Fear of Fascism

Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr

Carl Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr is as remarkable for what it leaves out as what it puts in. Although full of shots that linger in memory like a bright light does after you close your eyes, the film’s greatest achievement is its refusal to follow the rules of its genre.

Waiting for Hitler: Vampyr.

It’s no accident that tales about vampires became wildly popular in the most developed portions of Western Europe right as its inhabitants began to perceive themselves as modern.

The “disenchantment of the world” that German sociologist Max Weber described left a remainder from the outset, one which returned in a morbid fascination with the superstitions that resisted its advance.

Progress in the sense that we understand it has always been shadowed by regressive impulses.

Vampire stories transformed this fundamentally temporal anxiety into a spatial one. Eastern Europe, far behind countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany from a developmental standpoint, was depicted as a repository for the powers of darkness.

While Vampyr indicates this geographically grounded mindset, the film doesn’t seem interested in reinforcing it.

Instead, we are shown what happens when the Eastern European origin of vampire stories fades from view.

Even though Vampyr is a sound film, it isn’t much of a talkie. Dialogue is sparse and enigmatic. And the most memorable scenes would work just as well in silent cinema.

Rather than have his characters reveal background in their conversation and reflection, as happens in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and F.W. Murnau’s copyright-infringing adaptation of it, Nosferatu, Dreyer chose to use intertitles and shots in which we are given the time to read about vampires from a book.

Even though we see characters reading the book, the way it is presented on screen makes it possible for us to read the words ourselves.

This has the effect of distancing the film’s narrative from the tales that informed it, including Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly, the only one which the film acknowledges as a source.

In calling its adaptation of Le Fanu’s text “free”, Vampyr could be said to signal Dreyer’s intention to liberate his story from the xenophobic paranoia that runs rampant in its predecessors.

What we get instead is an exploration of how reading about a topic like vampires might transform someone’s consciousness.

Dreyer wanted Vampyr to seem like a dream. The combination of narrative discontinuity, deliberately blurry cinematography, and the use of autonomous shadows to demonstrate that everyday logic no longer applies leaves the audience unsure whether the protagonist’s experiences are the product of external circumstances or his own inner life.

Horror stories have often turned on the question of whether something is actually happening or reflects a character’s mental illness.

But Vampyr eliminates that kind of narrative tension from the outset, informing us in the opening intertitles that it will be relating the “fantasy experience” of its protagonist Allan Gray, who had “immersed himself in studies of devil cults and vampire superstition”.

Gray’s “preoccupation with the mad ideas of centuries past made him into a dreamer and fantasist, for whom the distinction between reality and the supernatural had been lost”.

In other words, we know from the very beginning that any fear Vampyr inspires should be attributed to Gray’s morbid fascination with legends, not a significant threat to contemporary existence from without.

Considering the fact that Vampyr was released in German, French, and English-language versions at the height of the worldwide depression in 1932, its refusal to blame foreigners is extremely important.

This reluctance almost certainly contributed to the film’s failure at the box office. Even audiences who were ideologically opposed to the rise of fascism and other kinds of right-wing populism still desired the troubling satisfactions of the vampire genre. But Dreyer didn’t want to provide them.

Instead, Vampyr treats us to an experience that reflects the lessons of psychoanalysis, in which external stimuli are transmuted by the dream-work into an allegory of inner life. Whatever struggles we face in waking life pale before the ones that confront us in our sleep, since the latter can never be transcended.

The most compelling way Vampyr communicates this point is in its handling of shadows.

Over and over again, Gray sees shadows that don’t make sense from a diegetic standpoint. Even though the film frustrates our attempts to map its setting in our minds, we understand intuitively that the light streaming into a scene is completely inconsistent with the shadows being cast on the wall and ground.

In one sense, this is a clever inside joke for cinephiles, since almost every film features shots in which the light illuminating a scene doesn’t make narrative sense. We learn to suspend disbelief and pretend that the natural light in a setting is sufficient, even though our minds can tell the difference.

But drawing our attention to the artificiality of movie-making in general also serves a deeper purpose. Because we recognise intuitively that what Gray is seeing cannot exist in the real world, it is much harder to forget that the film’s supernatural elements derive from his own research, rather than an existential threat coming from somewhere else.

Dreyer was making Vampyr in Germany during the NSDAP’s rise to power. Even though the film is not overtly political, its dogged insistence on demystifying the story it tells, even at the cost of alienating moviegoers, nonetheless makes a powerful argument against the fear-mongering that Hitler had made his calling card.

Photograph courtesy of National Science and Media Museum. Published under a Creative Commons license.