Culture

Sounding out Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’

BEIRUT: The vampire movie genre is riddled with narrative tropes so common there’s little need to retail them. Whether the sinister protagonist is male (Garry Oldman, say) or female (Catherine Deneuve), the creatures’ pathology includes consuming its victim’s blood.

The stalking process has long been imbued with an aura of seduction and – depending on the narrative – the seduced tend to be transformed into nocturnal parasites themselves. Since the last quarter of the 20th century, the conflation of vampirism and energetic coitus has inspired all sorts of suggestive cinematic improvisations, PG-13 and otherwise.

One virtue of “Vampyr,” the 1932 feature of Danish writer-director Carl Theodor Dreyer, is the imagination with which it departs from the narrative box containing most commercial vampire flicks.

Aficionados of the form had a chance to enjoy Dreyer’s work at Metropolis-Sofil Monday evening, where it helped lower the curtain on the European Film Festival.

The film was projected as a cine-concert, scored by the Lebanese instrumental rock band Kinematik – Anthony Sahyoun guitar, Rudy Ghafari electronics, Roy Khazen bass guitar, Akram Hajj drums.

Though “Vampyr” is appreciated as a relic of historic art house – associated with such expressionist experiments as Robert Wiene’s “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari,” 1920, and FW Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” 1922 – Dreyer’s contribution to the genre aspired to box office success. Ultimately, his narrative improvisations and fondness for formal experimentation proved too much work for mass audiences.

Nominally based on “In a Glass Darkly,” 1872, a collection of gothic tales by Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Dreyer’s script (penned by Christen Jul) follows the adventures of Allan Grey (Julian West), a stunned-looking young man who shows up at a rural inn with an armload of apparatus that includes a butterfly net.

A spate of preliminary inter-titles informs audiences that Grey’s distraction arises from his long fascination with occult matters. As fate would have it, this inn isn’t far from a castle where diabolical forces are at work.

Grey is made aware of these immediately, as his sleep is disturbed by various figures – a stern old crone, a peg-legged fellow in a train conductor’s uniform that she bosses around and a Friedrich Nietzsche lookalike (whose feral hair and moustache later provided the cinematic prototype of “mad scientist”) – all of whom stomp around the inn at odd hours.

In the (well-lit) nocturnal gloom these figures, particularly the peg-legged train conductor, cast free-spirited shadows that move about independently of the figures themselves – silhouette and double exposure being an important (presumably less-expensive) substitute for the mechanical special effects of the day and later animation and CGI.

The perturbed Grey is visited by a ghost-like figure in a dressing gown who – after demanding “She must not die!” – places a package on Grey’s desk, upon which he carefully writes, “To be opened upon my death.”

Grey pockets the mystery package and chases some exterior shades overland to an estate that, as fate would have it, belongs to Bernard (Maurice Schutz), the same gent who paid him a preternatural visit the night before.

Bernard promptly expires, giving Grey an excuse to unwrap the package, to find a vampire history-slash-how-to guide for slaying them. Grey’s efforts to get through the book are constantly interrupted by odd goings-on related to Bernard’s daughters Léone (Sybille Schmitz) and Gisèle (Rena Mandel).

Attended by a nun, Léone lies in bed upstairs with a queer bite mark on her throat, though she isn’t averse to wandering around the garden when no one’s looking. The camera finds her there, swooning in the arms of the stern old crone the camera sighted earlier.

Later in the evening the village doctor – Friedrich Nietzsche’s lookalike – arrives to look in on Léone. His doctoring is eccentric, leaving a bottle of poison lying on Léone’s bedside table and kidnapping her sister.

For all the plot’s peculiarities, it’s Dreyer’s segmentation of his hero that’s most intriguing. At one point Grey’s spirit arises from his prone body and wanders around an anonymous structure where he finds the bound Gisèle and, wait for it, the gaping face of his own corpse in a coffin.

During Grey’s astral wanderings, Joseph, one of the manor’s servants, picks up his book on vampires. The text not only identifies the stern crone as a vampire named Marguerite Chopin, it describes how she was killed – raising questions of temporality and intertextuality that are rare in genre pictures. So armed, it’s Joe who assumes the film’s vampire-slaying duty.

Unlike the works of Wiene and Murnau, which have both been performed as Metropolis cine-concerts, Dreyer’s “Vampyr” was an early talkie, albeit one that embraced inter-titles. Monday’s cine-concert thus brushed aside ambient sound and dialogue as well as Wolfgang Zeller’s original score.

The cine-concert recalls the practice of having musicians perform a film’s score live – standard convention in the days before talkies – with contemporary players encouraged to refresh the vintage cinema experience.

Beirut cine-concerts have not, in practice, sought to recreate the historic cinema experience, either musically or instrumentally. More frequently they feature the work of contemporary musicians – often experimental and improv artists. As noted before, the pairing seems eccentric insofar as the impulse of contemporary composition and performance is to move away from music as accompaniment.

Kinematik’s contemporary instrumental scoring of “Vampyr” was not eccentric. Its accompaniment was pleasant, well-rehearsed and nicely synced to the projection.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 08, 2017, on page 16.

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