Sep 20, 2013

Jonathan (1970)

Between F.W. Murnau’s German expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) aka Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and Bavarian adventurer auteur Werner Herzog’s ‘remake’/re-adaption Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) aka Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, Germany isn't exactly lacking when it comes to masterful vampire films, especially in regard to adaptations of Bram Stoker’s classic horror novel Dracula (1897), and the Fatherland certainly has some vintage vamp flicks that are in dire need of being unearthed. Although largely forgotten today, Jonathan (1970)—a politically-charged vampire film only very loosely based on Stoker’s Dracula—was a hit of sorts upon its release over four decades ago as it won its director Hans W. Geißendörfer (Carlos, Der Zauberberg aka The Magic Mountain), who had never directed a feature film previously, the coveted Film Award in Gold at the Deutscher Filmpreis for Best New Direction and would ultimately take a ‘modernist’ approach to the outmoded horror genre while simultaneously paying homage to classical Germanic art. The son of a Bavarian clergyman who studied both German literature and African languages before developing an interest in filmmaking, Geißendörfer, while having a romantic vision of sorts that recalls Heinrich von Kleist and a keenness for landscapes that echoes Caspar David Friedrich, was most certainly typical of his generation in his political leanings, at least if one were to judge him simply by his debut work, Jonathan, a film advertised upon its release as an anti-fascist vampire flick of sorts. Set in the 16th century and utilizing Heimatfilm, Gothic horror, and quasi-völkisch aesthetics, Jonathan is an intrinsically idiosyncratic sort of anti-fascist/anti-capitalist kraut bloodsucker comedy where the vampires, being immune from sunlight, make up a pernicious and parasitic aristocracy and where the peasants—led haphazardly by a certain Jonathan Harker—attempt to lead a quasi-Bolshevik revolution against their undead overlords. Advertised with the patently pretentious tagline “The First Adult Vampire Film,” Jonathan is for the most part an arthouse flick that takes a sardonic approach to genre conventions including Teutonic slapstick, sociopolitical satire, and sadomasochistic Gothic horror, thus making it more a work that is ultimately as uneven as it is intriguing. Featuring vampires in love with humans committing suicide, nuns hanging from nooses, farms full of dead barnyard animals and the real-life killing of a rat, phantasmagorical class warfare, and enough inverted crosses and blasphemous imagery to put a Norwegian black metal band to shame, Jonathan was unquestionably an iconoclastic vampire flick upon its release, but not unlike like Margarethe von Trotta’s career jumpstarting good looks, the film has not aged as gracefully as one would hope, even if it deserves to be regarded as a minor kraut cult classic of sorts. Like the sort of aesthetically eloquent vampire film one would accept from Werner Schroeter’s rampantly heterosexual and politically-retarded Bavarian brother, Jonathan is a striking example of how far-leftist politics distorted the minds of the filmmakers of German New Cinema to the point where even a classy Bosch-esque vampire flick is tainted by the ideas of psychic Yiddish vampires like Marx, Trotsky, and Adorno. 

 It is the 16th century in Teutonic Transylvania and sun-tolerant vampires of the blueblooded variety rule the roost and use their finely dressed fascistic soldiers to invade small villages and drain the precious blood of the peasantry. The vampires are led by a charismatic fellow that goes by the name “The Count” (Paul Albert Krumm) and who a bears a close resemblance, both in appearance and speech, to Adolf Hitler, albeit minus the signature mustache (naturally, it would be quite hard to make a vampire villain serious who sports both a Charlie Chaplin mustache and a gay cape). As the Count tells his compatriots after having a fellow vamp killed who tried to leave his Gothic castle fortress, “All of you know…none of you are alone here. If you try to leave…it’s dangerous for us. Be careful. Your betrayal can cost you dearly. Be forewarned. This could also happen to you,” as the alpha-bloodsucker wants to avoid compromising his undead kingdom's rule over civilization and humanity. Meanwhile, somewhere not that far away, an elderly anti-vampire professor (Oskar von Schab) of the old school leftist sort gives the following speech to his pupils, “We did our job. We have come to the conclusion…we aren’t getting anywhere this way. Although all of us know what’s going on…we aren’t doing anything to fight against it. We must protect ourselves against the power…of this bloodsucker, who grows stronger…day by day. We must fight against him…not only by stopping the rituals…nor by killing them one by one. The only solution is obvious…the total elimination of the vampires. And now is the best time to strike.” Apparently, when all the vampires plan to gather at a castle near the sea, the professor hopes to “push the vampires into the sea” as “they cannot survive in the water,” thus wiping out the undead menace for good.  Playing from the Bolshevik handbook, the Prof states the entire vampire aristocracy must be exterminated and he sends a not particularly special gentleman named Jonathan (Jürgen Jung), his assistant, to scout out the castle and relay back the information he discovers so that the anti-fang-cist revolutionaries can make their move, which also involves freeing the Count’s peasant prisoners who the teacher believes will vengefully help in destroying the Hitler-esque Dracula and his SS bloodsuckers.  Rather unfortunately for the vampire-hunters, one of the Count's associates sat in on the Professor's speech, so the alpha-vamp is more than ready for Jonathan when he arrives. While the Count is most certainly a bloodsucker who takes precious sanguine juices from victims whenever and wherever he wants, he is also an empathic ‘gift-giver’ who allows beauteous babes to drink blood from a perennial Christ-like wound in his side, thus, like Uncle Adolf, he is not a totally bad guy, but a man looking out for the interests of his people, which any thinking person can respect. 

 Whilst sleeping like a wee babe in his carriage, Jonathan’s anti-anti-Christ/vampire-exterminating paraphernalia is stolen and the coachman is killed, so the novice vampire-hunter must make his way to the vampire palace on foot and on the way he is joined by a dubious gent named Joseph (Hans-Dieter Jendreyko), who more or less helps the revolutionary tread through the countryside in one piece. Scared and superlatively superstitious, the peasants, whose villages have been ravaged by ravenous vamps and their snake-like soldiers, goes so far as even attacking Jonathan in fear of retribution from the Count and his men. Indeed, the vampires seem to have a stern scorched earth policy in which entire town populations are exterminated, churches are reduced to ruins and holy men executed, buildings burned, and farm animals killed as if a SS Einsatzgruppen took a time-machine to 16th century Transylvania. After killing Joseph via dagger after the curious fellow attacks him while sleeping, Jonathan stops by a house to ask for directions to the Count’s castle and is greeted by a rather desperate girl who tells him, “You’re the last person I’ll talk to” and the two inevitably proceed to get hot and heavy in a haystack. Beforehand, the girl shows Jonathan a room where the remaining villagers ritualistically watch one another have communal sex in the hope of repopulating their towns. Although initially petrified like a bashful boy, Jonathan also contributes to the village’s lurid Lebensborn program by sharing his amateurish carnal knowledge with the hyper-horny peasant girl and then proceeds to make his way to the Count’s castle at night, where he climbs up a wall, entering the luxurious vampire lair through an upstairs window. During an anti-Christ church session where all the vamps at the castle are adorned in blood red robes and are communally draining blood from human slaves, the Count declares, “There is someone in the castle who may be dangerous to us. He is outside in the hallway” and Jonathan is captured literally seconds later, though the vampire Führer takes a strange liking to the young vampire hunter, even welcoming him as a guest and inviting him to enter any room of the castle he wants to, except those locked rooms where vamps drain their victims blood and where human slaves are boarded. Jonathan becomes an object of adoration among a group of debauched vampire whores, but the Count wants him for himself, so he gives the lethally lecherous ladies an infant peasant baby instead so as to appease their appetites. Meanwhile, Jonathan’s comrades, led by the elderly Professor, make their way to the Count’s castle to carry out their bolshevik-esque revolution. When Johnny boy makes the almost fateful mistake of breaking into a room holding badly malnourished human slaves, who he luckily warns to prepare for the upcoming revolution, he is naturally violently tortured by Gestapo-like vampires in a sadomasochistic and almost homoerotic fashion, even being branded like a farm animals in the process. Luckily, the Professor and his men, with the help of peasants and slaves, take over the Count’s castle fortress, killing all his Satanic soldiers in the process and rounding up all the surviving vampires. In the end, the Count and his undead aristocracy are merely mercilessly forced into the sea, where they die instantly in a rather anti-climatic fashion.  As for the Professor, Jonathan, and the rest of the revolutionaries, it is rather dubious whether they will install the humanist utopia of their dreams as vicious vampire-hunters do not exactly equate to great leaders.

 Featuring a sort of dually kitschy/classy aesthetic not unlike Fantastique filmmaker Jean Rollin, the politically allegorical vampirism of They Have Changed Their Face (1971) aka Hanno cambiato faccia, a Teutonic and ultimately superior and sacrilegious take on Hammer horror, the surreal sensuality and kaleidoscopic colors of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), psychosexual and ethereally eerie romantic elements similar to Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (1973), the left field genre-smashing of Grave of the Vampire (1972), and tasteless yet cultivated genre-inspired comic relief that transcends Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Jonathan is undeniably an idiosyncratic and iconoclastic vampire flick and for that reason alone, it is mandatory viewing for fans of the horror subgenre. Of course, politically speaking, Jonathan is rather redundant in its cliché commie message of ‘fascists/aristocrats = vampires,’ but one can respect director Hans W. Geißendörfer for trying something different and ultimately creating what is undoubtedly the greatest anti-fascist vampire flick ever made. Despite being a blueblood bloodsucker who feeds infants to vampire whores, I actually found the Count to be the most interesting and sympathetic character in the entire film as a melancholy monster with a great eye for aesthetics. In fact, the lead protagonist Jonathan is not much more than an empty and oftentimes annoying robotic vassal who only displays emotions while crying during sex with beauteous busty peasant broads and who follows the orders of his annoyingly idealistic bloodthirsty professor like a mindless slave. Ultimately, at least symbolically speaking, Jonathan works the opposite way as Nosferatu (1922) in that while in Murnau’s silent masterpiece the monster is a Judaic-like bloodsucker with a hook nose who invades from the East like Jewry and ravages a pure Aryan village like the plague (something that was historically blamed on Jews), the vampire of Geißendörfer's film is essentially Uncle Adolf without a mustache and it is not a bourgeois Nordic village that is destroyed, but the classically European castle of the Nazi undead. In the end, the proto-bolshevik revolutionaries of Jonathan are not much different than the vampires, as they completely exterminate the vamps with extreme prejudice like its a walk through the park. In that sense, one could argue that Jonathan is also a critique of communism, albeit a mild one that portrays it as the lesser of two evils. Featuring stunning cinematography by Dutch master cinematographer Robby Müller, who must have deeply studied the landscape paintings of his countrymen Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder in preparation for shooting the film, Jonathan, like most of Geißendörfer's films and not unlike the films of fellow Bavarian filmmakers Werner Herzog and Herbert Achternbusch, is a sort of post-Nazi völkisch flick that, although the director is clearly reluctant about his heritage, culture, and nation's history, cannot but help make a typically Teutonic romantic work, albeit of the culturally cynical and slightly ethno-masochistic sort. Indeed, while Jonathan might seem like outmoded Kulturscheisse when compared to Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror and Bavarian adventurer auteur Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, it also happens to be not only one of the best 'horror' films of German New Cinema, but also one of the most the delightfully diacritic vampire films ever made that reminds the viewer that the vampire subgenre is not dead, but undead.

-Ty E

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