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Dreyer Diary #7: "Love One Another" + "Vampyr"

Ryland Walker Knight
The Brooklyn Academy of Music ran a Carl Th. Dreyer retrospective, appropriately and monolithically titled DREYER, from March 13 - March 31. Here you will find my quick notes as I plunge in deep with the Dane. I hope we learn something as we march forward (and step back) with care.
Easily the most epic of Dreyer's films (that I've had the pleasure to see), Love One Another (1922) juggles more than a few ideas and only occasionally does the swarm of plot stifle. It's an issue picture about anti-Semitism and revolutionary aspirations in Russia at the turn of the century, complete with fist pounding and ferocious mobs out to kill, but it's also about spies and a bathhouse, not to mention family and (there it is again) faith. Faith, here, despite the late riots, is not a teleological force sweeping up its characters; that is, conceptually, faith for these characters—for this film—is a mask donned or shucked or projected. This reaches a near-parodic height when we see the duplicitous revolutionary spy in a monk's robes and awfully fake beard shooting a once-Jew-now-Christian in the belly to save face. Further, the film ends with a blond Goy "rescuing" his dark Jewish lady from a narrow plebe with an axe and the genocide-mongering horde behind him with flight the only option. Indeed: in the climax we can see a seed for Jack Torrence's bathroom assault late in Kubrick's The Shining (1980), an unexpected echo, but apt in that all Wendy and Danny can do at the close is run, and run.
There's a solution in Vampyr (1932). Demons can die (twice) in this film—because they are the evil of the world, we might say its vacuum, manifest in corporeal forms. The horror of the other in Vampyr is the fear of becoming possessed, of one's soul overtaken, and that this change may be irreversible. This is common, of course, to the genre, but viewed a night after Love One Another, its allegorical possibilities became highlighted. And, for me, at my moment, this meant within the work of this filmmaker. It seems the great threat in Dreyer's cinema is not simply death but the soul's corruption, and that our trace may (or, more likely, will) be erased by the world's passage. In effect, as Phelps intoned to start this project, we are shadows. And, boy, do the shadows dance here. Phantoms never seemed to thick with life, and desire. (Also, I'm reminded of Burroughs.) Vampyr is not necessarily avant-garde but its expressive tilts and dollies do push the image, as typified by the late leasing of the frame to our hero's dead-eye view from a coffin. We look with him, shadows in our own dark space, as evil seals us into a box and limits our view of the world, only to transport us outside. The image is autocratic. And, yet, the image is an allowance, too: seeing is a gift earned, like life. Lucky for our man, the sun shines on his cell and he is returned to the world to drive a stake into the past and free his future. But, really, I could care less what happens story-wise in Vampyr. What kept me rapt was the cycle of light and how it makes the possible a reality, even if that reality is a darkness tethered to nothing.


Carl Theodor Dreyer
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