Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Strasek, der Vampir – review

Director: Theodor Boder

Release date: 1982*

Contains spoilers

*The film, which is of Swiss origin I believe, does not have an IMDb page at the time of writing this article. The copyright is listed as 1982 and 2014 and so I have used the former as the release date. Of course it is always great to find obscure new films (even if they are old) but this one doesn’t have an overtly vampire aspect.

Rather it uses vampirism as a metaphor for the other – which is one of the strongest tropes found in the media vampire. It is also a very arty film, it unashamedly draws its feel and inspiration from Vampyr and actually dedicates the film to Dreyer.

Klaus Stangier as the narrator
The filming is done in such a way that it emulates the over-exposed film stock used by Dreyer for his masterpiece. Like Dreyer it relies on mood rather than plot (the plot is incredibly thin) but it fails to place the exposition in, which Dreyer achieved through the book the audience reads during the film. It begins with a narrator (Klaus Stangier) saying that he is convinced that Stefan Strasek (played young and older by Oscar Olano & Francois Aubry) is alive. In 1910 the narrator went to Serbia to investigate and was told that Stefan had moved away.

new born
Stefan’s mother Milena (Marianne Burger) met and married a Count Strasek (Jackie Steel) in 1898. The marriage only lasted a few months, the Count leaving when she gave birth to Stefan. He vanished off the radar, though a messenger would regularly come with money for her. What I noticed with the filming style here was that we went into fixed camera looking at a very limited set, as though it were a painting with only the character moving within it (and sometimes remaining still). It was an interesting method of composition. The actual photography was very well done.

the Count returns
Eventually Milena dies due to the stress of worry chipping at her health. On her death bed she tells Stefan to refuse to go to his father, no matter what. Stefan, we discover, was meant to have been taken in by a family but he has remained at his mother’s house. One night he hears her voice from the attic (whether this is internal or whether she is a spirit isn’t gone in to and is not actually important to the narrative). That happens to be the night when the Count comes to take him away – Stefan refuses him. However the boy is accused of stealing (scapegoated) and runs away by stowing away on a train. The narrator loses all sense of his whereabouts and we have gone 40 minutes into the 1 hour 9 minute film.

a coffin?
The film jumps forward in time but gives us no timeframe; I suspect that more years had passed than Stefan’s apparent age would allow for. A journalist (Simone Hänggi) has gone into the alps to write a piece about the mountains and meets a strange young man living in an isolated spot. Stefan really is the outsider now but we have seen nothing that would suggest vampirism. She, however, notes his nocturnal habit and finds him sleeping in what I assume was meant to emulate a coffin but, seriously, it was hard to tell. She disturbs his tranquillity and, later, admits to a priest that she has done him a great wrong. His answer is to run into the mountains, avoiding the men and tourists that might come.

reminiscent of Cesare
So, a strange tale and as I say the story is gossamer thin, the entire piece relies on mood. The cinematography is reminiscent of Dreyer but Stefan as an older character reminded me as much of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as anything else. There are also moments that remind the viewer of Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, especially him found asleep as an adult and, when a child, him climbing the attic stairs and his mother on her deathbed. The acting, much as in Dreyer, relies on the actors looking the part, rather than them emoting their characters' personalities. The soundtrack was idiosyncratic in that it was more a synthesised tonal affair than anything else. To a degree I was also reminded of the Chris Alexander films Blood for Irina and Queen of Blood

Simone Hänggi as the journalist
There was, however, a big difference between those two modern films and this. In the Alexander films there is a definitive amount of vampirism. In this it might have qualified as a ‘Vamp or Not?’ candidate but for the fact that it is more than clear that the atmosphere of the (early) vampire film and the symbolism of the outsider were being directly manipulated. We are left with an arthouse film that fans of Dreyer may appreciate but will not be the cup of tea of many viewers. I did enjoy what I saw and I think 5 out of 10 balances out the experimental aspects that may put many off.

The digital version of the film can be rented here.

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