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Video: How Carl Dreyer Created a ‘Cinematic Uncanny’

Investigating one of the creepiest films of all time, with insights inspired by one of the world’s leading film scholars.


Dreyer’s ‘Vampyr’ is a film so disembodying that during the production the director himself asked crew members, ‘Who Am I?’

Last fall, we had the privilege of attending (Yuqian as a PhD student with Kevin auditing as an auditor) a graduate level seminar on “The Cinema of the Uncanny” at the University of Chicago Cinema and Media Studies Department. The seminar was taught by Tom Gunning, author of major book-length studies on D.W. Griffith and Fritz Lang, and whose essay “The Cinema of Attractions” introduced what is now a cornerstone concept of contemporary film studies. The class, one of the most stimulating and challenging either of us has ever taken, was less like an accumulation of knowledge that you find in most courses, but something like a transformative journey. Basing our understanding of the term “uncanny” on Sigmund Freud’s initial writing on the concept, the course opened up an entirely new perspective, not just of our experiences of the movies, but of the world, where everything we take for granted in the fabric our existence is made strange and unsettling.

Among the films discussed in class: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Tod Browning‘s Freaks, Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, the Timothy and Stephen QuaysStreet of Crocodiles, and Craig Baldwin‘s Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies in America. One of the first films studied was Vampyr by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a film whose nature is so disembodying that during the production the director himself asked crew members “Who am I? Who am I?” Tasked to give a brief presentation on the film to the class, we opted to employ video essay techniques to enable us to probe the film in as concrete terms as possible in order to grasp how it yields its uncanny effects. The following video essay is adapted from that presentation, and published here on the occasion of Vampyr‘s availability on Fandor. We hope it gives a palpable sense of the materials and mindset in which the course placed us, which will stay with us for quite some time.

Yuqian Yan is a PhD student at the University of Chicago Cinema and Media Studies Department. 

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.

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  • Preston says:

    Great essay! One of my favorite films, excellent analysis of Freud’s ‘uncanny.’

  • Matt says:

    Nice breakdown. Tarkovsky loved using that 2nd shot, where the camera seems to assume the character’s POV as he/she looks around the room until the character eventually enters the frame from the wrong side (one instance in Nostalghia is strikingly similar in appearance to the one here, makes me wonder if it was a conscious reference). That might be my favorite cinematic device: it’s so simple, and yet it twists subjectivity in such a striking way. Like Manet’s bartender in motion.

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