Berlinale FF 2021

Bloodsuckers review – Marxist vampire comedy is a piercing delight

Working in multiple genres and styles, Julian Radlmaier delivers a standout political yarn exposing the Soviet Union's dark heart

Julian Radlmaier’s brand of political screwball comedy reaches new heights with Bloodsuckers, a piercing creative folly and one of the standouts of this year’s Berlinale. It takes place in 1928, but you may take some time to acclimatise to that fact. While a reading group discuss Das Kapital among the sand dunes at a German seaside resort, their clothing – all denims and leather jackets – suggest no fidelity to history. When one member gets stuck on Marx’s comparison of capitalists to “bloodsuckers,” what follows may be their dream, a literal imagining of the Soviet upper-classes as vampires who continue to feed on workers, even in a “classless” society.

Post-revolutionary Europe is envisioned as a gothic fairy tale: in a baltic Manor House, the factory heiress Miss Octavia Flambow-Jansen (the otherworldly elegance of Lilith Stangenberg) takes in a baron for supper. Soon, he is exposed to be a faker and a thief. Really, he is an actor, Lyovischka (Aleksandre Koberidze), cut from Eisenstein's October on the orders of Stalin, who needs money to make it to Hollywood. As their summer romance progresses, the exquisite fun of Radlmaier’s play reveals itself. Cans of coke and lime green motorbikes appear on screen while characters pontificate on the fate of the USSR. Time is immaterial. It is disorienting, but never all together confusing. And one cannot help but fall for these beguiling, conflicted characters.

Octavia is, inevitably, a vampire, although nobody around her seems to notice – least of all her doting, Smithers-like manservant, Jakob (Alexander Herbst). A chapter, narrated from his perspective, parodies Diary of Country Priest-like moping piousness. Jakob is so smitten that he fails to distinguish the “flea bites” that cover his body from the marks of Octavia’s teeth. Like all of the characters, he flits between comic foil and vessel for existentialism.

Meanwhile Koberidze, best known as a director, and whose What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? is tipped to win the Golden Bear, is a beefcake who slides easily between personas, but whose honest eyes keep the audience firmly on his side. He holds his own as the lead here, as flashbacks unfolding the past of Lyovischka are told with whimsical slapstick speed. Bloodsuckers feels like reading a thousand-page Russian tome in just over two hours, but it never skimps on the details. Radlmaier is so adept at economical storytelling, in that one shot drives forward both story and character while enriching the goofy alternate-history.

As it introduces a wealth of characters from all walks of society, Radlmaier dips his toes into a number of genres, styles, and conflicting histories. Using ostensibly minimal attention to period detail, the film actually tricks us into buying its incredibly precise evocation of space and place as something tossed off, a lark. It goes one step further than Transit’s immediacy, “bringing the past sharply into the present.” The whimsical style asks that we observe what details are from then and now, forcing us to consider ruptures in time, and our own part in history.

Bloodsuckers builds to a rapturous conclusion that exposes the dark individualist heart at the centre of the Soviet Union. But even better, Sergei Eisenstein is a recurring character!

Bloodsuckers was screened as part of the Berlin Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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