A surrealistic Vampyre story

Director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Gray (Vampyr: The Dream of Allan Gray) isn’t the type of film the average person will immediately understand and fall in love with. Even I found it very strange, and I’ve watched a lot of avant-garde and experimental films!

The film is based upon Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), a collection of five Gothic short stories.

Dreyer began planning Vampyr in 1929, a year after the release of his critically successful but financially disastrous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Le Societé Générale des Films cancelled his contract after it bombed, and in return, he accused them of mutilating the film to avoid offending Catholics.

Dreyer sued them for breach of contract, and the lawsuit dragged on till autumn 1931. When he was finally at liberty to work again, he went outside the studio system.

Because the transition from silents to sound happened so quickly, without time to work out the kinks, filming was difficult. Dreyer wanted it to be silent, but it ended up with dialogue used very selectively, explanatory intertitles, and book pages.

In the early sound era, films were often reshot in other languages, with the actors phonetically memorizing their lines. Some were reshot with different actors. In Vampyr, dialogue was mouthed in French, German, and English, so the dubbing wouldn’t look fake.

Much of the dialogue is delivered off-screen or facing away from the camera, to make this process easier. The only actors who didn’t lip-synch were Sybille Schmitz and Nicolas de Gunzburg (billed as Julian West).

The only professional actors were Maurice Schutz (Lord of the Manor) and Sybille Schmitz (his daughter Léone). The others were recruited in trains, cafés, and shops.

Many of the crew members had worked with Dreyer on Jeanne d’Arc, such as art director Hermann Warm and cameraman Rudolph Maté.

Everything was shot on location, with many scenes in Courtempierre, France. Not only did this save money, but it also increased the surrealistic, dreamlike atmosphere. During filming, the château where much of the story transpires served as housing for cast and crew. Unhappily, it was cold and rat-infested.

The German version renamed the protagonist David and ordered certain graphic scenes censored. Other deleted scenes which don’t exist in any known surviving prints include a Vampyre recoiling against the shadow of a cross, and a ferryman guiding Allan and Gisèle with the help of children building a fire and singing.

Dreyer also prepared a Danish version for his native country, based on the German version, but the distributor couldn’t afford to finish the intertitles in that same style. The Danish distributor also wanted the book pages changed into regular intertitles, but Dreyer refused. He felt the book were as much an actor as the humans.

The German première was delayed by UFA (the main production company), since they wanted the American films Dracula and Frankenstein released first. By the Berlin première of 6 May 1932, the audience booed. In response, Dreyer cut several scenes.

The Paris première in September was the opening attraction for a new cinema on Boulevard Raspail.

A Vienna showing resulted in audiences demanding their money back. When this request was denied, a riot broke out, and cops put it down with night sticks.

By the Copenhagen première in May 1933, Dreyer was a no-show.

The U.S. version was titled Not Against the Flesh. A dubbed, heavily-edited version appeared on the roadshow circuit as Castle of Doom a few years later.

Not long afterwards, Dreyer had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a French mental hospital. He didn’t return to filmmaking till 1943, with Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag).

Critical reviews of this international box office flop ranged from negative to mixed. In the modern era, viewers, critics, and film scholars are much more positive. This isn’t a film you watch for the story, but rather the visuals and mood.

This is also one of those films you have to watch multiple times to really start understanding. Its many layers become more meaningful with each new viewing.

Allan Gray (Nicolas de Gunzburg), who’s become obsessed with the supernatural, is aimlessly wandering. One night, he comes to a strange inn, where his sleep is disrupted by an old man. The intruder leaves a package on the nightstand, with the note, “To be opened upon my death.”

In the morning, Allan wanders to a weird castle, which is full of more strange visions and characters. His next stop is a manor, where the old man from the inn lives. Allan sees what looks like a shadow shooting the old man, who dies after he and the servants rush to his aide.

The servants ask Allan to stay the night, and the old man’s younger daughter Gisèle tells Allan her sister Léone is very sick. At that moment, they see Léone walking outside. When they run to help her, she’s unconscious, with bite wounds on her neck.

After Léone is carried inside, Allan opens the package left on his nightstand. It’s an old book about the history of Vampyres, which further fuels Allan’s obsession. From his reading, he learns Léone is a Vampyric victim.

The creepy doctor convinces Allan to give Léone his blood, and Allan’s dreams and visions become even stranger and more urgent. Will he be able to save Léone and defeat the forces of evil stalking Courtempierre?

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A surrealistic, dreamlike story of obsession

Phantom, released 13 November 1922, is one of eleven currently-known, fully-surviving films of the great director F.W. Murnau. A film which he wrote but didn’t direct also survives in full.

Like most of his other films, Phantom too is in the German Expressionist style. It has a lyrical, poetic, dreamlike, surrealistic quality. This isn’t a true horror story, but about a phantom in the mind. Sometimes our obsessions and inner phantoms can be more haunting than any supernatural thrills and chills.

At the urging of his wife Marie, ex-con Lorenz Lubota (Alfred Abel) begins writing an account of his past crimes and misdeeds, in the hopes of purging his soul of those painful memories. We then enter flashback mode.

Lorenz’s mother thinks he spends too much time with books when he can’t afford them, but he insists they provide him with a world he otherwise can’t experience. His mother also is furious at her other son Hugo for working with his pawnbroker aunt Schwabe, whose morals she highly disapproves of.

Marie’s father disapproves of her relationship with Lorenz, and derides Lorenz as too much of a dreamer. When Lorenz comes for a visit, he shows Marie’s father, Hr. Starke, some of his poems.

Frau Lubota gets into a fight with her daughter Melanie when she announces she’s going to work. Frau  Lubota suspects she’s a hooker, confronting her with silky garments she suspects were either ill-gotten gifts or paid for with ill-gotten money. In response, Melanie moves out.

While walking to work, Lorenz is knocked over by a horse-drawn carriage. Though he’s unhurt, he becomes obsessed with Veronika, the woman in the carriage.

At the start of Act II, Hr. Starke highly praises Lorenz’s poems, and tells Marie he’s a lot more talented than he gave him credit for. In fact, Hr. Starke thinks he’s a genius, and decides to back Lorenz’s writing career by getting him a mentor and making him an honorary citizen. Gone are the days when Lorenz was a lowly town clerk.

Meanwhile, Lorenz visits Schwabe to break the happy news, at the same time the publisher meets Hr. Starke. He doesn’t share Hr. Starke’s glowing opinion at all, and refuses to publish Lorenz.

Schwabe urges Lorenz to get a new suit to make an impression in society, and sends her assistant Wigottschinski out to help him with picking out the suit. Afterwards, they get a drink to celebrate.

At the club, Lorenz recognizes Melanie, who becomes Wigottschinski’s girlfriend. Lorenz also learns Veronika is engaged, and begins hanging around her house. His obsession is so great, he comes to speak to her parents and begs for Veronika’s hand.

Since he can’t have Veronika, be begins courting her dead ringer and blowing his wallet on gifts. All the while, he relives the accident. His obsession is so great, he begins skipping work and behaving very scandalously in other ways.

Wigottschinski, who’s been swindling Schwabe to keep up Lorenz’s illusion of making a lot of money, can’t keep up his scheme forever. Schwabe gets wise to him, and demands a full payback in three days. If not, she’ll call the cops.

This sets even more trouble in motion, all while Lorenz continues to obsess over his phantom woman hitting him with her carriage.

While this film is beautifully-shot (including many tinted frames), with a lovely dreamlike mood and wonderful visuals, this isn’t a film I’d recommend as an ideal first silent. It’s definitely nowhere near the worst silent I’ve ever seen (that would probably be a toss-up between Leaves from Satan’s Book and Eyes of the Mummy Ma), but it’s not the type I see making enthusiastic converts.

It’s like a modern art house or indie film. There’s an obvious, eager audience, but one has to already be a big fan of that style to want to watch it.

Fritz Lang’s screenwriting début

The great Fritz Lang’s very first screenplay was for director and producer Joe May’s Hilde Warren und der Tod (Hilde Warren and Death), released 31 August 1917. They collaborated again on 1920’s Das Wandernde Bild (The Wandering Image) and 1921’s The Indian Tomb. All of these films featured the same leading lady, May’s wife Mia (née Hermine Pfleger), from whose stage name he took his own.

The Austrian-born Joe May, né Joseph Otto Mandel, was one of the pioneers of German cinema. He got started at Continental-Kunstfilm in Berlin, and later formed his own production company, Stuart Webbs-Film. His film career was briefly interrupted by WWI service.

By the time he collaborated with Lang, he’d founded another production company, May-Film. Sadly, his daughter Eva committed suicide in 1924, aged only 22.

In 1933, he and his wife escaped to the U.S., and he established himself as a B-movie director.

Unfortunately, at the present time, the only widely-available version of this film is cut down to 39 minutes (out of 80 minutes total), so I won’t be able to provide a complete review based entirely on my own impressions. I’ll do my best to fill in the blanks with the full synopses I’ve read, and drawing on the knowledge that Lang revisited the premise in 1921’s Der Müde Tod.

Not only is the publicly-available version so truncated, but it also has no intertitles. It’s very hard to figure out who’s who and what’s going on.

The film received glowing reviews, particularly in regards to Mia May and Georg John (Death)’s acting. Lang’s screenplay was also highly praised.

Sadly, Georg John was deported to the Łódź Ghetto in autumn 1941, and died there on 18 November, aged 62.

During rehearsals for The Master of Palmyra, Hilde Warren, a famous stage actor, gets involved in a conversation about Death. She tells her director Wengraf she doesn’t understand how anyone could lead her to Death before her time.

Wengraf is in love with Hilde, but she rejects all his attempts at wooing her. She’s not going to give up a successful career to get married and have kids.

Death appears and tries to tempt her, but Hilde refuses.

Hilde eventually marries Hector Roger, an elegant but wanted criminal. She has no idea what kind of double life he’s leading. When the cops try to arrest him, he shoots at them, and is killed in the resulting skirmish.

Shortly afterwards, Hilde discovers she’s pregnant. Death appears for a second time, but once again, she withstands temptation.

As her son Egon grows up, he’s pulled to the dark side like his father. Meanwhile, Wengraf is still in love with Hilde, but he gives her an impossible condition for marriage—abandon her child.

Death appears a third time, but Hilde once again refuses.

Egon gets more and more out of control, in spite of Hilde trying to reform him. She blames herself for his criminal lifestyle.

The next time Egon begs for money, after almost ruining her financially, Hilde stands her ground, orders him to get out, and threatens him with a revolver. She fights back when Egon attacks her, with shocking results.

When Death appears again, will she finally accept his offer?

Love letter to a bygone Berlin

Released 23 September 1927, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) is a classic of the avant-garde city symphony, which was most popular in the Twenties and Thirties. These films documented the everyday life of major cities, and were highly influenced by modern art schools such as Cubism, Impressionism, and Constructivism.

As an avant-garde film documenting the people, events, and places of a city, there’s no true plot. The only real story trajectory is showing the passage of time through a day, from sunup to nightfall. Recurring, connecting motifs are streetcars and trains. Scenes and images are put together based upon thematic content, POV, motion, and images.

Urban audiences loved city symphonies, because they could recognize familiar landmarks, people they knew, and even themselves. This film is particularly precious because it documents Berlin as it used to be, before so much of it was destroyed during WWII.

Hotel Excelsior, once Europe’s largest and most luxurious hotel, and the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminal are among the landmarks which didn’t survive the war.

Act I opens with calm waters, sunrise, and a train steaming into Berlin. We see the placid, empty streets before the city wakes up. Gradually, more and more people appear in the streets.

The pedestrians and commuters represent a wide range of Berliners—schoolchildren, the working-class, soldiers, businessmen, factory workers, housewives.

Act I closes with scenes of busily-working machinery in a factory—making lightbulbs, pouring steel, pushing and rotating glass bottles along assembly lines, cutting sheets of metal, belching smokestacks.

Act II opens with shutters, doors, windows, and gates opening. We also see kids going to school, people cleaning, fruit carts, shops opening, and people beginning the workday. Depending upon class, they walk or take the streetcar, bus, or private, chauffeured cars.

Office-workers set out writing instruments and paper, roll open desks, open books, and set up typewriters. The typists become a montage of a hypnotist’s spinning wheel, phone operators, monkeys biting one another, fighting dogs, machinery, and the other work in the office.

Act II ends with phones hanging up.

Act III shows shoppers and salespeople, construction workers, window displays, fights, industrial workers, cops, flirtations, a father and daughter arriving by a wedding, a diplomat, a coffin on a hearse, the Reich president, a protestor lecturing a crowd, a student organization marching with banners, trains, and newspapers.

Act III ends with many newspapers, held up to the camera, dissolving into one another.

Act IV begins with lunch break. A factory’s spinning wheels halt as 12:00 arrives, and workers go home or to cafés. Animals as well as humans eat and drink. Shots of a wealthy diner are interspersed with those of poor street children hugging their mother and a lion feeding on meat from a bone.

Some people and animals rest during the break, including poor people sleeping on benches and ledges, all while Berlin continues to bustle all around them. When a diner bangs his spoon on a bowl, the city springs back to life.

There’s a montage of trains, roller coasters, revolving doors, wind, rain, leaf cyclones, churning water, fighting dogs, crowds, people looking over a rail into water, eyes, and a splash. The city then returns to calm, as the workday ends and fun begins.

Act IV ends with kids playing in a lake, racing boats, games and races, and couples on park benches at nightfall.

Act V is all about nightlife. House lights and electric signs come on, people go to the theatre, and curtains rise on many types of shows—burlesque, trapeze, juggling, dancing, singing. In a movie theatre, Charlie Chaplin’s feet and cane are at the bottom of a screen.

Other nightlife includes skating, indoor racing, sledding, skiing, hockey, boxing, dance contests, ice shows, beer halls, card games, cocktail lounges. However, the workday isn’t over for the transportation industry.

It all ends with a spinning montage of fireworks and light from an electric tower.

One of the reasons I love old films so much is because they’re a time capsule of a long-vanished world. With this film, there’s also the haunting wonder about how many of these people survived the war, and who might’ve become hardcore Nazis, garden variety Nazis, or people who resisted.

This is a great way to explore avant-garde. There also aren’t any intertitles. It’s a portrait of a living, breathing city, in a language that transcends words.

Metropolis at 90, Part IV (Home media and restorations)

The U.S. copyright for Metropolis expired in 1953, which created a veritable bonanza of film and, later, VHS versions. As with many public domain films (both silent and sound), the quality varied wildly. I’ve seen some DVD and VHS versions with terrible, fuzzy images, a logo in the bottom corner, a monotonous, wheezing organ, and/or a soundtrack which is extremely mismatched to the action (e.g., cheerful music as a murder is being committed).

In 1996, the U.S. copyright was restored. There was some legal wrangling disputing it, but the decision was upheld in 2012. However, the film and its images remain copyrighted both in its native Germany and the rest of the European Union. This copyright will remain in effect until the end of 2046, 70 years after director Fritz Lang’s death.

The version I was introduced to circa 1991 or 1992 may have been Giorgio Moroder’s well-known 1984 restoration and edit, though after so many years, I can’t remember the exact details. All I remember is that I was so captivated by this film, however truncated, and no matter what soundtrack. More on that in my concluding Part V.

This 1984 version ran 83 minutes, and had new special effects, a popular music soundtrack in lieu of the traditional instrumentation accompanying silents, tinting, and replacement of the intertitles with subtitles. Though this version was nominated for two Raspberry Awards, Worst Musical Score and Worst Original Song (“Love Kills,” by Freddie Mercury as a solo artist), it was nevertheless the first real restoration.

Decide for yourself!

In 1986, German film historian and preservationist Enno Patalas began the most painstaking process of properly restoring the film. His version was the most complete, accurate restoration to date, and was based upon the original score and script. He worked from a copy in the Museum of Modern Art. Perhaps this, and not the Moroder version, was my first exposure to the film.

After 1986, previously lost and unknown parts began showing up in archives and museums all around the world. With all this great new material with which to work, the awesome Kino was able to release an even better restoration on DVD in 2002. It ran 118 minutes, much closer to the original 153.

On 1 July 2008, film experts in Berlin had some very wonderful news to announce. A 16 mm reduction negative of the original cut had been found in the archives of Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. This copy had been circulating since 1928, going from a film distributor, to a private collector, to an art foundation, and finally to the museum.

Not only that, but in 2005, Australian historian and politician Michael Organ had looked at a print in the National Film Archive of New Zealand, and found it to have scenes missing from other prints. When he went to compare it against the 2008 discovery, he found the New Zealand print had eleven scenes missing from the Argentinian print, and some snippets used to restore damaged sections of the Argentinian print.

Being nitrate, the film was in poor condition and needed some very delicate repair operations. Sadly, there were still two short scenes damaged beyond repair—a fight between Rotwang and Frederson, and a monk preaching. New intertitles were inserted to describe the missing scenes.

This restoration made its début in 2010, and considerably lengthened the film and gave the story much deeper complexity. It runs 147 minutes, probably the closest we’ll ever get to the original, barring another miraculous rediscovery.

While many silents are lost forever, it’s such a beautiful blessing and miracle we’ve found as many as we have over the years. That’s why I hold out hope for films like Theda Bara’s Cleopatra (1917) and Hats Off (1927), Laurel and Hardy’s only remaining lost film.