Before there were Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, or Andrei Tarkovsky (not to mention Lars von Trier, Carlos Reygadas, and Guy Maddin), there was Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889–1968), the original solitary, uncompromising film artist.
A product of the Danish film industry—once among the most innovative in Europe—Dreyer was a screenwriter who broke into directing after World War I; throughout the 1920s, he worked in Sweden, Norway, and Germany as well as Denmark, increasingly independent-minded and idiosyncratic. With his last silent, the French-financed Passion of Joan of Arc (1927), Dreyer essentially invented a new film language—predicated on a barrage of “mismatched” close-ups. The movie was a commercial failure, but its director became a titan of film culture, the first hero of the cine-clubs.
Dreyer made only five sound features: Vampyr (1932), Day of Wrath (1943), Two People (1944), Ordet (1954), and Gertrude (1964). With the exception of Two People, which he disowned, all were rigorously single-minded, exceptionally challenging, and provocatively anachronistic. As noted by James Agee with regard to Day of Wrath—revived this week in a rich digital restoration at the IFC Center—Dreyer violated “most of the ‘rules’ that [were] laid down, even by good people, for making genuine and good motion pictures.”
Day of Wrath is closer than most Dreyer films to normal. Still, this account of a 17th-century witch hunt (Joan‘s critique of religious intolerance infused with Vampyr‘s supernaturalism) lasted one week when it opened in New York in April 1948. There was, however, a critic’s brawl: Day of Wrath was championed as a masterpiece by the New York Post‘s longtime critic Archer Winsten, who, questioning his colleagues’ judgment, incurred the displeasure of The New York Times‘s Bosley Crowther. Revisiting Day of Wrath in a second Sunday piece, Crowther curtly dismissed the movie as an arty time-waster: “The tax of [Dreyer’s] slow and ponderous tempo upon the average person’s time is a rather presumptuous imposition for any motion-picture artist to make.”
Crowther consigned Day of Wrath to the “cultists”—a not altogether inappropriate response to this stark, brooding treatment of adultery, incest, and murder, an elemental tragedy not so far from a James M. Cain triangle, albeit shot so as to deliberately evoke the Dutch masters. A carefully composed movie of copious close-ups and silent-style performances, Day of Wrath unfolds not so much in a rural Danish village as in deepest Freudland. As witchcraft is the eruption of female sexual desire, so religion is designed to thwart that desire. Heedless use of authority is the original sin: A pious minister has used his power to take a young bride (the marvelously expressive Lisbeth Movin, who, depending how she’s lit, can resemble a demonic catwoman or a corn-fed prom queen), and everyone must suffer the consequences.
Day of Wrath represents a struggle between the supernatural and the unnatural. Both the old man and his young wife are burdened with satanic mothers—but where hers is a dead, accused witch, his is a live and exceedingly possessive witch-hunter. In Italy, Day of Wrath was retitled The Lover of His Mother—albeit referring not so much to the old man’s relationship with this unspeakably ancient crone as his son’s affair with his new stepmother.
The social order is predicated on forced confessions, desperate denunciations, and constant surveillance. The village is a miniature terror state run by church fathers more frightening than witches. The burning of an accused old woman is a state-sanctioned black mass consecrated by the sweet sound of singing children. That Day of Wrath was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and released not long after the round-up of Danish Jews contributes another political aspect. (Given the movie’s interface of religious dogma, punitive political authority, and sexual repression, it might be interestingly remade in contemporary Iran.)
But the great thing about Day of Wrath is that its allegory is as free-floating as its moral accountings are ambiguous: Who is innocent? Is there such thing as collective guilt? The answer to the first question renders the second question moot.
The bridge between Joan of Arc and Day of Wrath, Vampyr is Dreyer’s most radical film—maybe one of my dozen favorite movies by any director. It’s also a movie that, as an early talkie, was made in three different versions and has long languished in the public domain. Newly reissued in a deluxe package that includes the J. Sheridan Le Fanu novella on which it was based, the Criterion edition offers the restored German version—more complete and looking better than I’ve ever seen it.
Vampyr was financed by the Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (a White Russian exile who wound up senior fashion editor at Vogue). It was shot, over the better part of 1930, in and around an abandoned French château, usually at dawn. Dreyer made extensive use of non-actors as well as bad actors, including his producer as the protagonist—a confused young man who stumbles across a conspiracy of vampires in a small European town. Actually, confusion is globalized: Dreyer deliberately fogged the film by shooting everything through a piece of gauze; the sound is comparably obscure and dematerialized.
After a successful Copenhagen premiere, Vampyr scandalized Berlin. The tumultuous May 1932 screening was considered newsworthy by the local New York Times correspondent: “Whatever you think of the director Charles [sic] Theodor Dreyer,” he reported, “there is no denying that he is ‘different.’ He does things that make people talk about him. You may find his films ridiculous—but you won’t forget them. . . . Although in many ways [Vampyr] was one of the worst films I have ever attended, there were some scenes in it that gripped with brutal directness.”
It’s a valid description. Exerting considerable moment-to-moment fascination as it heedlessly transcends the rules, Vampyr has few establishing shots and many abrupt cuts. The action takes place over the course of a single white night, with the moon as bright as the sun. Some characters unexpectedly leave and re-enter the frame. Others are simply disembodied—present as shadows, reflections, or voices. Everything is unstable, nothing is ever really explained, although just about everything can be extrapolated . . . eventually. (As the film theorist Noel Carroll once observed, Vampyr is hard to follow but not difficult to understand.) Vampyr thrives on illusion—the power of suggestion runs wild—although it is quite literal-minded in representing vampirism as a spiritual disease and even more so in evoking, as no movie ever has, the terror of being buried alive.
Vampyr is uncanny not because of its subject matter, but because of its utter strangeness as film. For those who have never seen Day of Wrath, the new print is a must-see; for Dreyer cultists, Criterion’s DVD is a must-have.