Dreyer, Sjostrom and Filmmakers Outside the Avant-Gardes

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Outside of this rich scenario of European French, German and Russian avant-gardes and the development of American cinema, there is a long series of individual experiences of directors operating in other countries, such as Carl Theodor Dreyer.

In Italy in the 1920s everything seems to have stopped and there is a profound production and distribution crisis. The concentration of cinematographic activities in Rome seems to be holding back creativity and connections with other European cinemas. 

Even British cinema does not express cinematic movements and noteworthy avant-gardes but in those years he began his career as one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema Alfred Hitchcock. It is above all in Northern Europe that we find the most important filmmakers who work in solitude: Dreyer, Sjostrom, Christensen.

The masterpieces of Nordic cinema: Haxan


The Nordic cinema offers some filmmakers who continue to make important films such as Sjostrom and Christensen, who realizes a real masterpiece of witchcraft through the centuries (Haxan) of 1922. A metanarrative half documentary film that tells the story of use of witchcraft through the centuries with a view to tolerance, with ironic grotesque scenes to describe a dark phenomenon of violence and repression. 

After 100 years from the release of Haxan it is still difficult to find a film that renders in such an exemplary way the diabolical and Mephistopheles atmospheres of witchcraft, with images that are scarier than the worst contemporary splatter films. Disturbing images because they are real evidence of real events. 

Extremely expensive film with great qualities of innovation that passed almost unnoticed at the time due to the subject matter. Controversial, blasphemous and in some anticlerical scenes the film was partially censored in Sweden and it was completely banned from circulation in the United States. 

Between documentary and horror


The first part of the film is a real documentary and describes the dark imagery of ancient populations and their depictions of demons to exorcise the forces of evil. Then we move on to the Middle Ages and the film tells about the Inquisition and its ruthless and inhuman methods of torture. As a woman is forced to confess she describes the details of a Sabbath she attended. Sacrifice of babies, apparitions of demons, a fictional scene from an anthology, one of the absolute pinnacles of Horror cinema. The director with irony enjoys playing the devil himself. 

The faces of the characters are filmed very naturally and with a modern style far from the exaggerated expressiveness of the time, with a minimalist acting style. The sets in the fictional parts are extraordinarily enveloping and fantastic inspired by Flemish painting. 

Haxan’s images have an extraordinary charge and strike the viewer directly in his unconscious. The film was enjoyed throughout the twentieth century by characters such as William Burroughs, and versions of varying lengths were created. The most recent version remastered in high definition lasts 104 minutes. 

A film completely out of its time: avant-garde not only in style but in content. How the scenes are told with the advance of 50 years The temptations of the devil towards the nuns of a convent. Between madness, superstition, fanaticism and popular legends, Haxan is certainly one of the best horror films in the history of cinema that every art week lover should see. 

Dreyer, director of ascetic cinema


Another solitary master of Scandinavian cinema and in recent years Carl Th. Dreyer, director who first worked in Sweden and Denmark and then moved to France, made important films such as Blade of Satan bog, from 1920, The master of the house from 1925 is an absolute masterpiece of silent cinema, The passion of Joan of Arc from 1928. 

Carl Theodor Dreyer is one of the most important directors of world cinema. Master of a very rigorous, ascetic and moral style, he explores in depth important themes of the human soul such as faith, love and death. Dreyer always rejected the easy shortcut of commercial cinema. In fact, his films did not have great success with the public and were long opposed by censorship as in the case of The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was banned by the Catholic Church. Many modern directors have explicitly stated that they were influenced and inspired by his style. 

Dreyer was born in Copenhagen in Denmark on February 3, 1889 to a humble peasant family who gave him a strict Lutheran upbringing. An education that subsequently influenced the making of his films. In his youth he worked as a journalist and encountered cinema by subtitling silent films and writing screenplays.

Success came with the 1925 film The master of the house, very popular especially in France. Thanks to this success he had the opportunity to realize his most important work, commissioned by the French production Société General des films, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which I personally also edit. The universally recognized masterpieces are The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Day of Wrath and The Word.

The passion of Joan of Arc


The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of the absolutely unmissable films of silent cinema and made by Dreyer with the collaboration of a technical staff of the highest level such as the director of photography Rudolph Matè. The film has a great religious and moral inspiration and is an exemplary synthesis of all the most innovative techniques and cinematographic styles seen up to that moment. The process is shown with a variety of shots of extreme geometric angles and rapid editing that render the tragedy and pain of the affair with extreme power. 

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film in which the best of the experimentation of all the European avant-gardes is condensed. Perhaps the film in which silent cinema reaches its maximum expression. A film of absolute rigor with sets almost reduced to zero. White backgrounds and long shadows that evoke the tragedy of the story. 

At times an exemplary kammerspiel built above all with close-ups of the actress Renée Falconetti, without any makeup, with all the imperfections of your face. Threatening and crooked shots of the inquisitors and intense close-ups of Giovanna D’Arco, of her eyes that almost allow us to scrutinize her soul. In the torture scene, Dreyer seems to be inspired by the Soviet avant-gardes and German expressionism. For the editing of the scenes in the torture chamber, Dreyer seems to be inspired by the Soviet and Impressionist style.

The censorship of Dreyer’s masterpiece


The only original screening of the film was at its premier in Copenhagen in 1928. After that the passion of Joan of Arc met a series of incredible vicissitudes and the total opposition of the Catholic Church. First censored and reassembled in France by order of the archbishop of Paris, the negative of the original copy was mysteriously destroyed in a fire at the UFA in Berlin. Dreyer reassembled an alternative version with scenes not used but incredibly after a few months this too was destroyed in a fire. The hapless director never got to see the success of his masterpiece. 

Only in 1951 the film historian Lo Duca found a copy of a second version in the basement of the Gaumont, to which he will add a soundtrack and which will remain the only available version of the film for many years. The epilogue, however, is a real cinematic twist: a copy in excellent condition was found by chance in a psychiatric hospital in Oslo. It was the original negative of the copy lost in the Berlin fire. 



In the thirties Dreyer created another Vampyr masterpiece, from 1932, which moved away from the codes of the horror genre of the time to propose a very personal story of madness and terror. A way of telling with disturbing images that manages to create an authentic restlessness and a sense of threat in the viewer that goes beyond the genre. 

The credibility Dreyer had earned with Joan of Arc’s passion did not easily allow him to make a new film. The public had not rewarded him at the cinema box office due to his difficult style and alien to commercial dynamics. It was only thanks to the interest of a patron, the young Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, that the director was able to make his next film on a very low budget, inspired by the stories of an Irish writer of the 1800s, Sheridan Le Fanu. A film that deals with occultism and demonology and draws a fresco of the darkest tradition of German and Anglo-Saxon Romanticism. Vampyr was presented in Berlin in the spring of 1932. The film is an epitome of Dreyer’s obsessions that oscillate between dream and reality. 

The story of Dreyer’s Vampyr


It is the story of a real and concrete horror that the protagonist encounters on his journey. David Gray happens by chance in a small village shrouded in fog and an evil atmosphere. He decides to spend the night in a gloomy inn and receives an unexpected visit from an old gentleman who leaves him a package. Above it is written that it will only have to be opened after his death. 

Then the man disappears. The young man tries to find the mysterious character by leaving the inn and meets mysterious presences that show him where to find him. Then he comes to a ruined building apparently uninhabited but actually populated by evil spirits. Gray will continue his journey until he comes across the murder of the old gentleman who had given him the package which, once opened, reveals inside it the presence of a book: The Strange Story of Vampires.

Dreyer’s style in Vampyr


The original title of the film is The Dream of Allan Gray and it reveals the dream and nightmare dimension in which the film is set. There is no trace of logic and rationality at all. The plot serves as a pretext for Dreyer to create a series of exceptional dream visual inventions that after 90 years still amaze audiences and filmmakers around the world. Each scene really seems to emerge from the deepest and darkest subconscious of the protagonist. 

Unfortunately, once again, the public does not fully understand Dreyer’s cinema and the film turns out to be a resounding failure, causing a depression to the director. Many years will have to pass for Vampyr to be widely re-evaluated by film critics and become one of the fundamental works in the history of cinema, in particular of Horror cinema, together with Murnau’s Nosferatu and Tod Browning’s Dracula. 

Films that have given inspiration and inspiration for many horror films of the following decades. Dreyer’s Vampyr, however, is very different from both Murnau’s and Browning’s films and differs more generally from the canons of Horror cinema. 

Dreyer’s choices on dialogues

It is basically an experimental film on the psyche and dream images immersed in a suspended and unreal atmosphere. Dreyer had faced the difficulty of making the film in three different languages ​​in order to be able to distribute it in multiple language markets, but at the time the dubbing and synchronization processes were very complex. It was preferred to shoot the dialogues directly in the different languages. 

To address this problem, the director decided to minimize the dialogue and used captions typical of silent cinema. This lack of dialogue makes the film even more evocative, pervaded by an unreal atmosphere. Also thanks to Rudolph Maté’s extraordinary photography that fills the images with disturbing shadows and mysterious glows. One of the techniques most used by the director of photography was to use a gauze veil as a filter on the camera lens with which he obtained images surrounded by an almost imperceptible ethereal halo. While the cinematographic story proceeds, photographic experiments multiply. 

Really unforgettable sequences come to life, like the one of the terrible endings that we do not reveal here for those who have not yet seen the film. Despite the many films made on the figure of Dreyer’s vampire Vampyr, it still remains today one of the most extreme and original cinematic experiments. A work that differs considerably from the most common clichés of this creature typical of horror cinema. It is a film that instead tries to show the hidden essence of the monster’s psyche and its power to transform reality into a world of dark shadows and deformations of reality, dragging the protagonists and the viewer into a nightmare with open eyes.

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