Review by Justin Goodman
It’s a popular theory, albeit only partially factual, that, in America, vampire movies are more common when Democrats presidents are elected while zombie movies surge during Republican elections. One argument goes that this reflects cultural fears at the time: Republicans fear the loss of traditional mores (monogamy, abstinence, religion), and Democrats fear mindless consumption. I could argue an Austrian parallel with their recent election, where the far-right Norbert Hofer was beaten by a slim margin by the liberal Alexander Van der Bellen, in relation to Austrian director David Rühm’s 2014 Therapy for a Vampire. But that’s largely tangential. Rühm’s conclusively ambiguous politics are mostly the backdrop for an otherwise reverent, irreverent, and unexpectedly complex homage to German cinema.
In 1930’s Vienna, two couples are experiencing similar relationship troubles. Viktor, a young painter, can only seem to see a fantasy version of his waitress girlfriend, Lucy. He paints her as a blonde, bob-haired woman in a dress–as opposed to the trouser-wearing brunette she is. Meanwhile, Geza von Kösznöm has grown weary of his wife Elsa von Kösznöm while growing fonder of his long-departed lover Nadila. They are “Nosferatu.” The motif of disillusioned men and cogent, independent woman is wonderfully redoubled by the fact that Geza and Viktor are the only ones to visit the famed Sigmund Freud. Freud, while played to stodgy perfection by Karl Fischer, is not substantial, however, despite the obvious irony of his sexism. Rather, his existence is simply a reminder: of the setting, that Geza is a vampire (making numerous puns about being bad at “self-reflection”), and that their is a philosophy behind the film (Geza quotes Freud’s Totem and Taboo, “we know that the dead are mighty rulers”). This makes his presence more of a hindrance between the two relationships, acting less like an axle than rusted hinge.
But this doesn’t override the overarching comedic plotline: after dying her hair in the style of Viktor’s dream girl to taunt him, Lucy becomes the romantic prey of Geza who thinks she is the reincarnation of Nadila. In an attempt to escape his reflection-obsessed wife (being equally bad at “self-reflection”) he sends her off to be painted by Viktor while he pursues Lucy. Thus begins a series of wide-ranging absurdities that mixes Beauty and the Beast, sitcom, and Abbott & Costello; at one point Geza and Viktor even perform a variation of their famous “Who’s on First.” Given I want to avoid spoilers, all I’ll say of the film’s ending is it’s strikingly bleak for a romantic comedy. Jealousy gives way to grief, and implicit in the finale is a failure of intimacy to the same degree When Harry Met Sally happily concludes that Billy Crystal was right that men and women can’t just be friends.
Sadness aside, there are plenty of easter eggs for those faintly familiar with Weimar Republic Germany. Between the occasionally vanilla camera work are shots with an almost unreal quality–that’s not to say silly, as the CGI often is–that evokes the wide angles and distorting features of German Expressionism; most relevantly, F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. The admixture is about as buoyant as the film with the addition of Freud, but they’re appreciated gestures regardless. With that, mix in the obligatory nosy landlady’s namesake, Franz Sedlacek, known as the founder of the German political art movement “New Objectivism.” “New Objectivism” attempted to rebuttal Expressionism with an adherence to an almost scientific perspective. What’s suggestive here is that Rühm paints the former as an elderly and nosy old woman, while the character’s themselves are flooded with the angst of the latter.
What this suggests about Therapy for a Vampire’s ending depends on how liberal or conservative you read Lucy and Elsa’s fates, for they are intertwined in ways more powerful than reincarnation. Of course the film’s plot could be more evenly distributed with fewer sidetracks, but that’s also an interesting reflection on how nearly perfectly distributed Austrian culture seems to be. And, although it’s never mentioned, there is a current that slides beneath the entirety of this German-language film set in 1932. In 1932, Austria’s young Republic was in crisis because of the economic downturn, and it was only a year later, in 1933, that Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss would shut down Parliament, dissolve the Republic, and begin the autocratic regime that, itself, would dissolve after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. It’s on this historical cliff that the love and fantasies of these humans and vampires balance; Hofer, for the record, had promised to dissolve Parliament.