Carl Theodor Dreyer – ‘Vampyr’ review

The experience of watching Carl Theodor Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ accompanied by

a Hauschka performance was almost a dream in a nightmare. Relentless yet just

barely happening. When taking in the experience as a whole, the flaws were out

stripped by the pleasure of being removed from one’s everyday life and placed in a

psychedelic nightmare featuring an old lady vampire called Chopin.

 Image

The film (originally mostly silent, now completely silent) was made in the 1932 and

was loosely based on the lesbian vampire tale ‘Carmilla’ from the short story

collection ‘In a Glass Darkly’.  It features experimental filming techniques and an

ambiguous plot, creating a continuous developing mood. At times it’s highly

engaging whilst at others it becomes hard to follow. What remains constant is the

unnerving atmosphere which pervades every scene. This is remarkable considering it

does not fall back on the usual vampire set pieces of sharp teeth and blood on tap.

Lead actor Nicholas De Gunzburg looks like has seen as ghost for the entire film,

even though he rarely sees any. The grin on the vampire’s victim’s face is so

menacing it could get a squeal out of Van Helsing, yet the viewer is not witness to her

getting bitten, nor does she attack anyone. Dreyer managed to instil horror by way of

subtlety, making this a film that stands out in the genre. Today it is thought of as one

of his masterpieces.

 

The music which accompanied the film had the potential to be perfect for this kind of

picture. Hauschka specialises in ‘prepared piano’, altering the instrument’s

pitch, timbre and dynamic response by attaching various trinkets and curios. The

composer allowed me to have a cheeky close-up peek inside the piano. Knocking

around the strings were at least thirty ping pong balls, some feather dusters, a

full pack of orange tick-tacks, rubbers, gaffer tape, a bodhran and a fair few e-bows.

Needless to say this was all going through a number of effects processors. Critics

have hailed Hauschka as bringing forward the musical style first introduced by Henry

Cowell and John Cage. The composer explained that he has played along to several

different versions of the film, with variations in scene editing and

speed. Indeterminacy from all angles.

 

The sound which Hauschka produced didn’t stop for the entire duration of the film.

Not once. Long, sustained harmonic and rhythmic patterns crept around the room as

shiftily as the on-screen shadows. Notes rattled as doors opened and dream

sequences were supplemented by the build up of electronic loops. Although the

constant music did support the flowing scenes, one might argue that  at times it was

detrimental to changes of emotion in the film. Nothing could be sudden, every

alteration of musical mood was forced to enter gradually, like the depressing onset of

yet another Yorkshire drizzle. A deliberate stylistic feature of the composer, some

may have felt it held the film back and perhaps made it a slice boring. You could even

go as far as saying Haushcka only played one endless extended chord all evening, but

it maybe depends on how much you took from the music. A cruel listener might say

the performance was but a melancholic drone; an admirer could see it as a successful

attempt to immerse you in the dazed horror of Dreyer’s artistic vision. Even if I go

to see Hauschka accompany ‘Vampyr’ another time, it’s likely to be pretty different

from my experience this time round.

James Elson

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