Jonathan (Hans W. Geissendörfer, 1969)

aka Vampire sterben nicht

The citizens of a 19th century European country live in fear of a hoard of aristocratic vampires lead by a dictator-like Count (Paul Albert Krumm) whose soldiers raid villages and spirit victims away to a castle by the sea to be devoured by the vampires.  While the intellectuals and the students plot revolution in the taverns, the peasants keep try not to get involved (even going so far as to help the vampires to save their own skin).  An elderly professor (Oskar von Schab) decides that the only way to completely destroy the vampires is to raid the castle, kill the guards, and push the vampires into the sea.  It is decided that young Jonathan (Jürgen Jung) will travel to the castle, sneak in, memorize the layout of the building and find its most vulnerable side, and relay this information back to the group who hope to have assistance from the Count’s prisoners.  Jonathan journeys to the castle in a carriage.  While he sleeps, his bag of vampire-killing paraphernalia is stolen and the coachman is killed.  On foot, Jonathan – accompanied by the shifty Joseph (Hans-Dieter Jendreyko) – sees the devastation of the villages surrounding the castle and the distrustful survivors of the raids.  Jonathan makes it too the castle and is discovered by the Count who knows his purpose but proves unexpectedly hospitable to the young man.

Although JONATHAN is covered in several reference books on the vampire film, it has been little seen and was not widely available until Kinowelt’s DVD release (apart from a Video Search of Miami subtitled cassette discussed below).  The film’s artiness probably made it a difficult sell outside of the art house circuit.  The performances are for the most part merely functional with Jung not a particularly compelling protagonist; he’s not a bad actor, he’s just not given much to do than lead the audience through vignettes.  As the Count, Krumm has his moments but he is less effective when speaking at length.  Only Jendreyko’s performance could be described as lively.  The female characters are largely ciphers; it means little to us that Jonathan’s apparent love interest becomes a victim of the Count (seemingly with her parents’ consent) shortly after Jonathan leaves on his journey.  The political aspect might also have been a turn-off in 1970 – I don’t think I have to tell you who the Count seems to represent – but they seem academic (and amusing) today.  I have not seen Corrado Farina’s HANNO CAMBIATO FACCIA but it may make a nice companion piece thematically, though probably not stylistically.  Of course, things do not go as the idealistic professor “envisions.”  The students alone are ineffectual.  They get drunk and rowdy and beat the innkeeper when he complains.  The villagers are understandably terrified and more concerned with immediate survival than revolution.  The Count is on to Jonathan’s mission and is effectively disarming.  It takes the combined efforts of the students and the oppressed surviving villagers to mount an effective offensive against the vampires.

JONATHAN both references and directly draws scenes from Stoker’s DRACULA.  Besides the Count’s “Welcome to my house,” Jonathan’s encounter with the brides includes the familiar lines “He is young and strong.  There are kisses for us all” and when the Count tells them to stay away from Jonathan, one of the brides replies “You yourself have never loved, and you never will.”  As in the novel, the Count tells them to get out and gifts them with an infant to feed upon.  Likewise, there is a scene with a mother outside the castle begging for the vampires to give back her child (Geissendörfer has her violently killed by the Count’s thugs).  Earlier on, the Count has a female victim drink from a wound on his chest.  Having the Jonathan character journeying to the Count’s castle on a mission to destroy the vampires seems to draw from Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA just as the Count overseeing a large gathering of vampires in his castle seems to have been inspired by Hammer’s KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (including the ceremonial robes worn by the vampires) more so than THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.  The protracted atmospheric journey to the castle which takes up most of the film could have been somewhat inspired by the middle section of Harald Reinl’s DIE SCHLANGENGRUBE UND DAS PENDAL (TORTURE CHAMBER OF DR. SADISM) minus the Bosch-inspired production design.  JONATHAN seems to have somewhat inspired American International’s COUNT YORGA films as the brides and the other vampires (save the Count) have the same sort of feral look to them.  The producer’s reportedly wanted to add some more exploitable aspects so there is a cruel scene in which a rat is killed on camera and a tame but nonsensical love scene in a barn.

Kinowelt’s DVD presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the first time and it is a beautiful presentation compared to the dark, blurry subtitled Video Search of Miami cassette (the cassette was needlessly matted to about 2.35:1 (probably to block a TV station logo at either the top or bottom of the frame – meaning either the top or bottom is needlessly matted as well).  The German DVD is not totally satisfying.  It is single-layer affair but the presence of a fifty-minute interview with the director means that the bitrate for the film is lower than half so the file size for the movie is less than 3 GB and the low bitrate is sometimes painfully evident.

That said, the transfer far more effectively renders the stunning contribution of Wim Wenders’ regular cinematographer Robby Mueller than the VSOM release.  Mueller’s striking 4:3 vistas and gliding tracking shots make today’s Steadicam and lightweight dolly and crane camerawork seem not quite like quantum leaps in cinematographic technology.  Roland Kovac’s music score is another plus for the film and at times seems as progressive as some of Peter Thomas’ work during the time on the Edgar Wallace films.  Besides scene selections, an additional “highlights” menu is provided as well as a still gallery.  There are no English subtitles on the Kinowelt disc but – despite the good-if-not-great transfer – it would make a good purchase for German speakers or for those of you who already have the VSOM subtitled source.

(Eric Cotenas)