DirectorCarl Theodor Dreyer
Release Date(s)1932 (May 30, 2022)
Studio(s)Masters of Cinema Series (Eureka! Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: A-
[Editor’s Note: This is a Region B-locked Blu-ray release.]
“For since realism, in itself, is not art, and since, on the other hand, there must be harmony between the genuineness of feelings and the genuineness of things, I try to force the realities into a form of simplification and abbreviation in order to reach what I will call psychological realism... In order not to be misunderstood, I hurry to define the word ‘abstraction’ as an expression for the perception of art which demands that an artist shall abstract from reality in order to reinforce its spiritual content, whether this is of psychological or purely aesthetic nature. Or said even more succinctly: Art shall represent the inner and not the outer life... What is important is that the director share his own artistic and spiritual experiences with the audience, and abstraction gives him the possibility by allowing the director to replace objective reality with his own subjective perceptions.” – Carl Theodore Dreyer, My Only Great Passion (1950) & Imagination and Color (1955).
The great Danish filmmaker Carl Theodore Dreyer made a career out of doing just that—using abstraction to set aside any pretense toward objective reality, and instead to express his own subjective spiritual experiences. He accomplished that in a variety of different ways, such as shooting his period piece The Passion of Joan of Arc entirely in closeups, abstracting the human face from its surrounding environment, in order to bring the subjective nature of internal suffering to the fore. He also used abstraction in a far more literal sense in his follow-up to that film, the incomparable Vampyr.
Vampyr is ostensibly based on stories from the 1872 collection In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu, primarily Carmilla, though there’s also a key sequence that was clearly inspired by something that happens during The Room in the Dragon Volant. Yet Vampyr isn’t really an adaptation of any of the actual narratives from In a Glass Darkly, not even from Carmilla, but rather it just borrows ideas and imagery from the book—the screenplay credit for Dreyer and Christen Jul openly admits that it’s been “freely adapted.” Dreyer and Jul’s story, such as it is, follows Allan Gray (Julian West) as he visits a small village and encounters people under the thrall of a local vampire. (The character is named Nikolas in the script, and David in the French version of the film, but since he’s called Allan in the most commonly seen German version, that’s how he’s usually known.) The actual narrative details aren’t particularly important; what matters is the ways in which Dreyer used abstraction to share his own spiritual details with the audience. That abstraction is frequently manifested as some truly remarkable and unforgettable imagery that borders on being surrealistic, such as when shadows display lives of their own aside from those who cast them.
While the most famous sequence in the film features Gray dreaming of his own death and looking out from his coffin, the entire film is structured as a dream, and the lines between dreams and reality blur to such an extent that there’s often little difference between the two. Yet there is a journey for Gray, essentially one that goes out of darkness and into the light, from death to rebirth. (Long is the way, and hard, as Milton once wrote.) While Dreyer’s upbringing wasn’t quite as strictly religious as it is sometimes portrayed, his Lutheran faith still informed everything that he did. He even toyed with filming the life of Christ at different points in his career, but instead settled for showing martyrs of a different kind in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc. He chose to make a vampire story after that film as a way of showing that he wasn’t a purely religious director, but Vampyr ended up being infused with as much spirituality as any of Dreyer’s more overtly religious projects. It’s not really a horror story at all, but instead a tale of sacrifice and spiritual renewal. Horror stories love reveling in the darkness, but for Dreyer, those sinister details were just steps along the journey, not its final destination. Vampyr is an oddly beautiful, poetic film that’s quite unlike any other horror or vampire story ever made. It goes beyond mere genre to become something truly unique: a genuinely transcendental experience.
Cinematographer Rudolph Mate shot Vampyr on 35 mm film using spherical lenses. As an early sound production, it was framed at 1.19:1 for its theatrical release. (Vampyr was actually shot silent at the full 1.37:1 Academy aperture, but the soundtrack was later striped on the left side of the frame, reducing the image area to 1.19:1.) The original negatives are lost—Dreyer’s original plan was to produce separate German, French, and English language editions of the film, and while there’s no evidence that the English version ever saw the light of day, it appears that the original negative was cut repeatedly to produce at least the German and French versions, and it may have been destroyed beyond repair in the process. What remains are various nitrate or safety prints, in different languages and edits, of varying quality. A photochemical restoration of the German version was completed in 1998, using different elements to create as complete a version as possible, though it’s still missing some censored footage. That print was used as the basis for this new 2K digital restoration, completed in 2020 after a decade’s worth of work. Astoundingly enough, nearly a quarter of a million bits of damage, dust, or scratches were manually removed by a single person: Claus Greffel at the Danish Film Institute.
The results are a significant improvement over the previous high definition version that Criterion released on Blu-ray in 2017. The scratches and other damage haven’t been fully removed, as that would have been impossible without negatively impacting the integrity of the underlying image, but they have been greatly reduced compared to the Criterion. There’s still some slight instability, plus a bit of flicker and frequent density fluctuations, but it’s arguably a touch better in this version. However, the most noticeable improvements are the reduced levels of damage. There’s still an occasional hair at the bottom edge of the frame, plus one unusual (and very heavy) horizontal scratch in a couple of shots at approximately 42:20, but the image is clearer and cleaner overall. Detail levels naturally vary, especially in the shots where Mate used heavy gauzes to create a hazy, dreamlike look, but thankfully the grain hasn’t been removed during the restoration process. It’s frequently quite heavy, but that’s unavoidable given the elements that were used. It’s far from perfect, but this is unquestionably the best version of Vampyr that’s currently available.
Audio is offered in both restored and unrestored German LPCM 2.0 mono with removable English subtitles. The restored version is quieter and cleaner, though perhaps a touch muted in the high frequencies as a result of the cleanup work. The unrestored version has a bit more sparkle, but it’s also much noisier. The restored version is preferable between the two, but it’s still interesting to be able to switch back-and-forth between them on the fly. Either way, Vampyr was produced in the first few years of the sound era, so you do need to accept the limitations of the original recordings, as they can never be overcome.
The Limited Edition Eureka! Entertainment Masters of Cinema Region B-locked Blu-ray release of Vampyr is a boxed set that includes a single disc as well as a 100-page booklet. Everything is housed inside a rigid hardbound slipcase featuring the iconic poster art from the film. The booklet includes a translation of the original Danish film program from 1933; essays by Jean and Dale Drum, Tom Milne, Herman G. Weinsberg and Gretchen Weinsberg, and Dreyer himself; notes on the 2000 & 2022 restorations by Martin Koerber; and abundant production stills and promotional artwork. The set is limited to 3000 copies, and it’s already difficult to track down, though there’s a standard edition on the way that doesn’t include the box and the booklet. The following new and archival extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Tony Rayns
- Audio Commentary with Guillermo del Toro
- Visual Essay (Upscaled SD – 36:01)
- Carl Th. Dreyer (Upscaled SD – 29:59)
- Kim Newman on Vampyr (HD – 22:24)
- David Huckvale on Composer Wolfgang Zeller (HD – 36:39)
- David Huckvale on Sheridan Le Fanu (HD – 11:38)
- The Baron (HD – 14:25)
- Censored Scenes from the French Version (HD – 3:50)
The commentary with critic and programmer Tony Rayns was originally recorded for the 2008 Eureka! DVD release of Vampyr, and it was also licensed out to The Criterion Collection for their version. Rayns provides a comprehensive history of the production, including the multiple language versions and different edits that Dreyer created. He also examines the discontinuous nature of the narrative, analyzes the imagery, and attempts to interpret what he can, while still accepting that some things in the film defy simple explanation—there’s no objective reality to be had here. Like most Masters of Cinema commentaries, this one is scholarly and analytical, if a trifle dry, but Rayns does offer a lot of information for anyone who wants to learn more about the film.
The Guillermo del Toro commentary was also originally recorded for the 2008 Eureka! DVD, but they’ve retained exclusive rights to it, so it’s never been included on any other releases until now. He approaches Vampyr as the ultimate fanboy, so it’s not a scholarly track, as he bluntly acknowledges. He says that “It’s the equivalent of inviting a fat Mexican to your house, feeding him, and then having to listen to him” (del Toro’s words, not mine!). He’s most fascinated by the religious underpinnings of the story, and he examines Dreyer’s Lutheran dogma through his own Roman Catholic lens. Del Toro feels that Allan Gray is a messianic symbol, as he sacrifices himself to protect the innocent, even if his death is only a dream. It’s not so important if the film is a dream in a linear fashion, as what really matters is that it’s texturally a dream, and thus it becomes symbolically transcendental. For del Toro, the entire film serves as both a memento mori and a redemption story. It’s a great commentary track—del Toro may feel unworthy to comment on a Dreyer film like Vampyr, but he acquits himself admirably here.
The Visual Essay, Carl Th. Dreyer, The Baron, and the Censored Scenes were also first included on the 2008 Eureka! and/or Criterion DVDs. The Visual Essay is by Caspar Tybjerg, who describes the historical cinematic context surrounding Vampyr, discusses Dreyer’s influences, and spends time analyzing the scenes that were either deleted or censored. He also notes many of the film’s ambiguities. It’s divided into six sections: Rise of the Vampire, Real and Unreal, Spiritual Influences, Vanished Scenes, Shadowing the Story, and The Ghostly Presence. Carl Th. Dreyer is a 1966 television documentary about Dreyer, directed by Jorgen Roos, most of which was filmed during the Parisian premiere of Dreyer’s final film Gertrud in 1966. It opens with various luminaries like Henri Langlois, Francois Truffaut, and Henri-Georges Clouzot expressing their admiration for the master filmmaker, and then it features Dreyer providing his thoughts about The President, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud. (The section on Vampyr is also incorporated into the preceding Visual Essay.) The most striking image in the documentary is a brief clip of a starstruck Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina greeting Dreyer—unfortunately, there’s no audio, so we don’t get to hear their conversation. The Baron is a short film by Craig Keller about Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, the wealthy nobleman and socialite who helped to finance Vampyr in exchange for starring in the film under the stage name “Julian West.” The Censored Scenes include footage from the French version of Vampyr that were removed from the German version at the behest of the censors. They’re both extended versions of existing sequences: the staking of the vampire, and the death of the doctor.
The rest of the extras are new to this edition. Kim Newman on Vampyr is a conversation with the author and critic, who describes it as being sort of a tributary to the conventional horror film. He traces the evolution of the vampire genre, starting with Tod Browning’s Dracula and continuing through various adaptations of Carmilla, noting that Vampyr doesn’t really fit in with any of them, but it’s still been influential—he sees it as a horror film for the ages. David Huckvale on Composer Wolfgang Zeller is an examination of Zeller’s career and music, including his unfortunate association with the notorious antisemitic Nazi melodrama Jud Suss. The majority of the featurette consists of Huckvale at his piano, methodically and painstakingly deconstructing every musical theme and motif in the score for Vampyr, with comparisons to how they’re used in the film. He does a nice job of explaining concepts from music theory in a way that should be easily comprehensible even to those who don’t have a background in music. David Huckvale on Sheridan Le Fanu is a look at In a Glass Darkly, and the ways that it influenced Dreyer’s film. He points out the elements in both Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant that appear in different forms in Vampyr.
Missing from the 2017 Criterion Collection Blu-ray is the 1958 Radio Broadcast featuring Dreyer, as well as most of the essays from their own 40-page booklet (though Martin Koerber’s 2000 restoration notes are included here, in a revised version). The Criterion set also included a 215-page book featuring the screenplay by Dreyer and Christen Jul, as well as Le Fanu’s full short story Carmilla. If you have the Criterion Blu-ray, you’re definitely going to want to hang onto it, but if you don’t, both the screenplay and the short story are available elsewhere. Otherwise, thanks to the superior restoration, the del Toro commentary, and the various new extras, this Eureka! release has the clear edge between the two.
If you can’t track down the Limited Edition version, the standard release will include the same disc, so you won’t be missing any of the content. Vampyr belongs in the collection of every film fan, regardless of whether or not you enjoy the horror genre, and this Blu-ray is currently the definitive way to own it.
- Stephen Bjork