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BERLINALE 2021 Encounters

Julian Radlmaier • Director of Bloodsuckers

“Marx uses a lot of these gothic metaphors, and I thought it would be funny to just take his word for it”


- BERLINALE 2021: In his Encounters entry, the German director takes Marx literally – kind of

Julian Radlmaier  • Director of Bloodsuckers
(© Tim Schenkl)

It's 1928, so many are turning to Marx for answers – only to find out that “capital is dead labour, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”. Which, predictably, leads to many misunderstandings. And while some just lose their minds, Sergei Eisenstein loses a tooth. Julian Radlmaier talks to us about his Berlinale Encounters entry Bloodsuckers [+see also:
film review
interview: Julian Radlmaier
film profile

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Cineuropa: We tend to refer to “bloodsucking” so often when we talk about someone being used or exploited. It actually makes perfect sense to go all the way back to Das Kapital, then, like you do here.
Julian Radlmaier:
Marx really uses a lot of these gothic metaphors. There are ghosts and vampires, and I thought it would be funny to just take his word for it [laughs]. Then I was reading a biography of Sergei Eisenstein, and there was an odd detail that I found quite interesting: for October, he shot some scenes with “Trotsky” appearing in them, but then the real Trotsky lost his power struggle with Stalin, and he was forced to cut them all out. The actor whom Eisenstein chose to play him was a non-professional, who in real life was some kind of dentist, it said. But what does it mean, “some kind of dentist”? That’s how I came up with the character of Ljowuschka [played by Alexandre Koberidze as an impostor pretending to be a baron]. I invented this guy who is a factory worker and pulls out Eisenstein's tooth, gets cast in his film and then wants to pursue this career.

At first, Bloodsuckers seems like a proper period drama, and then someone casually opens a can of Coke. Why did you opt for historical inaccuracies?
The idea of making this classical Hollywood period film seems like a nightmare to me – everything needs to be on point. You can be so much more playful once that's not your concern. We wanted to use objects that were interesting to us and to the story – not just because they were from that era. Perhaps this way, we actually ended up being more faithful to that time? In the 1920s, people had this obsession with speed, for example, but how can you convey that feeling now? By showing their old motorcycles? Nobody would see it as fast, so that's why I used a new one. It's closer to that emotion in that sense.

Weird things keep happening in this story, yet everyone keeps a straight face. Is that something you enjoy, this Buster Keaton school of comedy? Your actors certainly stick to it all the way through.
I would say that the humour already had this deadpan quality in the script, so it was a logical step to take. This film is very much about a certain balance: the story is so exaggerated and over the top, the dialogue so baroque. It just works better when delivered drily, otherwise it would turn into some kind of caricature. When you watch the films of Robert Bresson – which are completely different to what I do as a filmmaker – there is still some humour in them. I always wanted to make a “Bressonian” comedy, one that wouldn't be based on expressive comedians, but rather on contrasts between things.

The whole vampire mythology seems to say something about human nature: if someone is different, it's easier to just call them a monster and come up with a story afterwards to back it all up. With QAnon and similar conspiracy theories, it's certainly still happening.
There is this tradition of showing capitalists as vampires, and I was a bit scared that it would be interpreted this way. We tried to show that this vampirism of the bourgeois characters is a little bit different. They are not born this way; they turn into them through their actions. They are structural vampires: they live off the extraction of labour power, and the way things go down, some immigrant becomes a scapegoat instead.

I never like to boil it all down to one political statement, although there is always this danger of being too reductive in interviews. These are quite complex relationships, actually. These vampires have a likeable side to them, too: they can be fascinating, and some actually want to be like them, including Ljowuschka. They are not “evil monsters”, but they find themselves in a position that's structurally connected to violence. But theirs is also a world where they have time to write and to think, unlike most working people, so what happens when it gets threatened? Even this existence of art and leisure is still inscribed in the economic reality that's quite harsh. This is related to all of this racism emerging right now – which side do the powerful choose when things get complicated? Sometimes, as we all know, they have chosen the side of fascism. This is something I am concerned about now.

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