By Yun-hua Chen.
Marx wrote [Capital] in the 19th century, a high time of Gothic novels…. It made me think, why not just to do a real Marxist film and use the same metaphors as Marx?”
Selected by the Berlinale’s Encounters section, Bloodsuckers is the German-French director Julian Radlmaier’s second feature, whose preoccupation with problematics of capitalism is made obvious in the film title. Intentionally stilted and dryly ironical, Bloodsuckers looks like a formalist experiment which turns book chapters and dialectics into a feature film while contemplating on inherently unjust power relationships, racism, and how bloodsuckers are granted access to our blood.
Set in 1928, the film features a Soviet worker Lyovischka flees his homeland and embarks upon a journey towards Hollywood after Trotsky falls into Stalin’s disgrace and his role of Trotsky for Eisenstein’s latest film is edited out completely. Midway down the journey, at a German seaside resort on the Baltic Sea, he meets an industrialist’s daughter, Octavia, and her servant, aka “personal assistant,” Jakob. Pretending to be a tsarist aristocrat, Lyovischka piques Octavia’s interest, becomes her protégé, makes a film together, and then falls in love with her. Amid the ambiance for a potential summer romance, there are vampires who leave bite marks which look like mosquito bites.
The combination of Marxism, Vampire and Comedy is very intriguing. It’s not only genre-crossing, border-crossing, but also time-travelling, as it is interspersed with those Eisenstein-like images set in 1928. How did you come up with this mixture?
The mixture itself is like taking Marx to the letter. I read Capital sometimes and noticed that it’s just full of Gothic creatures. I think, because Marx wrote it in the 19th century, a high time of Gothic novels, it’s full of vampires, ghosts. It made me think, why not just to do a real Marxist film and use the same metaphors as Marx? At the same time, we realize these are maybe dangerous metaphors to use because the vampire metaphor also has a problematic history, and all kinds of people have been denounced as vampires in history. Still, we tried to make the film and worked on creating a bit of a balance.
Your films talk a lot about capitalism, solidarity, love, and the lack of them. What fascinates you so much in exploring these ideas in your filmmaking?
It probably comes from a general feeling that some things in the societies that we live in don’t seem to be right. Reading texts from the Marxist tradition has always been very inspiring for me. I think the film is not a propaganda for this ideology, for a certain clearly-framed form of Marxism, but rather, it is more my dialogue with this idea. The basic thing that I would like to acknowledge is that there is something like fundamental injustice in terms of distribution of positions in societies, and an existence of a class society with some people who own a lot and some people who own nothing. This heavily limits the possibility of the underprivileged people who have to live their life in a very basic fashion. This is kind of a very important issue.
In the end, the Soviet refugee / fake Baron becomes Octavia’s servant just like Jakob, but he does it out of love. Do you think love can also be an exploitative system like capitalism?
I don’t know if it is love that we are talking about here. I have a feeling that maybe he is more fascinated by the kind of person her position allows her to be. She is a person, through her privileged position, has a lot of time to read, to cultivate her personality, to be a highly individual person. Maybe she represents a life that he wants to lead too. Maybe this is what he wants to become. To become this person, he also loses a bit of his moral compass. Maybe it is a film about opportunism. I don’t think that the film is making a general statement that love is impossible in a class society, but it’s complicated. Maybe there is another potential couple, Jakob and Rosa, the two workers, but this doesn’t really work out either. Jakob has other social aspiration. The social and class issues actually interfere with the forming of relationships.
There is the character “Chinaman” and a lot of mention of China and Chinese fleas. This calls for the question: why China?
My very first idea was to make something like how capitalism has a high tendency to create racism. I think it’s because at some point people need a scapegoat for their frustration and contradiction with the system. And I added the Asian character, maybe due to the fact that I have worked with this Asian actor Kyung-Taek Lie in my films, who is actually Korean. I like him and I want to work with him. Maybe it is not so clear in the film that he is not a Chinese. He is a Korean guy, but they just call him “Chinese” as a racist remark, putting all Asians under one basket without any differentiation. It also has an interesting echo for me because in the early 90s anti-Asian racism was a big thing in Germany. There was an arson attack on a house in Rostock where a lot of Vietnamese people lived. The film is set in the 20s and the main victims of fascism in Germany at that time were of course the Jews. I didn’t want to replace Jews with Asian people of course, but let’s say, it adds another dimension. It opens to another kind of racism which existed at that time and still exists today.
The only non-German characters in the film are the “Chinese” man and the Soviet refugee pretending to be a Baron, referring to two former communist states which later turned into their own forms of capitalism. How do you look at this?
I am interested in the fact that we live in a capitalist society and see that this has many problems, and at the same time the socialist way out of it seems to be blocked by the experiences of the history in those countries where it didn’t work out in the way that people hoped. And then they turned back to capitalism again. This brings us to a situation when there seems to be no exit, so to say. And the film explores this to see what is still left or could be left or which ideas could still be interesting nowadays. So, maybe this shows my interest for the post-socialist countries and those countries you mentioned are very prominent ones.
What are you sources of inspiration?
I am not very interested in Gothic representation or blood. I am closer to the tradition of art cinema that has a tendency towards the comic, like the films of Jean Renoir, Pier Paolo Passolini, Italian cinema, Jean Luc Godard’s political films. I really like Chinese and Taiwanese cinema. It’s not so visible in this film, but I am very much inspired by Jia Zhang-ke. Hou Hsiao-hsien is absolutely one of my favorite directors; maybe I like long shots a bit less in this movie, but a bit more in other movies. The relationship that these Chinese directors have with reality and spaces is something I really really love. There is a great interest, not just in telling the stories, but also in showing places. For me, the nicest part of the shooting was the flashbacks we shot in Russia. We shot in the contemporary Moscow and pretend that it’s in the 1920s without changing too much. We just put some elements in it to make it believable as the past. This documentary kind of sensitivity that contemporary Asian cinema has, and especially Chinese cinema has, is very very interesting to develop.
The portrait of an unknown disease which was suspected to be due to hygienic standards speaks to our time a lot. Is it a kind of premonition in the filmmaking?
You know, I felt, fuck it, now everyone would feel that it’s kind of a Covid statement but it’s not. What I found shocking in the beginning of the pandemic was that it was seen as a dirty Chinese virus. There was this conspiracy thing from some western media, saying that it is because things are not clean enough there, and all these stupid ideas. I don’t want the film to be read as, the virus doesn’t exist and it’s just a propaganda. If one sees it as a comment on the virus, then it gets problematic. This metaphor of virus in the film cannot be transformed too directly to our current situation.
How Marxist is your filmmaking process on set, do you think?
This is a good question because it touches the basic contradiction with which I have been struggling. The film in a way was made with a small but still serious budget, but in a strange way it is not enough to create the working condition that I would have liked to have. I was already happy while making this film because at the film school everyone worked for free for my film. In this film at least I paid people, which is already better, but still, I would like to have the possibility to create a really good working condition for people. In a way it was not possible for this film. With the means that we had, we didn’t manage to do it well. People were not harshly exploited, but there was surely a potential to make it even better. What is important for me is to have a lot of friends involved, so there is a familiar atmosphere on set, and we work in a non-industrial environment. This is potentially tricky because in fact you have to ask people to do you a favor. Working with friends has the danger of exploiting your friends. This is something I tried to avoid, but it was not always easy.
In an ideal world, how would you make it possible to create a more Marxist condition during filmmaking?
One solution would be to reduce external factors, to make a simpler film, and then to create a better condition. The truth is that, working conditions which are not ideal are kind of embedded in the funding system, as no one would give you money just so that you can pay people better. It’s not really possible in a way. Still, I’d make it simpler. Maybe this film is too big for the budget we have. I would like to try to do better, but I am scared that the system is always calculated to keep everything precarious. In France, for example, there is a system for everyone who works on films such as actors, directors, technicians, in order for film professionals to have a very good social security during the in-between phase between projects. In Germany, in-between you are just normally unemployed.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.