The Forgotten: History's Greatest Monster

Shot by the late, great Robby Müller, this West German crypto-"Dracula" adaptation features utterly remarkable camerawork.
David Cairns
There have been very many takes on Bram Stoker's Victorian shocker Dracula, but most of them have quite a bit in common, either adapting, closely or loosely, the book's text, or suggesting a sequel that takes the original as read. Jonathan, the debut film of writer-director Hans W. Geißendörfer in West Germany in 1970, does something else.
The Jonathan of the title would appear to be J. Harker, though he's never explicitly named as such, and he's a German villager rather than a London estate agent. Rather than visiting a sinister count on business, he's sent off to be a vampire-hunting secret agent. As bloodsuckers ravage the countryside, his daring mission is to infiltrate the castle of the fiends' leader, free the prisoners, open the doors for an attacking peasant army, and help drive the undead horde into the sea.
Which, in a rather flat and disappointing manner, is exactly what happens.
Actually, the staging of the climax is great—the problem is merely that it unfolds exactly as foretold.
What's interesting—aside from the strange departures from source novel and legend—is what happens en route. Jonathan's journey doesn't go well: thieves, who are probably vampires, steal his garlic and crucifix and bible, and kill his coachman and horses. Locals throw stones at him: they've grown suspicious of strangers since the depredations of the vampires began. And everywhere is chaos and bloodshed.
The late Robby Müller's camera explores the hellish, war-torn landscape like the eye of one facing one of those great paintings by Brueghel or Bosch, only it travels in three dimensions and the figures move and talk. The camerawork is incredibly complex and elegant, perpetually tracking and panning to explore its environment, passing over scenes of horror in a calm, somnambulist manner. It's not like the photography of your typical monster movie, though perhaps it owes something to Dreyer's Vampyr. The unfussed, dispassionate, sedate movement never seems to react to shocking scenes, or even hesitate before them, it just glides serenely on to the next atrocity.
And the film isn't short of violence and gore. In fact, the beatings doled out to both human and vampiric characters are strikingly painful to watch, enacted as they are before an indifferent lens. One moment, in which a live rat is repeatedly stomped to death, went too far for my taste, as I disapprove of any animal cruelty in film, and I speak as one who once, in a moment of panic, bludgeoned a rogue mouse flat with a copy of Brewer's Cinema: A Phrase and Fable Dictionary (large, hardback).
Something about the film gives one a bad feeling. The combination of classical music and vaguely prog rock stylings on the soundtrack recalls Herzog and the whole venture anticipates his remake of Nosferatu (and the vamps here have a similar unexplained ability to sometimes go abroad by day). But the music doesn't work as well: the ambitious production works best with a vaguely realist aesthetic, and you can't make something more realistic by adding music to it. The aggressive side-parting sported by our lead vampire strongly suggests an unsubtle Hitler analogy. Billed only as the Count, he does re-stage a central scene of the novel, the squabble with his brides over Jonathan and the offering of a baby as snack, so we can assume he's Dracula alright. But if Geißendörfer evinces an unpleasant sensibility in several ways, his work with Müller is so fascinating and beautiful that the film rises above itself and is worthy of our admiration.
And its coldness makes it genuinely creepy. There are also several bits where characters stare fixedly into the lens. We don't know for sure that they can see us. But the strong impression is given that they know we're there.
The Forgotten is a regular fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


The ForgottenRobby MüllerHans W. GeißendörferColumns
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