Some notes on the restoration of Dreyer‘s 'Vampyr' (1932)

Curator at Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, Martin Koerber, and head of L'imagine ritrovato laboratory in Bologna, Nicola Mazzanti, finished a restoration of Vampyr in 1999. Martin Koerbers notes on the restoration have been published in the Danish film journal Film in 2000 and in the booklet for The Criterion Collection dvd released in 2008.

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Almost every time one takes a closer look at a film that is world-famous one has to face the sad fact that the film does not really exist in a form that seems acceptable. This is true also for Dreyer‘s Vampyr.

If we take the 2.271 m of the German version as a fact, how come none of the existing versions run nearly that long...?

The original elements (i.e. camera negative for the image and sound negatives for the the three original soundtracks in German, French, and English) are lost, as far as can be established by tracking the existing prints back to their sources. There are a number of original prints left (i.e. nitrate prints of the German and French versions struck in 1932 from the original negatives), but wear and tear of several decades of use have made them incomplete and quite damaged. Worse, most of them show subtitles, very much against Dreyer‘s concept - he produced the film with three different original soundtracks to ensure widespread distribution without the need for words disrupting the flow of the images. The duplication that has been done in the past decades does not do justice to the extremely delicate sfumato images and to the con sordino sounds captured on the variable density track. Some of the existing prints (nitrates or safety duplicates) are bastards, representing not one integral version, but a mix of two, or even three of the original versions, compiled in a desperate attempt to somehow restore the complete film out of elements that don‘t really belong together. Nothing seems to remain of the English version, except for the part of it that was used in the compilation of all versions that Raymond Rohauer distributed as Vampyr, and that is still available from the organization that now runs his estate.

The synchronization

Dreyer shot the film in France, edited it and then brought it to Berlin, where it was to be post-synchronised in German, French, and English. Though shooting silent, he had made alternate takes of the few scenes with dialogues with the actors speaking in the three languages, so that these scenes could be lip-synched later. From what we can detect from the few surviving original prints, there was only one original image negative, which was printed, and then changed by cutting out the dialogue scenes of the first language (presumably German), splicing in the alternate takes, then printing again, and so forth until a sufficient number of prints was produced in all languages. Obviously, this archaic technique, probably due to the extreme poverty of the production company (Dreyer himself, financed by his lead actor Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg) presented problems whenever a new print had to be made. Any change in the image negative presented a risk to lose the synchronism with not only one, but three sound negatives. Probably for this reason Dreyer and his editor Paul Falkenberg tried to keep the necessary cutting to a minimum: Sometimes when the lips of actors are not visible the same take was used, and sometimes even though lip movement is quite visible the same image was used with different soundtracks. For instance this is the case in the first shot we see Allan speaking. He is sitting up in his bed asking "Wer sind Sie?" (lips), saying it in perfect synchronism in the German track, but saying "Qui est vous?" in the French soundtrack. Further compromises had to be accepted because the alternate takes would most certainly be different in length, due to different behaviour of the actors. Consequentely there are a number of scenes in which the French version shows a few frames of black spacing, filled in to keep the shorter take in synch with the music track. Paul Falkenberg told me in the early 1980s what a nightmare it was to put this film together, not only because of the different versions, but also because at that time Tobis had no sophisticated equipment for mixing. There was a very primitive machine for mixing two optical tracks that somehow would marry music, words, and effects, but basically the editors would rather avoid using it. This explains the bizarre fact that the Vampyre stops the music in the dancing sequence with the German word "Ruhe!" (=Silence!) in all three versions of the film. Obviously this exclamation was composed by Wolfgang Zeller as an integral part of his music, and thus was recorded on the music track, of which only the German version made it into the final choice of takes to be used.

The censorship outtakes

More difficulties were at hand when more substantial changes had to be made to the film, because the German censor demanded certain scenes to be cut. The censorship card B31508 states that the film was 2.271 m long when approved on May 2, 1932, after two cuts had been made: The killing of the vampyre had been abridged by 15 m (it was forbidden to show how Allan and the servant drive the pole into the body), and the suffocation of the Doctor had been abridged by 39 m. Assuming that the requirements of the German censor asked for a new mix of entire scenes, as it would have been impossible to post-cut the images without destroying the music track, one may speculate that Dreyer and Falkenberg re-arranged reel 9 of the German version, after the prints for the other languages had already been struck. This is likely because the surviving prints of the French version have the scenes that never made it to the German screens, but it is impossible to re-insert them into the German version, because the continuity of images and sounds is different in the two versions. Thus it was decided to keep the versions as found, but to preserve the French ending on a separate reel, so that the differences can be studied.

Missing footage?

Many questions about the integrity of the surviving versions remain, however. If we take the 2.271 m of the German version as a fact, how come none of the existing versions run nearly that long, and even the longest one (the safety print of the German version coming from Gosfilmofond) is only 2.004 m? Comparing the metrage of the 9 reels with what is documented as the reel lengths when censored, every reel is missing footage between 20 and 30 m, adding up to the amount of almost an entire reel missing. There is dialogue between Allan and Giselle documented on the card, of which no trace can be found in any of the surviving prints, no matter what version. Why then does the film still seem complete, after one has put all scenes together to a maximum version, as we have done now? My personal opinion is that Dreyer reworked the film entirely after he had to go back to it to fulfill the censor’s requirements. Most likely larger pieces from the previous editing and mix were kept, and that would explain why some of the music-changes are rather abrupt, and occur in all versions at the same point. Another possibility is that entire scenes from all reels of the finished film were chopped out after Dreyer was unhappy with the reactions of the audience in Berlin. There is an article in the Berlin trade paper Filmkurier suggesting that such an operation has taken place as early as after the first two showings on May 6, 1932.

Unsolved questions

As far as what survives on film, we have done the best one can do until further footage turns up, which seems unlikely taking into account the amount of work that the major archives have been putting in researching and restoring this film over the past decades. The philological implications of the concept of an original version of Vampyr should, however, be subject of further study. Perhaps it is possible to establish what was edited in the first "original" version of the film, and what was then cut out. Dreyer‘s handwritten script of the film is kept in the Danish Film Museum (now The Danish Film Institute / Archive & Cinematheque), and it is quite different from the version published some years ago, which follows more the finished film as we know it. And it may well be that one could find documents in the estates of the people involved in the production (where, for instance, is the music by Wolfgang Zeller?) which could give anwers to questions we have not even asked.

At this point, the restoration of the German version is finished. What should follow is a resurrection of the French version with the same care. A lot of the elements sorted out for the German restoration can be used again, as the music track is entirely the same (except for reel 9), and a lot of the images were - as explained above - also the same in all versions. 

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