we thought we’d already figured out.

Take the protofeminist Day of Wrath. The opening third deals unflinchingly with the arrest, questioning, and execution of a woman accused of witchcraft. There’s a surprisingly graphic torture scene culminating in a “confession” that’s little more than a series of anguished, wordless assents by the half-naked old woman, and events culminate in a haunting shot of the condemned on her stake falling into the fire, screaming with fear. A relentless critique of the horrors of patriarchal power, Day of Wrath (playing at New York’s IFC Center from August 29 through September 4) is certainly one of the definitive artistic statements against what would soon be called McCarthyism. But it’s not content to be only that.

Dreyer’s treatment of Anne, the young wife of Absalon, the aging parson at the center of Day of Wrath, is markedly sympathetic. She’s been forced to marry a dull, unattractive man well over twice her age, and her life has been made a virtual prison by her hostile mother-in-law. Even when Anne begins the affair with her stepson, Martin, it’s difficult to work up any moral outrage in the face of the happiness it brings her. But then Dreyer shocks us with the pivotal “murder” scene, when Absalon dies suddenly, either from natural causes or Anne’s sorcery. The evil—and there is no other word for it—in Anne’s eyes as she “kills” Absalon, his fumbling, belated attempt at confessing his sins met not with forgiveness but unalloyed hate, not only renders moot the whole question of the reality of witchcraft but shatters the film’s seemingly simple moral schema into a cubist prism. Later, Anne tells Martin, “I believe he died for our sake,” blasphemously appropriating the idea of Christian sacrifice to their own selfish ends, an act reminiscent of the devil quoting Scripture to Jesus in the Gospels.

Nevertheless, Anne remains the film’s most sympathetic figure even to the end, when she’s driven mad not by any moral guilt but by the unyielding hermeneutics of religious dogma. Like Bess in Lars von Trier’s Ordet-inspired Breaking the Waves, whose unblinking faith in the power of prayer convinces her that her own selfishness is directly responsible for her husband’s debilitating accident, Anne comes to accept a narrative that, in the view of this particular 17th-century Lutheran community, represents a perfectly plausible explanation for the film’s events: that she seduced Martin and murdered his father with the aid of Satan himself.

2. Body and Soul

Dreyer’s greatest films all examine the effects of such totalizing discourses, either forms of religion or other metanarratives that take its place. In Vampyr, the vampire myth becomes an article of faith for the film’s young protagonist, his dominant paradigm for understanding the world (and, by extension, ours for understanding the movie). Likewise, in the putatively secular Gertrud, the title heroine becomes fixated on an idealized conception of love, which comes to function like a religious dogma, for better and for worse.

This current of Dreyer’s work gains its fullest expression in Ordet, which may also be the most rigorous and nuanced film ever made about Christian faith. Dealing soberly with matters like prayer and miracles, Dreyer’s film, based on a play by Kaj Munk, is set in the hinterlands of 1920s Denmark, and centers on a farm family led by an elderly patriarch named Moren. The oldest of his three sons, Mikkel, is happily married to Inger; they have two daughters and are expecting a third child. The youngest son, Anders, is in love with the daughter of Peter, a local tailor engaged in a longstanding religious feud with Moren. The remaining son, John, is to all appearances insane and believes himself to be the risen Christ. After Inger dies unexpectedly in childbirth, the family’s grief is compounded when John abruptly vanishes. On the day of Inger’s funeral, Peter has a sudden change of heart and reconciles with Moren. Then John reappears, having completely recovered his wits, and spurred on by the simple faith of Inger’s young daughter, calmly raises her from the dead.

Ordet identifies several characters with particular philosophical positions, all of which turn out to be fatally flawed. Mikkel, the man of good works who lacks faith in God, finds no comfort in his secular worldview for the overwhelming grief he feels when Inger dies. John is a theology student who was eventually driven mad by his subject (when the local parson asks Mikkel if a girl was responsible for John’s condition, he replies, “No, it was Sören Kierkegaard”). Moren and Peter are engaged in a never-specified theological feud that manifests itself as a clash of religious styles; both find themselves having to repent for actions inspired by their dogmatism and are made to recognize the pettiness of their feud when confronted with the film’s closing miracle. The village doctor’s smug scientific rationalism goes horribly awry when he pronounces Inger fine mere minutes before she dies. And interestingly, the parson comes off worst of all, his facile attempts to reconcile religion with science lacking either faith or reason.

In the end, no single system of belief is adequate to deal with the messy vicissitudes of existence; as Jonathan Rosenbaum has put it, the film is “a challenge to religious belief and disbelief alike.” Of all the characters, it is Inger who sits closest to its moral center as the best exemplar of a truly living Christianity, not only transcending dogma but merging the spiritual with the physical, faith with good works (“It is not enough to have faith if one is not a good person at the same time,” she tells Mikkel, reassuring him in his doubt.) And all theological talk aside, the only glimpse of heaven in Ordet—and the emotional center of the film—is the human love of Mikkel and Inger, fully evident in their early scenes together, which crackle with a passion as much carnal as spiritual. Later on, when his father tries to comfort the bereaved Mikkel, sobbing over Inger’s casket, telling him that her soul was plainly no longer there, he replies, “I loved her body also.” Ordet’s vision of resurrection is one of living bodies, not incorporeal spirits.

3. Things Fall Apart

The relationship between the physical and the spiritual figures heavily in the climax of Vampyr, Dreyer’s most thoroughgoing break with conventional realism, with the scariest sequence in this strangest of horror movies predicated on a vision of body and soul ripped asunder. It’s only the most dramatic example of how Vampyr approaches many of the same basic questions as the more overtly philosophical later films, questions about the relationship between our systems of belief, religious and otherwise, and our means of knowing and experiencing the world. In Vampyr, the narrative becomes merely one more illusion to be peeled away in Dreyer’s pursuit of inner realities.

Featuring a hero for whom, as the opening titles inform us, “the boundary between the real and the supernatural became blurred,” Vampyr is fundamentally a work of epistemological horror. The ambiguities and complexities of meaning that haunt Dreyer’s late masterpieces are here embedded within the very DNA of the film’s narrative, suffusing Vampyr in a tone of profound uncertainty that’s aided immeasurably by the hazy, milky look of Rudolf Maté’s cinematography (legend has it this effect was achieved in part because of a fortuitous technical problem that caused light to leak into the camera during filming).

The nominal protagonist is one Allan Gray (played by Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the film’s producer, under the pseudonym Julian West, one of several nonprofessionals in the cast), a young student obsessed with vampirism and the occult, but Vampyr systematically thwarts any identification with its characters, refusing any consistent point of view, either narrative or visual. We don’t live vicariously through Gray’s journey, nor do we learn any moral lesson from his adventures. In a sense, we become Gray: unable to distinguish black from white, reality from fantasy—yet our visual perspective is only rarely linked to his. One day, during what an intertitle calls “one of his aimless journeys,” Gray stops at an old inn near a small village, where he takes a room and eventually falls into a restless sleep.

This much can be established with some certainty, but the rest of Vampyr is a bit harder to pin down. One of the boldest narrative experiments in the history of mainstream cinema, Vampyr occupies a register all its own, one that straddles waking reality and lucid dreaming, much as the film straddles the boundary between silent and sound cinema. Gray is awakened by an old man who has somehow opened a locked door and receives a package to be opened after the man’s death. After wandering through the village for a time, Gray is led to the old man’s house, where he lives with his two daughters Léone (Sybille Schmitz) and Gisèle (Rena Mandel)—just in time to see him shot and killed by a shadowy figure. The murder turns out to have been done at the bidding of an old, blind female vampire (Henriette Gerard), who has also gained possession of Leone and several other townspeople.

Nothing is certain; each image is provisional, subject to reinterpretation. Looking out a window in the inn, Gray sees a man with a scythe who might be either a humble worker or the grim reaper himself. Later he leaves the inn and wanders into a mysterious shadowplay, filled with impossible visions. He sees the silhouette of a soldier patrolling the grounds. A few minutes later, Gray sees the soldier himself sitting motionless on a bench—and then sees the shadow walk over and reattach itself to the man before he (and it) stand up and walk away.

Sound proves no more reliable than sight; Gray is constantly seeing things that he can’t hear and hearing things he can’t see. Later in the shadowplay sequence, as Gray sees what appear to be the silhouettes of dancers and musicians in a ballroom, the soundtrack shifts abruptly back and forth between an upbeat dance number and the sinister tones that dominate most of the movie, subtly mocking the power of music to manipulate the viewer’s emotional perception of an image. Echoed by a sudden burst of banjo music near the end of the film, it’s a rare outburst of whimsy to break up the otherwise somber mood.

The soundtrack was created entirely in the studio, allowing a visual fluidity rare in early sound cinema. Not a silent but not fully a talkie, Vampyr includes long passages with only music on the soundtrack and imparts much of its plot via intertitles. Many of the titles are passages from a book entitled The Strange History of Vampires, the sole item in the package Gray receives from the old man. The book becomes the film’s bible of the vampire myth, a canonical text explicitly rooted in religious dogma that shapes the interpretation of events—both Gray’s and ours. Its simplistic pronouncements provide a virtual roadmap to the movie’s plot, anticipating such details as the precise method of the vampire’s execution, but eventually become entirely inadequate to explain the strange happenings onscreen.

The effect is to free the film’s images from the traditional burden of storytelling, allowing Dreyer’s camera to plumb the subtext of fear and desire. In this most Freudian of his films, Dreyer’s penchant for abstraction crystallizes moments of spiritual horror in immediate physical, even erotic, terms. Gisèle is visibly shaken when she’s captured by the wanton, ravenous gaze of her sister, Léone, in the throes of demonic possession, consumed with raw carnal desire for her blood. It’s an emblematic moment in the oeuvre of a director obsessed with the nuances of facial expression, who declared in “Thoughts on My Métier” that for “each simple act there is only one expression that is the right one, only one single one.”

Dreyer saves his boldest visual ideas for his wildest narrative gambit: an eight-minute dream sequence that synthesizes these undercurrents before merging impossibly into the film’s waking storyline. Literally stepping outside his own body, Gray appears nearly translucent throughout the dream. Our nominal hero has remained something of a cipher, defined mostly by his obsession with the occult, but his dream reveals a raging storm of eros and thanatos within. Gray envisions a fetishistic tableau of Gisèle, the object of his heretofore passive romantic interest, tied to a metal bed frame in an old house where she’s being held prisoner by one of the vampire’s servants. Far more shocking is the shot a few moments earlier, when Gray stumbles on a coffin, removes the cover—and sees his own face staring up at him. This discovery kicks off a singularly disturbing sequence—much of it disorientingly shot from the point of view of the corpse—in which the lid is screwed on the casket and the coffin is carried down to the churchyard, to the ominous tolling of bells. Gray awakens just as his own funeral procession passes the bench on which he is sleeping. Splitting Gray into three figures—inert body, living spirit, and sleeping dreamer—the sequence literalizes the idea of death as the separation of body and spirit, bringing Gray face to face with the ultimate physical horror: the sight of one’s own corpse.

Most puzzling of all, after Gray apparently wakes up and helps another man, a servant of the house, drive a rod through the heart of the vampire, it turns out that Gisèle, who had gone missing, really is imprisoned just as he’d dreamed it. As Gray rescues her, he again appears as the ghostly, translucent figure from the dream sequence (this visual connection remains unclear in the Criterion version, which is missing a few shots from the rescue sequence seen in other prints). It’s unclear whether we’ve slipped back into the dream or if the distinction between dream world and reality has finally ceased to have any meaning. Having completed the storyline dictated by the Vampires book (the intertitles disappear for the final third of the movie), the film is now free from the bonds of conventional narrative, operating exclusively on its own nightmare logic. In retrospect, it’s clear that it’s been doing so all along—from the first 10 minutes, when Gray falls asleep in his room and possibly begins dreaming the rest of the movie, Vampyr has flatly precluded the possibility of a definitive narrative interpretation. As ever with Dreyer, no single perspective is enough. 


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Courtesy Danish Film Institute and Criterion Collection
Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr
Photo Gallery: The Power of Nightmares



Joshua Land is a freelance writer and a founding co-editor of the online literary journal Essays & Fictions. He is currently studying applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Author's Website: Pop Tones