In the summer of the Year without a Summer, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. She, her husband Percy, Lord Byron, and Byron’s physician John Polidori — whose existence in Byron’s mansion resembled something more like an in-house drug dealer than a typical country doctor — wrote ghost stories and debated the Enlightenment to distract themselves from the coldest summer that Nature could damn upon these Romantics. Though her Frankenstein remains champion of these monsters, a perfectly imperfect Lucifer to Enlightenment science’s God, the obscure doctor also made a lasting impact with his “The Vampyre.” It was based on Byron, both the philandering aristocrat and his writings, and was likely the byproduct of several nights’ use of medical-grade laudanum, the English set’s drug of choice. It was also a wild success, but its consistent misattribution to Byron kept Polidori’s name out of literati households.
Somewhat later, Karl Marx would come to share Mary Shelley’s conflicted feelings about Enlightenment optimism. Sure, the factories were a blight upon London: blood goes in, blood products come out, and all the extra blood money goes right to the boss. But, considering that these factories did significantly reduce labor time for needed products, they could be imagined better — so long as capital, which is not a person and is therefore dead, did not control the factory as it does now. Marx also enjoyed the day’s popular Gothic fiction, especially the works of fellow German E. T. A. Hoffmann, so much so, in fact, that his tome has been charged with being a Gothic work itself, straddling the dialectical (we’re talking about Marx here) moment between Enlightenment and Romantic views of world and self. This may explain why Vol. 1, Book 10 of Capital contains this quote, now one of Marx’s most popular: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” Marx would not have been familiar with Dracula, a work published fourteen years after his death. He would have only known Polidori’s Byronic Lord Ruthven.
Marx does not turn this metaphor into allegory, but director Julian Radlmaier imagines this quote’s potential in his Bloodsuckers. The film opens as a “Marx-critical Marxist reading group” discusses this quote, leading one member to frankly ask if it should be taken literally. He’s right to ask: a mysterious “Chinese flea” infestation has ravaged their Baltic town, but the bites they inflict look an awful lot like a certain other creature’s. But, the majority of the movie follows Ljowushka (played by another Berlin entrant, Aleksandre Koberidze), a baron imposter who fled the Soviet Union after Stalin demanded his performance as Trotsky in Sergei Eisenstein’s October be removed. Aristocrat Octavia (Lilith Stangenber) and her assistant Jakob (Alexander Herbst) take him in — Octavia intrigued and sympathetic, Jakob more than a little jealous. What follows is a comedy of manners and sensibilities as Ljowushka fails to convince Octavia’s ruling class friends and relatives of his nobility and attempts to solve his problems by making a vampire movie. Scenes of fancy costume parties, peasant uprisings, didactic conversations about the nature of capital, and less-didactic conversations about the best new investments pass by Ljowushka who remembers the revolution fondly but never quite challenges these industrialists. He’s living through the 1920s, but Coke cans, crotch-rockets, and contemporary Berlin fashion whimsically dot the landscape. Oh, and Marx was right: these capitalists really are vampires.
But, they’re likable vampires. Octavia uses her infinite money to live as a flâneuse, speaking highly of a literary education and Ljowushka’s filmmaking and looking down upon “practical talk” of both the industrialist and proletariat variety. She demands the progressive “assistant” title for Jakob, rather than “servant.” And the eccentric Bonin (Daniel Hoesl), who arrives at the estate by parachute, cajoles Ljowushka into accepting his charming asshole schtick. Still, Radlmaier doesn’t allow too much sympathy: after all, they still drink peasant blood, which, keeping with a Marxist allegory, does not induct the victims into the aristo-vampiric class, but literally drains their life, making subservience easier than revolt (again, more Ruthven than Dracula). A million inter-left arguments could spring from such an allegory — the Marxist reading group literally has one — but Bloodsuckers‘ strength derives from its simplicity and whimsy like a Straub-Huillet-shot, Wes-Anderson-penned version of Brian Yuzna’s Society. There’s a clever scene in which the revolting townsfolk are redirected from class hatred to race hatred, and there might be something to be said about how easily Ljowushka falls in love with Octavia, only for Octavia’s vampiric nature to extend no loyalty in return. But, Radlmaier avoids lingering on any political specifics: this is a great genre film masquerading as arthouse treatise work, a tincture of Polidori’s laudanum whiffed by those who, like Marx, know that imagination is required of critique.
Published as part of Berlin Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.