JONATHAN, from 1970, was the feature directorial debut of Hans W. Geissendörfer, whose subsequent directorial career has been a rich and varied one. JONATHAN remains his best-known film, yet is paradoxically quite obscure outside its native Germany, having never received a home video release of any sort in the English speaking world.
In 18th Century Germany a vampire count resides in a castle with a retinue of bloodsucking acolytes. An anti-vampire crusader calls a clandestine meeting amid the residents of an adjacent village; at the meeting a young man named Jonathan is selected to travel to the Count’s castle and put an end to the vampires’ reign. Jonathan sets off in a horse-bound coach, leaving behind his sweetheart—who that very night is bitten by a vampire in her bed, thus becoming a bloodsucker herself.
As for Jonathan, his coach is waylaid by the Count’s vampire goons before he reaches his destination. In the tumult Jonathan’s belongings are stolen by an individual who gives them to an urchin woman in exchange for food.
Continuing on foot, Jonathan makes his way into an impoverished village whose inhabitants initially greet him by hurling rocks. Despite his determination to find the Count, Jonathan winds up settling down for a time with the aforementioned urchin babe, who proves extremely comely from a sexual standpoint.
Eventually Jonathan reaches the Count’s castle and, as instructed, settles down within. All seems to be going well until he’s caught inciting an uprising against the count, and so is chained up and tortured mercilessly. Not to worry, though, because the fed-up villagers have banded together and are ready to give the Count what-for…
I say this film is too arty and obscure for its own good (the presence of a young girl chorus in many scenes is a particular annoyance). What gives JONATHAN its spark aren’t the stylistic quirks—Geissendorfer is especially partial to elaborate panning shots through cramped interiors and moments of extreme quiet broken by noisy music cues—but its fully rounded depiction of a vampire community, set largely in a rural working class setting leagues removed from the suffocating opulence of so many traditional vampire tales.
JONATHAN is credited as an adaptation of DRACULA, but in truth the connections between the two are extremely tenuous. The narrative is spare and dreamlike, with little in the way of dramatic urgency, or even continuity. The problems are compounded by the fact that the titular vampire hunting hero is a personality-free nonentity whose behavior is wildly inconsistent. Far more interesting are the vampires, who aren’t much better drawn but have a definite air of strangeness and mystery.
The film is of course a metaphor for the outrages of the Third Reich (hence the otherwise gratuitous torture and bloodletting of the final third), which is part of the problem. Geissendorfer appears to have expended an excess amount of energy fitting the material into his metaphoric framework (the film’s vampire Count is made up and outfitted like a mustache-less Adolph Hitler), which doesn’t entirely work anyway. The film, after all, ends with the village people banding together and getting rid of their corrupt overlords, which in regards to Germany in WWII is not what happened!
Iduna Film Produktiongesellschaft/Obelisk Film/Telepool
Director: Hans W. Geissendorfer
Producer: Hellmut Haffner
Screenplay: Hans W. Geissendorfer
(Based–extremely loosely–on a novel by Bram Stoker)
Cinematography: Robby Muller
Editing: Wolfgang Hedinger
Cast: Jurgen Jung, Hans Dieter Jendreyko, Paul Albert Krumm, Hertha von Walther, Oskar von Schab, Ilona Grubel, Sophoe Strehlow, Gaby Herbst, Henry Liposca, Christine Ratej, Arthur Brauss