1920s, Horror/Eerie, Scandinavian cinema, Silent

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen

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Director/Screenwriter/Actor: Victor Sjöstrom

By Roderick Heath

The Phantom Carriage has a power which almost defies description, a sense of an overwhelming darkness crowding the edges of the frame and corroding the very flesh and spirit of the characters on screen. It’s a tale of damnation, for whatever remains after death but also on earth too, the poison of psychological fear and anger blighting life as surely as the tuberculosis bacilli eat away its protagonists inside out. Light, with all its redemptive promise, radiates by contrast from the centre of frames, burning candles and lamps stranded in the midst of shadowy rooms, and from the face of the benighted Sister Edit (Astrid Holm). Edit lies expiring on New Year’s Eve, desperately begs her mother (Concordia Selander) and fellow Salvation Army worker Maria (Lisa Lundholm) to track down the one soul and body she’s been trying to save more passionately than any other.

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That is the soul of David Holm (Victor Sjöstrom), a drunken wastrel tracked down not in the hovel where his wife (Hilda Borgström) and children are trying to stave off hunger and cold, but drinking in a graveyard with two vagrants who listen as David recounts with amusement the fate of his old drinking buddy Georges (Tore Svennberg), who was tormented by an anxiety that used to gnaw at him on New Year’s Eve. As the minutes tick towards midnight, David explains Georges’ obsession with a folk myth that whoever died at the stroke of twelve on New Year’s would be a cursed and sinful person, charged with driving the carriage that collects the souls of those who die during the year. And, as ill luck would have it, Georges died one year ago on the very night he feared. After David chases off the Salvation Army worker who tracks him down for Edit, he fights with his two companions, one of whom smashes a bottle over his head. David is left for dead, and Death’s carriage soon comes rolling around.

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Victor Sjöstrom’s career in film climaxed famously with his role in Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1958). In casting the aged director and actor in his film, Bergman was paying tribute to Sjöstrom’s status as a father of the Swedish film industry, and as an artist to whom Bergman and others, both in Sweden and around the world, owed a lot. In his heyday, Sjöstrom’s gift for portraying psychological drama and capturing tones ranging from fulminating unease to outright hysteria was second to none, and his cinematic experiments were as rich and innovative as anything that would soon follow in Germany, France, and the US. Along with Mauritz Stiller, Sjöstrom was at the front rank of Swedish filmmakers well before the First World War, labouring like many great early directors on dozens of short features as the quintessential forms of cinema began to evolve, and finally with his 1921 hit The Phantom Carriage, Sjöstrom gained an invite to Hollywood, where he made great films, often with Lillian Gish, including The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928). But commercial success began to elude him, and his career essentially waned along with the silent film. Sjöstrom’s passionately visual, rhythmic, intimately composed ideal of cinema was at once highly stylised and fascinatingly realistic, as the director amongst other things helped to bridge early cinema with the Swedish stage and its tradition of dark, neurotic realist spectacle as exemplified by August Strindberg.

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Today the horror film, in spite of patchy acceptance by mainstream critics, is still essentially considered a fringe genre. In the first quarter-century of cinema’s existence, however, it was a favourite field for directors who wanted to interrogate the possibilities of the medium, as they contemplated the intrinsic link between the mystery of film’s power and images of mortality, nebulous existence and concrete form. This was true of much important early cinema, including several of Georges Melies’ most striking works, Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), Wiene’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), Wegener’s Der Golem: Wie Er in die Welt Kam (1920), Lang’s Der Muede Tod (1921), Christensen’s Häxan (1922), and Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924). The Phantom Carriage itself stands up amidst the most beautiful, eerie, and dazzlingly rendered movies of its time. One reason the horror genre, which was hardly a genre at the time and certainly not called that, attracted such a wealth of early talent was that it presented possibilities for experimenting with the kinds of special effects available to early cinema, in a fashion that later sci-fi, action, and fantasy films would invite, as a testing ground for evolutions in technology and the inspiration to use it. Whereas, apart from Tod Browning, it would take European directors working in Hollywood and, more crucially, the advent of the Depression to shock American horror cinema into its first golden age, in Europe a superlative glut of definitive moviemaking in this mould was closely aligned with the stylistic moment of what became known as German Expressionism. The time was in tune, too, for the great flowering of these films came in the period directly following the Great War, a time in which a great hole had been carved in European society, the pall of death was an everyday, invasive reality, and fascination with spiritualism exploded in a world that felt not at all metaphorically haunted.

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But not all of these films were clear-cut in their exploitation of this mood, as many depict the birth struggles of modernism, as artists wrestled with remnants of folk traditions and the detritus of cultures going through painful evolutions, trying to reject the dead-weight of past truisms to embrace rationalism, but often rubbing fears raw in that process. Sjöstrom’s film was adapted a novel by 1909’s Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlöf, and the story is in many ways a familiar piece of post-Victorian abstemious moralism, playing like a darker version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which a sinner sees the error of his ways through a supernatural encounter. For Sjöstrom, who had been adapting Lagerlöf’s novels regularly thanks to a deal she had made with the studio he worked for, the task was however to retain the complexity of the novel and depict the perverse, dramatically difficult elements onto the screen, precisely at a time when it was becoming clear that film was open to all challenges. The Phantom Carriage becomes a psychological epic about cruelty, fear, and pain, as experienced and exacted by David, an antihero who takes on Dostoyevskian dimensions in his anger at humanity even as he cringes before immutable forces. David, a former carpenter and craftsman, has long since slid into the gutter under the influence of the ironically well-educated Georges, whose habitual cynicism and florid bon vivant postures attracted both David and his younger brother (Einar Axelsson). Georges only ever registered disquiet when New Year’s rolled around and revived the folk tale figuration of the phantom carriage in his thoughts like an annual memento mori.

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One of Sjöstrom’s significant flourishes in telling his tale is the complexity of the narrative, refusing to simplify Lagerlof’s storyline, shifting perspectives and offering layers of stories within stories in retracing the paths the key characters have taken to this converging night of fate. Starting with Edit’s plight and then shifting to David and his wayside buddies in the graveyard, Sjöstrom then segues into the past, as David recalls his time with Georges, and through Georges the mythology of the carriage is depicted. This cues a lengthy, sepulchral, superlatively realised sequence depicting the carriage and its hooded, scythe-clutching driver, going about their work. They watch over all varieties of human misery and misfortune, standing by as a plutocrat shoots himself in his immaculate mansion, and plucking the spirits of dead mean just drowned in the sea, the carriage trundling carelessly into the waves and the driver descending to the ocean floor for his prize. It’s easy to recognise the influence of these scenes on Bergman’s figuration of Death for The Seventh Seal (1957) and other elements of the visual design – one shot of the carriage travelling over a hilltop against a cloudy horizon recalls the famous shot of Death leading the dance of the dead that climaxed the Bergman work. Sjöstrom achieves his otherworldly emanations with that simplest and oldest of movie special effects, the double exposure, rendering with stark beauty the scenes of the carriage venturing onto the waves or trundling through the streets, and the spirits of dead wandering and conversing, the human world oblivious to their presence and the dead gazing back at the world they’re cut off from with forlorn impotence.

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Yet whilst the film’s pictorial and emotional depictions of oneiric gloom are compelling, Sjöstrom is equally adept at capturing the grubby world its characters inhabit. Lagerglof’s novel had begun life when she was asked to write a treatise on tuberculosis control, but as she worked a narrative came to her with an aspect of social realism mediated by and reconceived through the veils of mysticism and mystery. Sjöstrom answered with its cinematic equivalent: the seamy taverns, fetid flophouses, low-rent apartments, midnight card games, the chilly graveyard, all are depicted with a care worthy of Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), with which the film shares a subterranean mood of acidic reportage and neurotic intensity. One function that the narrative complexity serves is to give the tale a sense of haziness about the veracity of what is seen: it could all be David’s alcoholic horrors or dazed dream after getting walloped over the head. But it also suggests that such distinctions mean little in the face of how it summarises the struggle, and attraction, between the all-encompassing nihilism of David and the naïve yet powerful altruism of Edit. Caught between them are David’s victimised wife and brother, early casualties, emotionally and morally if not mortally, for David’s rage, and yet also participants in and causes for it. After David and his brother fell in with Georges, David did a short stretch in jail for drunken behaviour, and as he was released, the prison chaplain (Nils Aréhn) revealed to David with brutal condemnation that his brother is now also locked up, but for the far worse crime of killing a man in a drunken brawl: the chaplain stated that he was of the opinion David should be doing the time instead. David, horrified and chastened, returned home to his family, only to find they had left without any idea of where to find them, turning David’s ill feeling into an unshakeable and near-psychopathic misanthropy.

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The existential angst of The Phantom Carriage is aligned with the pain of the post-war period, even if made in a country that was neutral during WWI, as it resembles the nightmare prophecies and structure of Abel Gance’s J’Accuse! (1919) which similarly climaxes with visions of the dead rising up, possibly hallucinated but still urgently meaningful. The difference is that the horror of The Phantom Carriage is microcosmic, a study in personal degradation and damage but with a reformist social agenda. And yet the film slips out of such limits: the notion that David travels deeper into his personal nightmare out of wilful determination and anger at the cheap pieties and soft options that leave him adrift in a bleak world, gives The Phantom Carriage more complexity. Sjöstrom imbues it with a hallucinatory unease that captures that mood of midnight agony anyone who’s drunk to forget the day’s pain might recognise. When David arises from his own sprawled, shattered body to be confronted by Georges, who has spent the last year driving the carriage, except for him every night has been “a hundred years”, collecting souls like a tired garbage man clearing away the refuse of human existence. There’s a quality approaching black comedy as the grim figure of death proves to be the middle-aged, familiar Georges, but his rank melancholia and sombre missives quickly diverge into a form of horror that penetrates far deeper than the later genre’s usual stock visions of psychos in masks killing sundry teenagers, asking instead, what are we most afraid of in life and in death? Whilst Georges ushers David away from Edit’s deathbed in telling him that the job of taking her soul belongs to other, presumably more exalted spirits, there’s no sight of better worlds or paradises in this vision, only of the afterlife as a place where people walk or trundle along in stunned misgiving, staring back at the life they’ve lived with awareness that hell is a place humans create for themselves.

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Of course Georges tells David that he’s going to take his place as the driver for the next year, and when David protests, George binds him with invisible strands and forces him to accompany him to Edit’s deathbed, where Edit, not yet dead but standing at the edge of permeable reality, can see Georges, and greets him with confusion: “Death…but too early.” Edit has her own crosses to bear. Her mother had begged her fellow Salvation Army workers to ignore her frantic wish to see David before dying because having given up her life to the cause and now doesn’t want her death to be consumed by it too. As Georges stands over Edit’s bed, he explains her situation to David, thus commencing another lengthy flashback as the narrative retreats one year to the same New Year’s when Georges himself died, and David, drunk and sick, barged his way into the new shelter Edit and Maria had set up, and passed out on a bed. Edit set herself to fixing up David’s torn coat, oblivious to the fact that in doing so she was breathing in all the germs on it, including his chronic TB, which she’s expiring from at an accelerated rate. When he awakened, David ripped off the patches she had put on the coat, stating, “I’m used to it this way,” and she asked him to come see her in a year’s time to let her know how he was getting on. The pair continued to encounter each-other with a quality of combative aggression mixed with erotic fascination, as Edit confesses she fell in love with David, seemingly everything she isn’t, even as she determinedly wrested one of his friends away from him at a Salvation Army rally. David’s wife, for whom he’s been searching for months, was at the same rally, and after seeing Edit and David argue, explained her plight.

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Edit, with selfless determination, set about reconciling the couple, but once returned to his family, David’s long-awaited revenge commenced as he refused to give up his drunken ways, preferring to taunt his wife and breathing precariously over his children. David’s vicious misanthropy is at its rarest when he tells a woman at the rally that she shouldn’t cover her mouth when she coughs, as he takes pride in breathing his lethal germs right in people’s faces. When his wife tried to rebel again and locked him in the bathroom whilst she tried to get the kids away, as she fumbled with the sleeping youngsters he hacked his way out with a hatchet, in a sequence that at once suggests a nod to Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) but looks forward too with unavoidable similarity to the iconic “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining (1981), complete with the peculiarly intimate terror of the enraged father figure, a potent and toxic vision of masculine violence erupting in the home. And yet when his wife faints, unable to escape, and David gets free, he props her up on a pillow and feeds her water, greeting her awakening with the harshly knowing words, “It wasn’t as easy to run away this time!” To her exhausted reply, “Haven’t you had enough revenge?” As Edit expires, Georges takes David on to his next stop – the slum dwelling where David’s wife and children are living now, as Mrs Holm prepares to poison them all, a final recourse. Finally David’s self-absorption is shattered and he begs with Georges to save them even at the expense of his own total extinction.

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The surprisingly naturalistic acting, particularly from Sjöstrom himself, whose husky physicality gives David the insolent charisma the role needs, is littered with gestural marvels that equal the filmmaking. In an early scene, Mrs Holm is brought to Edit’s bedside, the woman a fidgety, dead-eyed wraith who reaches out with clawing, Nosferatu-like fingers at the slumbering Edit in her anger, only for Edit to awaken and immediately smother the woman in kisses in submissive gratitude. When Maria first finds Mrs Holm, she keeps retreating to each corner of the room, standing with back to the room. Just as affecting is the anguished stroke of his brother’s face David gives when presented with him in his jail cell, and in David’s homecoming as he cringes and smoulders in rage as he stands in the midst of the jarringly empty flat, whilst two neighbour women laugh over his misfortune. One stark shot depicts Mrs Holm and her children standing over David who lies sprawled and passed out on the pavement.

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Sjöstrom’s best moment comes in one of David’s ugliest, as he first clasps eyes on Edit after learning she’s repaired his coat and she waits with eagerness to see his reaction: David’s expression turns as cold as the winter wind as he perceives the embodiment of everything he’s at war with and feels cannot be his, and his frenzied tearing at the patches of the coat delivers his message, but whilst startled, Edit refuses to be fazed, and her fascination for the simultaneously pathetic and grotesque, yet also powerful David is made weirdly coherent. Her subsequent effort to reunite David and his wife see her perpetuate the great Victorian delusion that all you had to do to normalise any experience, any anomaly, any fracture in human dealings, was to slap a pair of decent clothes on it. The story is then complicated by its concentration on the way good intentions often crash headlong into harsh realities. The Phantom Carriage ends happily, after a fashion, but as in Bergman’s work there’s a sense that redemption and facing up to all that’s gone wrong in life can be exhausting, even counter-productive. David, restored to “life” and rushing to intervene in his wife’s seemingly imminent euthanasia, buckles and weeps when she reacts with aggression and disbelief in his sudden show of concern, and it’s clear that even if he really has seen the error of his ways, the same essential cause of both his good and bad behaviour remains a fretful terror of mortality, the disease still in his lungs and the pain that is his burden.

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The mood of The Phantom Carriage lingers long after it’s over, and its influence on filmmakers, both in the horror mode and outside it, feels deep: as well as Bergman and Kubrick, its atmosphere and original blend of precise psycho-social veracity and the otherworldly anticipates the qualities of Val Lewton’s epochal film series, whilst other aspects vibrate through the works of Murnau and G.W. Pabst, and prefigure a very different film about a misanthrope haunted by past loss, particularly the flashback to scenes of familial happiness for the Holms, in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964). Like many notable silent films, The Phantom Carriage has seen many editions and restorations over the years, but I recommend the version I saw with an aptly spare and eerie score by the electronic group KTL: where many match-ups between silent films and modern scores, like the several Metropolis (1926) has seen, feel arch in the long run, the KTL score expertly captures the sense of nocturnal foreboding, alienation, and bleak emotionalism that fuels the film. Either way, The Phantom Carriage is an early masterpiece of the medium.

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1960s, Experimental, Scandinavian cinema

Persona (1966)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

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By Roderick Heath

Ingmar Bergman’s death last week was an event that swept with unusual speed and prominence through the news services. Yet, the bleakly amusing thing about many of the commentaries on his passing was the statement, or confession, by many critics of his rapidly fading importance. So-called young film fans apparently asked in their droves, “Ingmar who?” Not that Bergman’s works should be regarded without a healthy dash of skepticism, either. A review of Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968) in the Encyclopedia of the Horror Film, pithily summarized Bergman’s oeuvre: “As (nearly) always, Bergman’s film is less about ‘great existential problems’ than about people unable to see further than the ends of their own noses who have all the time in the world to concentrate on their favourite (and only) world view.” Bergman stumbled into a fortunate situation that very few other directors of any stripe have ever achieved—he was allowed almost complete artistic freedom of expression for nearly 30 years. He trod water more than few times in that period looking for something new to say. But his best, most galvanising films, are deep in their cultural scope as well as their visceral emotional impact.

Persona, Hour of the Wolf, and Shame (Skammen, 1969) form a loose trilogy analysing horror, as Conrad would understand it, though containing quite a bit of horror as Roger Corman would understand it, too. They chart a cycle of thought and reaction to the Atomic Age, of desire for complete retreat within the artistic psyche, the terrors within that psyche, and the effect of finally being unshelled and destroyed by a violent world. Each film centers on an artist who has retreated from the world. In Persona, an actress, Elisabeth Vogler (Liv Ullman, in her debut role for Bergman) goes mute, seemingly as a reaction to a cruel, existential dread evoked by images of violent death, and is placed in the care of a nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson). In Hour of the Wolf, a painter, Borg (Max Von Sydow) and his wife (Ullman) live in a remote cabin on an island, where Borg seems to go mad, and the wife cannot tell if the mad things she sees are real or merely a shared delusion. In Shame, Von Sydow and Ullman play married musicians who find their womb of privacy shattered by a real war erupting around their ears.

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Persona could be Bergman’s most aggressively abstract film. Essentially, nothing happens, and yet a lot seems to go on. Elisabeth is stricken by her mute terror whilst giving a performance of Electra, an archetypal role ripe with meaning—a woman who kills her mother and runs from the avenging Furies—and disengages from the world. Whilst in a nursing home, she watches with utter desolation, whilst cowering in the corner, footage from Vietnam, including the famous image of a Buddhist Monk immolating himself as a protest.

persona5.jpgHer psychiatrist (Margaretha Krook) believes she’s chosen silence as a kind of a new role—a guise to be worn in until her crisis resolves, and leaves her to the care of Alma, a very normal young woman, carelessly chatty, impressed by having a famous woman as her charge. Alma and Elisabeth move into the doctor’s summer house. Here, Alma learns, or rather fails to learn, that Elisabeth’s enigmatic silence offers a mirror that can seem both infinitely open and endlessly malevolent; Alma can write anything she wants onto eternally attentive features, but finds they sink like stones in a pool. Bergman fills the film with framings that feature reflections in mirrors and lakes.

Alma gleefully confesses all her secrets to Elisabeth—her troubled relationships and a beachside sexual escapade with her best friend and an anonymous young man that resulted in her boyfriend Henryk getting her an abortion. Elisabeth seems to listen with compassion, and Alma falls so deeply in their cocoon of confidence she almost kisses her. Moments of sexually charged intensity are rife between them. One night, Elisabeth comes into Alma’s room and embraces her, caressing her hair as they gaze at themselves in a mirror. The next day, however, Alma isn’t sure if it’s a memory or a dream. Delivering mail for Elisabeth, Alma sneaks a read of her condescending description of their relationship in a letter to the psychiatrist, and smoulders with resentment. She leaves a shard of glass for Elisabeth to walk on. Elisabeth does so, and their subsequent exchange of looks confirms its deliberation—whereupon the film breaks down briefly, a hole burning in the celluloid, with a short shard of a silent comic film, some of which was also shown at the start along with images of a film production beginning.

persona%252011.jpgWhen the narrative returns, Sven Nykvist’s preternaturally sharp cinematography wanders in and out of focus as the women walk through the house. A chasm has been jumped from relationship to psychodrama. Alma alternates between pleading for forgiveness with Elisabeth and physically assaulting her. In the night, Alma awakens from a terrible dream to the sound of someone calling Elisabeth’s name; this proves to be Elisabeth’s husband (Günnar Bjornstrand) who’s blind, and thinks Alma is Elisabeth. Elisabeth seems to encourage Alma to continue the ruse, to the point of sleeping with him. When she finds Elisabeth studying a photo of her crippled son, Alma settles down in front of her coldly, mercilessly spinning out an incisive account of why Elisabeth had the child and her reaction to it, which causes Elisabeth to writhe and flinch. The same scene is repeated from the opposite angle, this time fixed on Alma’s face, until, in a grotesquely powerful moment in which the two women’s faces are joined by a split-screen effect, locked in a kind of mutant immobility. With her direct assault on Elisabeth’s psyche, Alma’s fallen right into the same rabbit hole.

The remaining narrative is impossible to judge. Alma seems to abuse Elisabeth further, except that she speaks about playing roles, and it seems perhaps she and Alma have swapped bodies. Or has Alma stolen Elisabeth’s power? Alma tears her arm with her nails, and Elisabeth sucks the welling blood from it, whereupon Alma repeatedly beats the cowering woman. Bergman intercuts between the two women packing to leave, but only Alma actually gets on board the bus to go. The film breaks down again, returning to boom cranes, cameras, and a fading arc light.

The impression of Persona is its meaning, and its impression is an evocation of dread of many things: sexuality, artistic barrenness, war, the pains of interpersonal communication. This last dread Bergman always insisted was the key to his films. Bergman weaves a tapestry that combines many influences and exports just as many. There are dashes of several Scandinavian masters’ influences: the erotic-horror expressionism of artist Gustav Munch, the psychodynamics of playwrights August Strindberg and Henrik Ibsen, the films of Carl Dreyer (whose Vampyr and Day of Wrath anticipate several Bergman works). Bergman was also an avid fan of gothic fiction and filmmaking, and Persona tracks like some of Poe’s crazier stories, like Morella or The Tomb of Ligeia, where a couple try so desperately to know each other, to join in the deepest, most spiritual sense, that it passes well beyond sexuality into obsessive mutual destruction.

The theme of psyches intertwining would be furthered in Hour of the Wolf, which explores the idea that perhaps in a marriage, couples begin not merely to look like each other, as the old canard goes, but also share the same thoughts, the same madness; in fact, Ullman’s character in that film cannot decide afterwards if the gothic terrors she has seen truly haunted her and her husband or were just her involving herself in her crazed husband’s delusions. In Persona, the entwining minds have the aspect of a sick love affair. The dread is thus highly sexualised, though nothing sexy is seen. The one heterosexual relationship in the film, the marriage between Elisabeth and Mr. Vogler, is a match of deficiencies. He is blind, and she has become mute. Each embodies a lack, not complementary, but instead causing permanent alienation, a complete divorcement from communication. A possible new human connection is found in the homosexual attraction of Alma and Elisabeth, except this is little more than glorified narcissism, a search to bathe in the reflection of a more perfect version of the self. The antiseptic chill of Persona is pervasive as he investigates lust as an aspect of emotional need.

persona%202.jpgThe relationship between Alma and Elisabeth anticipates a modern fascination with the celebrity cult. Alma wants to find herself in the acting icon, and Elisabeth can absorb anything she wants through the subservient/idolising ordinary girl. Persona evokes anxieties about artistic responsibility and effort; when Elisabeth actually stoops to sucking Alma’s blood, it seems an ultimate fulfilment of an artist’s creed. Bergman was perhaps prophetic. Years later, Ullman would refuse to make any more films with her ex-lover because she was sick of having her psyche scoured in the process of making his art.

Bergman became one of the greatest of cinematic expressionists, that is, he knew how to use image and sound in such a way as to drag an overwhelmingly physical response, usually unsettling, out of his audience. He knew how, with his camera, and even more so, his editing, (kudos to Ulla Ryghe, the cutter on this picture), to mould cinematic space exactly to his needs. Bergman’s overpoweringly weird mise-en-scene commands attention, and in this regard, Bergman is second to none, even David Lynch, a major acolyte. You’re never entirely too sure of what you’re seeing or hearing in Persona, a film whose effects are as spare Swedish modern furniture.

Bergman’s stringent, unflinching attitude towards the toughest subjects demanded a fair amount of nerve of him and his audiences. As a man, he was nothing like the stern shaman that seemed to make these films, but a fiery, plain-spoken, sensual workaholic who remained haunted by his formative years. It was once said of Thomas Mann that he was a great novelist not because he tried to drum up brilliant answers, but because he asked the most interesting questions. This is perhaps, most fundamentally, what all great artists do, and it can be said of Bergman as a filmmaker. Even at their most opaque and peculiar, Bergman’s films always have the tone of urgent questioning. The sheer balls of his examinations, mixed with his peerless creative sense of cinema, mean their questions will be unnerving and problematic, affecting and hypnotic, for a long time to come.

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1930s, Horror/Eerie, Scandinavian cinema

Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Grey (1932)

Director: Carl Theodore Dreyer

By Roderick Heath

1931 was a watershed year for horror cinema. With Tod Browning’s crepuscular, but patchy Dracula, James Whale’s Gothic fairy tale Frankenstein, Rouben Mamoulian’s vivid Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Michael Curtiz’s gleefully absurd and polished Doctor X, the genre found its feet in the Hollywood of sound, and made a big impact at the box office. At the time, they set the pace, created stars, and codified the film concept of Mary Shelley’s homunculus, Bram Stoker’s vampire, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s doppelganger (Doctor X purloined the mad scientist imagery of pulp magazine covers for the cinema). Yet despite their iconic status, the Universal-brand horror films have little relevance to the modern genre. Many of today’s films, however, owe something to another 1931 film.

Vampyr, supposedly inspired by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” and other stories in Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection (in truth it owes little but mood to Le Fanu), was at the time completely overshadowed. It was directed and written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the Danish director who had begun with the hit Master of the House (1924). But as Dreyer became more formally rigorous and experimental, exemplified by his now-famous La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1927), he lost audiences. German and Scandinavian directors had a field day with macabre subjects, for visual rhapsodies and post-WWI expressions of mental anguish and collapse. These included Victor Sjöstrom (The Phantom Carriage, 1920), Benjamin Christensen (Häxan, 1921), F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, of course, 1921), Abel Gance (Au Secours!, 1923), Paul Leni (Waxworks, 1924), and Fritz Lang (coauthor of Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari, 1919, and director of Der Meude Tod, 1921). Dreyer’s efforts with Vampyr were not about telling a story through the symbolic prisms of Expressionism, but pursuing the tantalizing challenge of Surrealism, to capture the essence of a dream as itself; to replicate the sensations, the elided realities and meanings, the disjunctive perspectives. The film’s dialogue is in English, German, and French, with an eye to making export easier, but also contributing to its “nowhere” mood.

Vampyr was produced privately by the film’s star, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg (acting under the name Julian West). The sallow-faced Gunzburg plays wandering geek and professional busybody Allan Grey, loosely based on one of Le Fanu’s recurring heroes (he’s called David Gray in the English version), who tramps about the countryside in tweed suit, jaunty hat, with a net on his shoulder, suggesting a holidaying entomologist with a morphine habit and an unconventional sex life. He arrives in Courtempierre, an isolated Franco-German village, passing, at the ferry bell, a black figure carrying a scythe, a sight that would make most men turn and head in another direction. The opening scrawl tells us that Allan has had many strange encounters; he’s a kind of proto-Fox Mulder. He settles into a small hotel room, the walls of which are covered in macabre, medieval decorations. He hears someone muttering outside, and catches a brief glimpse of a gnarled-faced man haunting the upstairs. He is awoken at midnight by a visitor; not, as he may have been hoping, the innkeeper’s daughter, but aged local chatelaine (Maurice Schutz) who makes wordless entreaty to him, as an outsider and therefore apparently trustworthy, to care for a package, marked “Not To Be Opened Until My Death.”

Allan, knowing such packages never bode well, tries to follow the old man. He wanders the day-for-midnight wonderland of the village, where shadows without forms move by themselves and dogs and children moan constantly. Allan explores a ruined chateau, which, with its cavernous rooms and labyrinthine halls, exactly conjures those shifting space-time traps of dreams. It is vaguely inhabited by a soldier and a one-legged man, both of whom, when they sleep, have their shadows walk off and perform nefarious deeds at someone else’s bidding. There’s also an ancient crone (Henriette Gérard) wearing Flemish dress of the 1600s and a bespectacled, meek-looking but creepy doctor (Jan Hieronimko – what a name!). In the film’s most bizarre and wondrous moment, the camera explores a vast attic where a populace of shadows are dancing to snatches of Gypsy fiddle, until the crone, on a lower floor, framed by dangling, rotating cartwheels, angrily lifts her cane for silence, which she gains instantaneously. She hands the doctor a vial of poison. Clearly, they’re in league for some awful purpose.

Allan escapes the ruin and reaches the chatelaine’s house just in time to see the shadows of the soldier and one-legged man shoot the chatelaine. His assassination seems almost expected by the household, for he’s been fighting this oppressive, intangible evil. Allan is invited to stay and protect them, Gisele (Rena Mandel, an ex-nude model), the chatelaine’s daughter, Her sister Leone (Sybille Schmitz, the film’s only professional actor) is continually lured into the garden and drained of blood by the crone. In one of the most needle-sharp erotic-horror moments in cinema, Leone awakens from a delirium and latches eyes on her sister, her happy smile broadening into a grin of perverse lust, scaring Gisele away. A servant is sent by carriage to fetch the police; when it comes rolling back, the driver is bloody and lifeless. Allan, exhausted, falls asleep. He dreams Gisele has been kidnapped and tied up in the ruin, and then finds his own body in a coffin; in a bravura long POV shot, we are Allan as the lid of his coffin is nailed on and he is carried by the gloating faces of the doctor and the crone.

Allan awakens with a jolt as panic erupts in the house. The doctor, having called to check on Leone, has poisoned her. Allan and the chatelaine’s loyal servant (Albert Bras) open the package entrusted to Allan by the chatelaine. It’s a book on vampires from the 1770s, based on papers found in Faust’s collection. Despite this lip-smacking suggestion of forbidden lore, it only relates basic stake-in-the-heart stuff, and gives a clue to the vampire’s identity by detailing how, in the 1750s, an outbreak of vampire attacks in Courtempierre were blamed on a dead woman named Marguerite Chopin. Allan and the servant search the graveyard for Chopin’s grave and find it contains the crone. The servant stakes the vampire as Allan searches for Gisele in the ruin. He unties her, scares off the doctor, and gets her out of the haunted village by boat. The servant gets final revenge when he finds the doctor has cornered himself in a flour mill; he sets the machinery rolling and the perfidious medico slowly drowns in tons of white flour, shouting “I don’t want to die!” Might have thought of that before you started poisoning girls and mistreating dogs!

In developing this cryptic, often blackly comic film, Dreyer and cinematographer Rudolph Mate were inspired a flour mill wreathed in dusty clouds they passed while on a train, a sight that inspired the finale and the hazy, washed-out visuals produced by false light shone on the lens. Contributing was Nosferatu’s designer Hermann Warm, and like that film, Vampyr shares an appealing rejection of studio-created atmosphere for careful manipulation of real settings. Vampyr is technically primitive, with poor sound from an experimental system. Dreyer used this flaw to good effect, muting the dialogue and reduces the soundtrack to menacing rumbles and barely heard sonorous music, adding to the ruined look. Dreyer seems to have been the first director to seek an illusion of the uncanny by devolving the techniques of film, something now every film student tries at least once. Yet Dreyer’s camera is sublimely mobile, roaming halls and rooms with restless, hungry fascination.

Vampyr pilots the next few generations’ worth of experimental film in its attempts to capture the uncanny. In The Ring, when one character judges the mysterious videotape as good in a student film fashion, he’s absolutely right, but that tradition of experimental short, and, more recently, death metal music videos trying to recreate the ugly dissociations of nightmares, have some roots in Dreyer’s style. It’s hard to imagine David Lynch’s films, especially Eraserhead, without Dreyer. Much of what Lynch accomplished—weird soundtrack, disorientating editing, sickly half-seen visions—is present here. But Vampyr is gossamer in its invocation of the morbid, more in the key of Mahler than Evanescence.

Vampyr is modernist, in its war with perspective, reality, and the limitations of the senses, and feels particularly reminiscent of Kafka—especially in its dark humor, the way Allan keeps walking into the weirdest circumstances without blanching and falls in love with Gisele at the drop of a hat. It’s also a pure invocation of the spirit of the Gothic genre, that European sense of being enveloped and suffocated by history, something that ultimately was lost on Hollywood.

Vampyr envisions a world haunted by loss and a past only visible in shreds, entrapped by identity but adrift between realities. Although Allan and Gisele escape from the fog-shrouded bank, they arrive on the side that our scythe-wielding friend crossed to earlier; it’s hard to tell if the waking world will be better. That waking world was about to collapse in on itself. Under the Nazis, German horror cinema would be extinguished, thanks to their detestation of the psychological and the genre’s too-pointed realisation of what forces were stirring under the surface—Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari envisioned the country as a giant insane asylum waiting for an authoritative administrator.

Vampyr was ignored on release. Dreyer did not make another film for 13 years, until with Day of Wrath (1943) he returned to studying the legacies of historical evil and psychological oppression. Sybille Schmitz later starred in Frank Wisbar’s version of the death-and-the-maiden theme, Faehrmann Maria (1936), which Wisbar remade when he decamped stateside as PRC’s Strangler in the Swamp (1946). Nicholas de Gunzburg became an investment banker in New York, a notable sight for many years walking the streets displaying the same haunted, soulful expression he sports in Vampyr. l

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