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Vampyr and the worldly spirituality of Carl Theodor Dreyer

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer′s film entitled “Vampyr” (1932) has received the attention of many directors such as Guillermo del Toro, Lars von Trier or Alfred Hitchcock, who even said that it was the only film worth seeing. twice. According to TimeOut magazine, it is one of the fifty best horror films of all time, but the audience has not always had the same opinion. On the day of its premiere in Vienna, for example, the audience left the cinema so enraged that the police had to intervene and restore order with blows. The Danish director was definitely too ahead of his time and then suffered a nervous breakdown so serious that he was forced to spend three months hospitalized at Clinique Jeanne d-Arc in Paris and no less than eleven years without directing a new film.

Article by Pablo Fernández from Barcelona on Wednesday, December 22nd 2021 ·.·★ Reading takes 14 minutes or 2861 words.


Carl Theodor Dreyer kept a single photo of his mother Josefine Bernhardine Nilsson. He treasured her along with the memory of the kind descriptions he had heard about her character. Josefine was a servant and he had had an illegitimate relationship with her boss, the owner of a farm on the border between Sweden and Denmark. She was then too poor and died too early to be able to take over her education. The future film director adopted his first name and surname from his adoptive father, Carl Theodor Dreyer, a printer by profession, and received very little affection from his adoptive mother Marie Dreyer. According to the director′s own testimony, which he rarely used to talk about himself, Marie always reproached him that ′he had no right to claim anything and that all the favors they did him should be returned as soon as possible′.

Carl Theodor Dreyer made confirmation at St. Thomas Church on April 19, 1903 at the age of fourteen. The adoptive parents had their own illegitimate child and according to Jonathan Rosenbaum they barely stepped foot in the church. However, they retained a rather inhuman figurative religiosity that contrasted with the attitude of a fifth member of the family with much less authority. The only family member who showed affection in his home, according to the testimony of Martin Askfelt, was the mother of Marie Dreyer. This occult older woman also loaned him the books from her collection until her adoptive mother forbade it. She could well have inspired characters like Herlof-s Mars, the old woman burned alive in ′Dies Irae′ or ′Vredens dag′ (1943). She dreamed of going to the Far East at the time but waited to finish her studies, something she did with impeccable results. He turned down a management position in the telegraph industry when he realized how boring the accounting world was, and at the age of twenty he is already appearing as an intrepid journalist in the news of his day.

Copenhagen barely had three summer months a year to shoot the movies but was then at the forefront of the film industry thanks in part to Nordisk Films. In 1906 there were only three film studios in the world before Nordisk Films: Gaumont, Pathé and Titanus. Nordisk Films is also the only one that continues to operate and generate profits even today. Carl Theodor Dreyer found in the typography of the signs, the writing of scripts or the editing of the films an ideal five-year professional school, through which he was able to direct his first film entitled ′The President′ or ′Præsidenten′ (1919). Less than ten years later Carl Theodor Dreyer rubbed shoulders with the great directors of his time and with the grant from Société Générale de Films he was looking in the streets of Paris for the protagonist of his first great film entitled ′The Passion of Joan of Arc′ or ′La Passion de Jeanne d-Arc′ (1928).

Beginning of Dreyer′s international career

The transgressive and singular role of the brave and religious protagonist that Carl Theodor Dreyer had created frightened many young aspirants, before they could almost accidentally find, in a theater, a very made-up Maria Falconetti. Dreyer had studied the time and the details of the story in depth for a year but wanted to script the verbatim transcript of the historic trial, a then-legal trial in which the church had burned Joan of Arc alive. The actors then used to verbalize jokes during the filming, while they interpreted their parts. They were sure that none of these vulgarities were going to be made public. After all, movies were silent then. This was obviously not Carl Theodor Dreyer′s style and the Danish director always used his usual kind and imperative style of correcting, whereby the actors ended up reading the dramatic minutes literally. Dreyer was demanding, distrustful and hard-working but he kept the best of himself for his actors, especially those he considered weaker.

Dreyer had the idea of ​​making a movie about Jesus during this shoot and some scenes evoke the treatment he must have suffered from Roman soldiers. Société Générale de Films eliminated the scenes that he considered the most risky and after the film was released it was initially considered by critics as a masterpiece. However, it also received harsh opposition from powerful organizations that obviously took themselves as alluded to, such as the Catholic Church and the government of England. The reels of the film had been neglected and a possible complete version had already been considered impossible when in 1981 an almost complete copy was found in the psychiatric Gaustad Hospital in Oslo. The copy has allowed us access with little restrictions to this masterpiece of which Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times writes that ′compared to it, the other films are simply trivial′. ′It could well be the best performance ever recorded in a movie,′ says Pauline Kael′s criticism.

Carl Theodor Dreyer said that he then chose a vampire story for his next film in order to avoid being pigeonholed as a religious director. What happens is that the end result also ends up revealing a person with the same artistic and spiritual concerns. The Danish director was cornered many times with the same question about his personal position on religion, but always without success. Someone wrote in The Guardian that Ib Monty, the director of the Danish Film Archive, had gotten a confession from him that he was ′not particularly religious.′ What happens is that this third-party source is quite poor and does not add anything that is not transparent in his movies. The problem is not that there is a lack of documentation, more than four thousand of his letters are preserved. Carl Theodor Dreyer definitely stood up to religion to defend a spirituality that, no matter how much we regret, then had a high content that still is and will always remain personal and non-transferable.

Vampyr′s religious background

The religious background is equally evident in the author of ′In a glass darkly′ (1872), the collection of stories behind ′Vampyr′ (1932). Its author Sheridan Le Fanu was in fact the son of an Anglican pastor and studied using the huge library at home, before becoming a popular writer of ghost, horror or mystery stories and a precursor to vampirism. Sheridan Le Fanu later studied law at the prestigious Trinity College but her father suffered serious financial difficulties until he died in 1845. Additionally, his wife began to have continuous crisis of faith and nervous attacks until she also died in strange circumstances in 1858. The feeling of Guilt and loss then grew exponentially in Sheridan Le Fanu until a year before her death, when she published her collection of stories entitled “In a glass darkly” (1872). The title is really an explicit reference to the biblical text that ensures that now we only ′see in a mirror, darkly.′ His story ′Carmilla′ shows a man trapped by the love of a person who is halfway between the ghost and the vampire but in whose relationship a high sensual content persists.

Sound was then a new technology that was making its way into the cinema and ′Vampyr′ contains only a few ghostly phrases. Allan Gray, its protagonist, is a young man absorbed in the study of demonology and vampiric traditions. His interest in the extravagant ideas of past centuries has turned him into a dreamer who does not differentiate the line between the real and the supernatural very well. One day, wandering late at night, he arrives at an isolated inn near the village of Courtempierre, not too far from Paris, which is what the production company had asked of Carl Theodor Dreyer. ′To say that I am a mystic does not make sense,′ said Carl Theodor Dreyer. What do people understand by mystic? Vampyr is a completely realistic movie, although that is set in a strange atmosphere. We cannot separate mysticism from reality, as if mysticism were something supernatural beyond logic or psychology ”.

The viewer will discover little by little that strange events such as murders, sudden illnesses or the presence of strange creatures take place in the town. In reality, nothing that happens to the protagonists is necessarily impossible from a rational point of view. Everything happens between fog or dreams and yet the certainty that something evil lurks prevails. Vampires hardly give the impression of being ghost appearances and in a sense a person could rationalize the facts and interpret them as figments of his imagination. What is clear is that as Guillermo del Toro says, this is a film about the desire for life beyond death. Not surprisingly, the protagonist Allan Gray has also identified himself as a figure of Christ in Vampyr. Many of the keys that will be refined later in his film ′The Word′ or ′Ordet′ (1955), are in fact already experienced in ′Vampyr′ (1932). In both cases, to give another example, a miracle occurs, but for what? The main objective of the miracle is clearly that you enjoy health not in spirit or mysticism but in the flesh.

The contagious madness of the divine trickster

Sören Kierkegaard had directly confronted what he called Christianity for having deprived the person of Christ of his humanity. According to the Danish philosopher, most of the Christians of his time would have denied their faith if they had had to defend it in the contemporaneity of Christ because in those circumstances Christ was persecuted and considered a madman. The Danes of his time, he claimed, easily identified themselves as Christians because Christianity was the most prestigious of the alternatives of his time. ′Blessed is he who is not scandalized by me!′ Jesus said, but how can one be scandalized by someone who has been reduced to an accomplice of well-being? Isn′t that lack of scandal really a deception? It is impossible to deny the interest that Christ aroused in the Danish philosopher and yet he said that he would rather make a fool of himself in the street disguised as a soldier than participate in the activities of that Christianity.

The decidedly anti-religious and deeply spiritual stance at the same time had inevitably caught the attention of Carl Theodor Dreyer. He then decides to make preparations for a movie about Jesus with a strong emphasis on his humanity and in fact gets funding but will never shoot it. Sören Kierkegaard, however, had started a small revolution recently and precisely in Copenhagen. Kaj Munk, the author of the novel behind the movie ′Ordet′ (1955), had certainly studied Sören Kierkegaard at the seminary. Additionally, Kaj Munk maintained a friendly relationship with Eduard Geismar, professor at the University of Copenhagen and author of a six-volume biography on Sören Kierkegaard entitled ′Sōren Kierkegaard: His life Development And Authorship′ (1926-1928). Eduard Geismar, moreover, unlike his contemporary biographer Georg Brandes, made a clear emphasis on the religiosity of Sören Kierkegaard. Kaj Munk finishes his studies and settles precisely in Jutland, which is where Sören Kierkegaard comes from, and there he wrote the novel entitled ′Ordet′ (1925) which Carl Theodor Dreyer would later use.

Carl Theodor Dreyer was visiting a potential protagonist for his film about Jesus when he established the characteristic and unique imprint of Johannes, the protagonist of “Ordet” who believes himself to be Jesus after having read Sören Kierkegaard in the seminar. It was the peculiar way of speaking of this strange person, this possible aspirant who would never really get to play the role of Jesus, which marked the style that Preben Lerdorff Rye aka Johannes should adopt. This actor named Preben worked in ninety-two films throughout his life and was one of the few professionals who collaborated more than once with Carl Theodor Dreyer. He claimed that they went on long walks together. He also tells that once he rang his phone around two in the morning and that when he asked, he discovered that he was Carl. The director wanted Preben to look at a few pages of the script and was surprised that he didn′t have them right next to it. ′It′s two in the morning and I′m in bed,′ Preben told him slowly. ′Both? Time flies fast!′ Dreyer answered then, before continuing to give him directions.

The greatest of them is love

′Gertrud′ (1965) will be the thirteenth and last film by Carl Theodor Dreyer and in it the aging Danish director returns to return to the theme of love as the most important value. Love is again the value that really gives meaning to life, which is of course spiritual and physical at the same time, as is also explicit in the thirteenth chapter of Paul′s First Letter to the Corinthians. Precisely the same biblical text that had given the title to the work behind the story of “Vampyr” (1932): ′Because in part we know, and in part we prophesy; but when the perfect comes, then what is in part will be it will end, ′says the apostle. ′When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I judged like a child; but when I was already a man, I left what was a child. Now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part; but then I will know how I was known. And now faith, hope and love remain, these three; but the greatest of them is love. ′

′The one whom you worship, then, without knowing him, is the one I proclaim to you,′ said the apostle Paul himself at another time. “The God who made the world and all things in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made by human hands, nor is he honored by human hands, as if he needed something; for he is the one who gives everyone life and breath and all things. And of one blood he has made all the lineage of men, so that they may dwell on all the face of the earth; and he has fixed for them the order of the times, and the limits of his habitation; so that they may seek God, if in some way, by feeling, they can find him, although he is certainly not far from each one of us. Because in him we live, and we move, and we are; as some of your own poets have also said: Because we are his lineage. ”

How far has religion been from this deeply human language with which the apostle addresses the Athenians! According to the detailed investigations of the physician and evangelist Luke, the apostle Paul added: “Being, then, God′s lineage, we must not think that the Divinity is like gold, or silver, or stone, sculpture of art and imagination of men. But God, having overlooked the times of this ignorance, now commands all men everywhere to repent; because he has established a day in which he will judge the world with justice, by that man whom he appointed, giving faith to all with having raised him from the dead ”. May we be one of those few who, according to this same text, were not scandalized and stayed to hear more about that Jesus!


This is an short translation of the original article published in Spanish by Entrelíneas: Revista de Arte as Vampyr y la humana espiritualidad de Carl Theodor Dreyer


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