It’s kind of funny when people complain about the lack of “real vampires” in pop culture today. True, the “Twilight” explosion has turned a previously dark and spooky legend into a chaste and melodramatic teen soap, but it does bear pointing out that these storied bloodsuckers were fictional to begin with. Not that I’m a fan of the works of Stephanie Meyer et al, but creative license is fair when dealing with an entirely imaginary set of characters, right? It can’t be worth getting angry about.
And then I sit down and watch something like the new German flick “We Are the Night.” It’s one thing to stay neutral in the vampire purist argument when standing on the sidelines, but a movie that so thoroughly articulates what used to be fantastic and chilling about these parasitic monsters has me jumping into the fray. While not quite as thorough or passionate as Guillermo del Toro, whose “The Strain” trilogy is like a rallying cry for “real” vampire literature, director Dennis Gansel has created something quite thrilling with his Berliner vamps. The film has an obvious interest in emphasizing the double terror that has haunted us at least since Bram Stoker: the combination of violence and eroticism, blood and sex. “We Are the Night” may not be the most narratively sound of films, but it manages to stay exciting and alluring in its representation of the undead and their overpowering desires.
Gransel has transplanted the legend of Stoker and Murnau to the club scene of contemporary Berlin, with all of the requisite excesses. It’s a setting that allows him to exploit the full extent of vampiric sexuality, far cry from the bland Mormon melodrama of Meyer and her teenagers. Our heroine, Lena, is only brought into the vampire fold to begin with due to the longings of the ancient and impetuous Louise. Lena begins the film as a young small-time thief whose first scene leaves her on the cusp of an implied romantic spark with the dashing (male) cop who had been chasing her. Yet she is suddenly ripped from that clichéd romance into an alternative world of transgressive sexuality, chiefly represented by Louise’s monumental longing for the younger woman.
The other vampires, Nora and Charlotte, are presented as symbols of the legend’s moral anxiety. Nora in particular is emblematic of the way the vampire myth can challenge our potentially repressed conceptions of sexuality. She is in a constant state of seduction, luring in men from all directions, and you’re never entirely sure if it’s due to a lust for sex or for blood. Meanwhile, Charlotte is almost completely unconcerned with the high-energy club scene and the constant sex that keeps it moving. Instead she sits off to the side brooding, and as the film develops her deep personal relationship with violence and death comes to the forefront. She’s stares from her immortal silence, challenging us to accept our mortality as she becomes absolutely obsessed with her own inability to die. “We Are the Night” puts these two crucial components together, violence and eroticism, into a thematic dialog that plays off of our fears and desires.
With his band of three dark maidens Gansel is presenting the full array of social and emotional fears that the vampire myth can evoke. To oppose this he presents us with a somewhat oblivious but still handsome policeman as the potential human love interest for the newly-bitten Lena. The cops as a whole aren’t particularly sympathetic, but there’s a certain refuge to be found in Lena’s suitor as Louise gets increasingly nutty. “We Are the Night” stays mostly ambivalent, however, as to the conflict between vampiric transgression and the forces of law and order.
There’s also a wonderful visual palette, effectively created by Gansel’s riff on yet another classic element in vampire lore: fabulous wealth. Between Grand Hotel penthouses, late-night shopping sprees, and an extraordinary array of costumes and lush interiors there is a stunning opulence to much of the film’s aesthetic. Yet the riches only seem to make these women hunger for more, as power and luxury only create an internal void. Being bitten is a mixed blessing for Lena, who before encountering Louise had lived the day to day life of a common thief. This new life is exciting and wonderful, but also unfulfilling and ethically problematic.
And from there, I’m not entirely sure where Gansel ends up. The film’s second half is made up of a series of strange plot developments that pop out of nowhere. It’s as if a climax falls out of the sky as an excuse for exquisitely framed action sequences, and nothing more. It’s a shame, really, because “We Are the Night” so carefully constructs the dark thematic traditions of legend in its first two acts. Yet still, it’s enough to make a vampire purist pleased. The intensity of its sexuality and violence and the dual anxieties derived thereof brings a much needed breath of fresh air to a genre in danger of devolving into teen fluff.
“We Are the Night” opens today in New York City and is available through IFC On Demand
Recommended if if you like: “Embrace of the Vampire”; Werner Herzog’s “Nosferatu”; “Party Monster”