March 18th, 2021

Dreyer's Vampyr And The Passion Of Joan Of Arc

Dreyer saw Tod Browning's Dracula and said, "I could make one of those," and went away and made Vampyr- which is unlike anything else before or since. I saw it first in the early '70s in a ratty, old print which had a reel or two missing in the middle- which meant it made even less sense than Dreyer intended. Having now seen something like a complete version I know there is actually a storyline- but a fairly minimal one- involving a brillantined young man who wanders sonambulistically into and through a drama in which an aged female vampire and her stooges are laying siege to a country house outside Paris. The atmosphere is woozy and uncanny, the images indelible. Shadows and reflections operate independently of their principals, a vampirised girl hungers, we watch a funeral from inside the coffin, a man is stifled by falling flour in a cage inside an old mill...

The Passion of Joan of Arc is also unlike anything before or since. Renee Jeanne Falconetti- a minor stage actor who would otherwise have been forgotten- gives what has been repeatedly hailed as one of the greatest performances in screen history. The action proceeds inside great white spaces which are at once both expressionistic- the designer was also responsible for the Cabinet of Dr Caligari- and convincingly medieval. The drama is concentrated in the faces of the actors- shot overwhelmingly in close-up- often extreme close-up, and at disconcerting angles. Where the camera in Vampyr peers through a glass darkly, here it sees everything, starkly, unforgivingly, in detail- itemising every furrow and wrinkle and glistening tear. Critics are so taken with the monumental trial scenes, that they often forget to mention that the ending, with Joan's blackening corpse slumped behind a wall of flame and the rioting populace being hammered by soldiers with maces is as terrific an action sequence as any filmed by Eisenstein or Welles.