Mortal Coil: A Video Essay on Vampyr

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr is not an easy film to write about. The risk of oversimplifying this masterpiece loomed over me so heavily that I decided to let the film speak for itself, with just a little re-editing, in a video essay. (If, for some reason, you can’t play it on this page, click here to go directly to the video.)

I am an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to video editing, so I will provide a brief explanation for what I’ve done in case I’ve done it badly.

Dreyer’s Vampyr employs almost every cinematic means of implying cause-and-effect. Gears turn and bury a man alive. A woman turns her head with a glint of unholy bloodlust in her eyes and, through the magic of the Kuleshov effect, we know that she’s looking at her sister. Yet, those causes and effects are also horrifyingly reversed or severed from each other, leading to shadows without substance and the “point-of-view” of a dead man, who technically should never be able to see, even if his staring eyes appear to gaze.

Dreyer shows us that natural life leads implacably to death, as our mortal coil finally gives out like an old spring… but death might lead to something unnatural. It’s an aesthetic inquiry into the beyond.

Usually, when a film gives us unambiguous symbols of death, like skulls or skeletons, we groan at how jejune the imagery is. However, Dreyer never caves in to abstraction. He makes us feel that a skull was once someone and that every someone will someday be a skull. Every pore, every fleck of light, is grounded in materiality, and thus can truly convey the essence of mortality. He offers us a work of art that reminds me of Dracula—if it had been directed by Hamlet.

Since I am in love with life and am in no way unhealthily attached to morbid things (or so I tell my pharmacist—joking!), I want to point out that I love horror films because, when they’re great, like Vampyr, they transfigure death into something that we can all deal with, into entertainment, into art, into catharsis. They make us feel the weight of our mortal coil so that we emerge more aware of the time that remains to us.

The song, by the way, is “Close Your Eyes,” a lovely tune with a deeply sad undertone which I think also suggests how closely pop music and big human questions of love and loss can be bound together. Al Bowlly, one of my favorite all-time singers, died too young, but fortunately he can still sing for us.

I would also like to dedicate this video to Sybille Schmitz, who plays the tormented soul Léone, and who committed suicide in real life at age 45 after a career jinxed by both the rise and the fall of the Third Reich. Her contribution to this film through her performance cannot be overstated. She communicates love, self-loathing, fear, hunger, despair, and, yes, even hope in her relatively short screen-time. Requiescat in pace.

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