Monday, 9 January 2017

The Shadows… Vampyr (1932), Stephen Horne and Minima, Barbican

Whether or not it was originally conceived as a silent film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is ideally suited to a re-score, especially one involving the combined forces of Stephen Horne and Minima: years of film accompaniment experience between them encompassing digital and analogue, piano and percussion and a mutually-impressive range of textural expression.

In his introduction, Stephen said that when he had met Minima founder Alex Hogg at a BFI panel on silent scoring, the two were viewed as being from different ends of the spectrum but rather than two worlds colliding these two found much common ground. For Mr Horne it's an opportunity to share his sonic pallet with other musicians and for Minima the chance to meld their alt-rock stylings with an unique one-man band playing piano, flute and accordion.

A group develops its own dynamics during improvisation and to share this process with another arch improviser must have been a fascinating process when the third party, Dreyer’s film, is so… unpredictable. Stephen’s piano acted not so much as a bridge between the source material and Minima’s more modern sound but a launch pad for an exploration of musical sentiments that are closely aligned.

Minima and their shadows?
As a musical mix it worked very well, growing in strength as Dreyer’s uncanny film developed its out of body, mind and spirit, narrative. Minima’s post-rock drive pushing on as well as working with practiced piano lines all wrapped carefully around the minimal dialogue and the gaping holes left deliberately in a story reliant on the deus ex machina of a dream saving reality…

Vampyr is one of the most unnervingly detached horror films and with events contained within open to so much interpretation, the accompaniment needs to both reflect this and emphasise the areas of more defined meaning: a challenge for one let alone five pairs of hands but one which Hornima passed with flying colours.

As Guillermo del Torro says in one of the excellent Eureka! commentaries, this is one of the few films to go back to the original ideas of the legend, with the vampires being "hungry shadows" who feed on the living... the young, the weak-willed and the vibrant. Throughout there are shadows detached from their corporal owners, dashing along with no solid partners to block the sunlight and living separate after-lives – no strolling together along the avenue for them!

The film is very, very, loosely based on In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu with the French film commentator, Maurice Drouzy, going so far as to suggest that this was a smokescreen to hide what was a very autobiographical work for Dreyer: a story founded in his lost childhood and adoption. Maybe... but it’s dreamy detachments make it hard to be certain of anything other than what we see on screen and what the director shows us is not intended to be easily “read”.

Nicolas de Gunzburg aka Julian West
The young hero Allan Grey – played by the film’s money man Nicolas de Gunzburg who adopted the name of Julian West for his self-funded big break – is a student of the occult who enters the village of Courtempierre with a fishing rod and high hopes of a more supernatural catch. He stays at a local inn and is visited by a man pleading with him to save his daughter. The man leaves him a book on vampires, to be opened on his death.

Dreams and reality converge and the narrative follows the logic of dream as Grey drifts to the man’s house only to see him shot by a seemingly insubstantial sniper. Gray stays on as a guest of the house, as the man's eldest daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) begins to turn ill and is confined to her bed by a mystery ailment.

Henriette Gérard and Jan Hieronimko
There is a malevolent elderly woman, Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard) who seems to have power over many of the locals, especially her main accomplice, the local doctor played by Jan Hieronimko, who was apparently an American university professor spotted by chance in New York, he is superb and another unsettling presence.

The youngest daughter, Giséle (Rena Mandel) is kidnapped by the doctor and Gray sets off to rescue her. He sits down on his way and his spirit appears to leave his body (is this the "dream" or did it start in the inn?) and goes off to where the girl is held. At this place he sees himself buried in a coffin with a glass panel: is that West's body in there or his soul?

Julian West’s acting “style” truly comes into its own in this sequence but, for those concerned with the sense of it, all looks bleak for the fearless vampire hunter…

Rena Mandel waiting for a hero
Vampyr is atypical for a horror film in terms of actually having a genuine religious agenda. Del Torro highlights a Lutheran theme of redemption, not surprising given some of Dreyer's other work, in that we can be saved by divine intervention only when we accept our need for salvation.  

Like many of the best "surreal" works (loosely speaking) not everything is explained or explainable. It doesn't matter; you don't have to square the circle and rationalise everything away, just take a meaningful amount of sense from the total abstraction of the work. It's the feeling more than conscious deduction that matters.

The cinematography of Rudolph Maté deserves special mention here as he is able to translate his director’s vision onto screen just as he did on Joan. He also shot Prix de Beauté.

To accompany such a film without being giving too much specific musical narrative takes some doing and to do it as an ensemble would appear even more challenging. Styephen, Minima and their notable shadows did so exceptionally well and I would heartily recommend the result.

Comparisons with Wolfgang Zeller’s original score are possible if you get the Eureka! DVD – available from the BFI online shop. Maybe future editions could include the alternative music?

The band gets set

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