Berlinale 2021 review: Bloodsuckers (Julian Radlmaier)

“Es gibt kein richtiges leben im falschen (a wrong life cannot be lived rightly)”

From the first moment that we are introduced to the characters in Julian Radlmaier’s fascinating but polarizing Bloodsuckers, we immediately know that something is amiss. There is a certain off-kilter quality to their behaviour that alerts us to the fact that we are going to witness something incredibly strange, and the increasingly bizarre quotes interspersed throughout the film (such as the one above), hint at something that does not make much sense. The film, which bears the subtitle “A Marxist Vampire Comedy“, is exactly what one would expect from as bold a story – which is, it is entirely unpredictable and perhaps somewhat ridiculous, for all the right reasons. Radlmaier has made something of a career out of these absurd philosophical parables, and appears to be operating on all cylinders with this film, taking us on a journey into the heart of post-revolution Russia (or so it would appear, since the film seems to be quite flexible when it comes to the concept of linear time), and providing us with a bizarre account of the social and cultural situation that surrounded it in the 1920s. Deftly blending cutting-edge social mockery with a darkly comical approach to the traditional vampire story, Bloodsuckers is a potent, often beautifully unsettling glimpse into the depths of a world gone mad, channeled through the perspective of a director who seems to revel in his ability to disturb as much as he entertains – oftentimes in tandem – as demonstrated throughout this delightfully irreverent and deeply unconventional satire.

We may not always know exactly what to make of Bloodsuckers, which may be the purpose of the film entirely. We are launched into this strange version of the world that appears somewhat recognizable in the most basic characteristics, but with certain uncanny qualities. We soon come to learn that the narrative centers on a young Russian bureaucrat, who claims the title of ‘Baron’, encountering a mysterious young noblewoman (who may or may not be a vampire) who uses her high-ranking position in the European bourgeoisie and its associated benefits to satiate her oddly specific lust for blood. However, beyond this basic premise there is not much that can be coherently explained, which is where the film truly becomes most effective, since all logic is abandoned. There is a certain playfulness to Radlmaier’s style that draws our attention from the first moment we enter into his world, which is built on the foundation of being a cleverly subversive account of the aftermath of the Russian revolution, as filtered through the lens of absurdist horror, populated by eccentric characters in strange social settings. This immediately sets this film apart from nearly every other work that attempts to look at this period and the dominant mentalities at the time. Armed with a razor-sharp sense of humour, and a devil-may-care dedication to telling a story that intentionally goes against the most fundamental principles of common sense, Bloodsuckers is a persuasive, unforgettable snapshot of social unease in the 20th century, presented with a fervent, tongue-in-cheek humour that may be bewildering for some viewers who may not be attuned to its unique tone. However, it is all thoroughly worthwhile when we realize how its outright refusal to play by the rules is not a shortcoming, but its most resounding merit.

It is often said that the best kind of satire is one that refuses to alert the viewer to its message from the outset, instead allowing the work itself to convey the deeper meaning through provocative questions, with the audience having to look beneath the surface to find the answers. Bloodsuckers not only goes against this principle, but rather entirely eviscerates it, showing how effective carefully curated exposition can be when done with a purpose, rather than to explain simple concepts to audiences. The very concept of a ‘bloodsucker’ is discussed and defined in the first scene – this is a vampire film about capitalism, and the film is quite forthright in refusing the viewer the opportunity to make this connection themselves, drawing the parallels immediately and without any ambiguous space to layer on the irony of the comparison being made. We can question whether a metaphor explaining itself works when looking at the nature of conventional art, or if it just indicates some form of well-composed parody. This is until we realize that Bloodsuckers is anything but conventional and appears to take pleasure in its unorthodox nature, finding the humour in the most unexpected places. This is a film of contradictions, fashioning itself as a parable that is somehow against both communism and capitalism, cleverly deconstructing both systems with a similar candour and critical gaze while avoiding centering itself solely on these conversations, which punctuate the film rather than propelling it forward. However, as is the very nature of this film, any attempt to rationalize it or find some reason in its madness only serves to make it more confusing – so perhaps it is best to conclude that, as inspired by its revolutionary political spirit, a more laissez-faire approach should be employed on the part of the viewer.

Based on its peculiarities, it is clear that Bloodsuckers is a film that is heavily rooted in the absurdist school of thought, which often took on some of the most intimidating socio-cultural institutions with the intrepid belief that nothing truly matters. Plucked directly from the mind of some of the art world’s most notorious creators, the film seems to be delivering on its promise of complete narrative irrationality with remarkable stylistic consistency. It may take a while for viewers to become acclimated to this story and its very precise, polarizing sense of deadpan comedy (there are moments in the film where the humour is so dry, it teeters on becoming entirely static), but once we are over these superficial hurdles, the film offers an absolutely unique experience in both form and content. Even in terms of its style, the film is developing itself against anything even slightly rational, as evident in the rampant use of anachronisms, which are openly embraced as part of the surreal landscape the film is creating for itself. An oddly optimistic gothic satire – and the rare kind of horror executed almost entirely in broad daylight – the film has a distinct approach to some interesting questions that have been asked many times before, albeit never in the guise of such an inexplicable series of discussions. Perhaps the most apt (and certainly most simple) description of this film would be as the process of making sense through nonsense, playing on our naturally inquisitive tendency as curious viewers by giving us clues to some enticing questions, but never enough information to answer them for ourselves.

Somehow, in the midst of all this madness, Radlmaier finds time to make sense of it and deliver quite a fascinating satire that we can truly sink our teeth into. Having the dual function of both a sarcastic deconstruction of the debate between communism and capitalism, and a tender love letter to the early years of cinema (which the director draws on quite heavily throughout, showing both his wealth of knowledge and deep admiration for filmmaking pioneers), Bloodsuckers emerges as a wonderfully unique dark comedy that has adequate reasons for its delusions. Delightfully awkward, but never stilted in a way that repulses the viewer, the film is a strangely enticing brew of anti-political satire and deeply compelling artistic expression. In his endeavour to make sense of important issues through the perspective of carefully constructed absurdity, Radlmaier shows himself to be a major talent in the realm of alternative cinema, a world that openly embraces wildly disparate stories that do not fit in anywhere else. His vision is not one that will be widely embraced in a cinematic landscape built on traditions – but for those who can find the appeal in his peculiar brand of comedy, which blends philosophical theory with unusual detours into unexpected recesses of the human condition, Bloodsuckers will be the outrageous diversion we all crave on occasion. Strange, but incredibly effective, the film traverses some fascinating conversations that are presented in the form of a sophisticated but scathing dissection of sacrosanct principles – and if this is not enough to stir interest, then perhaps it suffices to say that it is unlike anything one is likely to have seen before, or ever again – and for that reason alone, it is worth every moment of intentional madness.