You always know when something seems dream-like, but precisely what makes it that way? I was thinking about this as I watched and soon became a little obsessed with Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 film Vampyr. The movie is very dream-like, and not just because all the action takes place in one night. In a way, all movies are like dreams in that the viewer is borne along on an audio-visual narrative that he or she cannot control. But what makes Vampyr dream-like and, say, Scarface from the same year not dream-like, isn't just a sense of the fantastical, but subtler aspects such as discontinuity, disembodiment, and distortion.
The film's protagonist, Allan Gray, wanders into the small French town of Courtempierre, a real place where the film was shot entirely on location, and checks into an inn. As the introductory intertitle puts it, the shiftless Gray had become "a dreamer for whom the line between the real and the supernatural became blurred," thereby setting the tone for the whole film. A few shots later, when a mysterious older man in a smoking jacket drifts into Gray's room, it's unclear to Gray whether it's a dream or not — and Dreyer makes sure that we don't really know whether it is either.
It emerges that Courtempierre is besieged by a vampire and her minions who goad innocent people into suicide in order to enslave their now eternally damned souls. And so goes the rest of Vampyr, continually blurring dreams and reality, subjectivity and objectivity, life and death; under the circumstances, the name "Gray" begins to make a lot of sense.
(The original subtitle of the film was Der Traum des Allan Grey — how interesting, in light of a nightmarish film, to note the morphological and possibly etymological connections between the words "dream," "drama" and "trauma.")
Myths, as Jung famously said, are the dreams of cultures, and Dreyer interweaves myth and dreaming very pointedly at the beginning of the film. An old man stands by a river bank, bearing a large sickle, an iconic symbol of death. The man clangs a bell, summoning a small rowboat, a very definite allusion to Greek mythology, and the way departed souls would summon the boatman Charon to ferry them across the river Styx. But as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the boat was not taking the man to the underworld, it was taking him away from it. Gray has transgressed into a contemporary Hades that happens to be about 70 miles south of Paris. (In that sense, it anticipates another dream-like black-and-white film, Jean Cocteau's 1949 Orphée.)
Another allusion to classical myth apparently happened by accident: Gray finds his way to a creepy abandoned mill and happens upon a strange man on the stairs; he asks the man about the sounds of barking dogs and crying children. The question was a reference to a scene that was cut from the film, but interestingly, the growling of the three-headed dog Cerberus and the wailing of innocent children are the first two things that Aeneas hears when he enters the underworld with the Sibyl.
But what really makes Vampyr dream-like is the way it's photographed. For one thing, there are almost no establishing shots, which is just like the cinematography of dreams. Then there are the film's exteriors, which were shot in the pre-dawn hours to get an ineffable spectral quality and even then, literally shot through a layer of gauze. The general visual timbre is fuzzy, twilit, shrouded in fog that encroaches on and infiltrates the frame.
Vampyr embraces not only the look of dreams but their logic: Dreyer pointedly includes strange details but doesn't always follow up on them: a locket passed from a dying man's hand, a disfigured blind man babbling at the top of the stairs, shadows of a large dance party playing on a white wall. The transitions sometimes seem arbitrary, just as in a dream. Either that or the film eliminates transitions entirely, leaving details and linkages by the wayside — one moment, Gray is being greeted by the innkeeper and the next he's asleep in bed. The discontinuous time is matched by an equally discontinuous space: as Gray moves through various buildings, angles and physical space don't match up from shot to shot and it's difficult to get an accurate idea of the layout of any structure he's in. The mind strains to make sense of space and narrative, just as in a dream, and thus producing a very similar sensation to dreaming itself.
The film also has the disembodied quality of dreams: there are shadows or reflections of people, but we don't see any people; we hear children's voices but don't see any children. Sometimes the camera follows Gray's subjective point of view but then suddenly pulls away, looking at him objectively, something that happens so smoothly that you don't notice anything except an odd feeling of displacement. And in the most literal example of disembodiment, Gray walks out of his body – and then, in one of the film's most nightmarish sequences, observes his own corpse in a coffin. The next sequence depicts his point of view as he's carried in the coffin to a cemetery; he looks up at the world going by through a rectangular window, and the view is like a beautiful and yet horrific film within a film.
Although that old theory about how most dreams are in black-and-white has been disproven, it's hard to imagine Vampyr having the same oneiric power in color. Not that color was even an option in 1932, but in Dreyer's hands, monochrome is a palimpsest. If all the colors were filled in, the film would lose mystery and menace. It would lose the sensation of being once removed from reality, of being like a dream. Besides, it's fitting that a vampire movie should have all the blood drained out of it. Same with the sound — Vampyr was shot in three different languages and to make the production easier, there is extremely minimal dialogue. Just like in a dream.
The analogy between death and sleep is eternal and elemental. Just as the vampires are aware they're dead and yet can't truly die, Gray is aware that he might be dreaming and yet can't wrest himself from sleep. After he slays the vampire, Gray and his lover cross the river (Styx) and run through a forest and reach a clearing just as the sun's first rays greet the morning — the time when we awake. The dream is over. Gray has completed a, well, archetypal Jungian journey. But we don't see him wake up. He's stuck in the dream. And maybe so are we.