Since the 1920s, Bram Stoker’s Dracula has inspired an overwhelming number of film adaptations. It is tragic, yet understandable, how so many of these films have been forgotten or lost over the years. Writer and director Hans W. Geissenndörfer’s 1970 Stoker-inspired film, Jonathan, qualifies as a criminally overlooked horror gem from West Germany.
In the horrible world Geissenndörfer has created for his human characters, the Count and his fellow vampires have become the new aristocracy and control every aspect of mortal life. Unlike the ones in Stoker’s novel, these vampires cannot be harmed by sunlight. They come and go as they please. Therefore, they feed when they please. Because of this, the human race is on the fast track to extinction, and the surviving humans eventually become slaves, food, or both if they’re lucky.
The terrified villagers hold a secret meeting. They must find a way to eliminate the vampires before it’s too late. We first meet Jonathan (Jürgen Jung) when he is elected to set these plans in motion. He must discreetly make his way to the Count’s castle, search for vulnerabilities in its security, and free all human captives. Meanwhile, the other villagers plan a sneak attack. On the way, Jonathan’s carriage is overturned by vampires and all of his survival notes and tools are stolen. He survives but must make it to the castle unarmed and on foot while vampires and crooked villagers produce obstacles at every turn. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong. Sounds like an easy plot to follow, right? Wrong.
From this point on, the viewer encounters more issues than Jonathan. The parallels to World War II become more and more obvious, yet the tone changes constantly. It also becomes apparent that Geissenndörfer himself was not sure whether he was making a vampire film with anti-fascist themes, a straightforward horror film, or something else entirely (though I have no idea what that could have possibly been). It doesn’t help that the dialogue was so bizarre that it sounds as if it had been written by different people, though this is possibly only an issue with the English subtitles. If the entire movie had been a dream sequence, I would be re-watching it.
Visually, I found Jonathan to be quite similar to Jaromil Jireš‘ surrealist fantasy-horror film, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, made the same year. However Jonathan is missing the rich, dreamlike atmosphere of Jireš‘ Czech New Wave classic. If Geissenndörfer’s film was a bit more surrealistic and nightmarish in nature, I believe a lot of its plot issues could be more easily forgiven, or indeed, they may have even worked themselves out. At times, Jonathan takes itself a bit too seriously, and as a result, it lacks the fantastic lyricism of films like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.
Yes, the story is a bit of a mess, but that does not prevent Jonathan from being amazing. The story takes a backseat to the visual beauty of the film. Geissenndörfer enlisted the now legendary cinematographer Robby Müller (Paris, Texas; Breaking the Waves) when Müller finished his first feature film, Summer in the City, with long-time collaborator Wim Wenders (both films opened within a month of each other). Müller flawlessly mixed horror and storybook-like imagery to create something that still feels new and exciting in 2016. Müller and Geissenndörfer collaborated on two additional films: Carlos (1971) and Perahim – Die zweite Chance (1974).
Jonathan is Geissenndörfer’s debut film, and despite the weak storyline, this film is a triumph of a first feature. He even went on to win the award for Best New Direction for Jonathan at Germany’s annual Deutscher Filmpreis (also known as the Lola Awards). Since then, he has mainly focused on dramas, and Jonathan remains his only horror film. His 1978 film, The Glass Cell, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He is also the creator of the long-running German soap opera, Lindenstrasse.
As a disclaimer, I must add that one of the Gestapo-like followers of the Count kills a live rat onscreen, which might deter a few people from watching the film. Jonathan is no Cannibal Holocaust, but admittedly, it is a pretty brutal moment. The Count’s follower proceeds to pick up the rat, throw it on the floor, and stomp it to death. It is not a scene for the faint of heart.
When I first happened upon the trailer for Jonathan, I scoured the internet for an official Region 1 release but never found one. Arthaus distributes an official Region 2 DVD, but it doesn’t feature English subtitles. In my opinion, you don’t need them. You already know the story of Dracula. Let the gorgeous images speak for themselves.