Lady Summerisle (strange_complex) wrote,
Lady Summerisle

3. Vlad Tepes (1979), dir. Dumitru Fernoaga / Doru Nastase

This is a Romanian film about the historical Dracula, which tells the story of his main reign from taking the Wallachian throne in 1456 to his arrest on the orders of Matthias Corvinus in 1462. It isn't legally available to buy in the UK, so I watched it on Youtube (complete with English subtitles), partly to see if it would help me in my current efforts to learn Romanian, and partly of course for its own sake as a portrayal of Dracula.

On the language-learning front, it wasn't a great deal of help, mainly because I just haven't learnt enough yet to be able to pick up new words or constructions from context, but perhaps also partly because the sound-quality on the Youtube video is pretty poor, making everything sound a bit distant and unclear. I'd say I was able to recognise something like about one word in a hundred, which obviously wouldn't get me very far in a real-life situation! But hopefully I will at least have tuned in to the rhythms and structures of Romanian just a little bit while watching it, and maybe if I come back to it shortly before actually going there, I will find by then that I can get more out of it.

On the portrayal-of-Dracula front, though, it was absolutely fascinating. It is, of course, a product of Communist Romania, released right in the middle of Ceaușescu's time in power, and needs to be understood in that light. It was made by Romaniafilm, a state-owned production company, in collaboration with the Romanian Ministry of National Defence (whom I'm guessing advised on and probably also provided explosions for the battle scenes). So it was a government-approved and -sponsored production, and one which the lavish sets, hordes of extras and 2hr15m running time suggest that quite a lot of money was poured into. Furthermore, even with my absolute beginner's level of Romanian, I noticed that where the subtitles represented people as talking about anything Wallachian, what the actors actually said was 'Românească', which is both an alternate historical name for the kingdom of Wallachia and the modern word for 'Romanian'. So this looked to me very much like a deliberate choice, made in order to blur the distinction between 15th-century Wallachia and 1970s Romania, so that Dracula could stand as a national hero for all of the latter.

Certainly, in this film he is a hero. This isn't to say he is presented as morally perfect, but he certainly is portrayed as a man with the best interests of his country at heart. The basic line is that he was a pragmatist working to improve the economic and political situation of Wallachia (for which read 'Romania') in difficult circumstances, and against a lot of self-serving opposition. He begins his reign by berating his noble courtiers (the boyars) for letting the country go to the dogs under his predecessors, and proclaims that he will restore its former greatness by establishing good education, freeing prisoners, and building up the army. He vows to promote artisans and commerce, on the grounds that they strengthen the country, and makes sure that Wallachian merchants can trade on good terms with neighbouring Transylvania without getting attacked by robbers. He stops paying tribute to the Ottomans, on the grounds that their border raids mean Wallachia doesn't have peace anyway, and says noble-sounding things about how in such a situation the price of freedom keeps getting higher and higher until that price is freedom itself. And in the war which inevitably follows, he shows himself to be an exceptional military commander. In other words, it's pretty easy to read Dracula as an allegory for the kind of leader Ceaușescu was trying to portray himself as - a bold economic and social reformer and a Romanian nationalist standing up to the Soviet Union.

But some of this cannot be achieved without applying harsh methods. The infamous impalings are exemplary punishments, eventually arrived at as the only effective means of preventing high-way robberies - and the film carefully shows that they work, since once a few robbers have been impaled, the good, honest merchants are able to trade in peace. Nonetheless, his well-intentioned efforts are meanwhile undermined by repeated betrayals and rebellions from those who had been benefiting from the corrupt practices which he weeds out - including rival boyars, his own brother Radu, and the councillors of the Transylvanian town Brașov (who lose out on profiteering opportunities thanks to his trade deals). In the end, these councillors in particular are shown extracting their revenge by cooking up a devastating smear campaign against Dracula, which paints him as a psychopath and a traitor to his country. This is then used to justify his arrest at the end of the film, and, we are left to infer, went on to furnish the material for the famous pamphlets which are the source of all the really nasty stories about him. Again, the intended contemporary 'lessons' for Romanian viewers living under Ceaușescu ae pretty easy to pick out: "He might seem a bit harsh but it's all for the greater good!" "Don't listen to the lies of those bitter people criticising the Great Man!" etc.

That's not to say it isn't also deadly serious history, though - in fact, much more so than I am used to from historical epics about the ancient world, produced in much less obviously-politicised circumstances. Absolutely everything covered in this film is entirely historically plausible, very much including the idea that the really horrific stories about Dracula are basically the result of a smear campaign. (This isn't just plausible, actually, but as close to certain as anything from the past can now be - though there's no particular reason to believe that the campaign was spear-headed by the councillors of Brașov.) Some of what the film covers, and especially the idea of Dracula being repeatedly undermined by his boyars, is exactly the sort of stuff Kurt Treptow sets out to question and reassess in his book about the historical Dracula. Indeed, the film credits a scholar named Nicolae Stoicescu as its historical consultant, whose book Vlad Ţepeş is one of the ones Treptow positions himself against. But I've read enough now, of both primary sources and secondary scholarship, to see that the differences between this film (and thus presumably also Stoicescu's scholarship, though I haven't read it) and Treptow's book are matters of interpretation, not total invention. As such, it is more 'accurate' (if that's even a meaningful concept anyway) than the standards I am used to from films about ancient Rome - certainly much more on the level of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) than Gladiator (2000), anyway. It is also approximately infinitely more accurate than the historically-grounded bits of Dracula Untold, which is an interesting case of how a dramatic agenda (here, the need to cast Dracula as unreservedly heroic) can actually be far more historically-distorting than a political agenda.

There was one scene which really jarred for me from a political / moral perspective, though, while not needing to be there at all from a historical one. This concerned the story from the pamphlets about Dracula and the beggars, which goes like this:
He had a good meal prepared for all the beggars in his land. After the meal he had them locked up in the sheds in which they had eaten, and burned them all. He felt they were eating the people's food for nothing and could not repay it. [Source: Nuremburg pamphlet]
Once you've come up with the basic line that the pamphlets were the outcome of a smear campaign, and explicitly included scenes within your film showing that happening, you don't actually need to include any of the stories from them at all - you can write them off as hostile rumours. Indeed, this is what this film does with most of their contents. Fine - I'm completely on board with that. But that being the case, the decision to keep this particular story all the same then stands out as a pretty pointed choice. And the way it is played is that Dracula does indeed invite all the beggars, most of whom have physical disabilities (missing limbs, missing eyes, etc), to a big feast. While it is going on, he goes round the hall in disguise, picking out certain individuals, and suggesting to them that it might be time to go home, but meanwhile leaving those whom (he somehow magically knows) are scoundrels and con-men. Once he's finished ushering out the honest souls, those left behind are seen removing what are actually fake wooden legs and eye-patches, and settling in to a proper rowdy night of living it up at the state's expense - and it is at this point that Dracula has the doors locked and orders the hall to be set on fire. So in other words, the original story is embellished in a way which is intended to make Dracula look like the good guy for saving the honest beggars, while getting rid of the cheats. But the implications of the whole episode for how real disabled or otherwise-disadvantaged people were viewed in contemporary Romania are absolutely terrifying! The story paints them as inherently likely to be fakers sponging off the state, which of course is exactly the sort of thinking that could be used to justify locking thousands of them away in the appallingly neglectful and abusive institutions which were uncovered after the fall of Ceaușescu.

I also noticed that there wasn't a single woman in a speaking role throughout the entire 2hr15m film. They do appear on screen occasionally, but only to gather corn in the fields or get captured and held as hostages by Dracula's brother, Radu, so that he can blackmail their fathers and husbands into betraying Dracula. But even in those roles, they only ever appear as distant extras, with absolutely no agency of their own. Obviously, this is the only Romanian film I've ever seen, so I've no idea how typical or otherwise this is. But I do know that it is unusual enough in western European or New World cinema for Lawrence of Arabia to be famous for a similar total absence of female speaking roles. And while, as that linked article points out, that situation is an accurate reflection of the world in which Lawrence of Arabia takes place, this really isn't the case for the historical Dracula. He had a wife, who bore him a son, during at least part of the period this film covers, and was in the middle of negotiating to marry another at the point when it ends - yet we never see either of those women, or indeed any of the other people's wives, servants, etc who could so easily have been inserted into the film. So that does not speak particularly well for the position of women in 1970s Romania, either.

Despite such reservations, though, I really liked the film as a piece of drama. The story is dramatically plausible, following a satisfying narrative arc from Dracula's noble aims at the start of the film to his tragic downfall at the end. And its star, Stefan Sileanu in the title role, is absolutely excellent. He really inhabits the part, endowing it with all the intensity, self-belief and sense of purpose which really have to be there for Dracula's actions to come across as convincing, but also showing us the moments of vulnerability and despair which also have to be there for him to appear human. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which some of his enemies fled into an Orthodox church for sanctuary, but Dracula ordered them to be dragged out and punished anyway, leading to a crackling set-piece between him and the priest about the rights and wrongs of what he is doing. Furthermore, he has fantastic eyebrows, wears excellent hats throughout (nicely modelled on the historical portraits), and looks good on a throne or a horse:

Helmet Intense With torch Enthroned

That said, if you weren't super-into the history, I suspect the 2hr15m running time and Romanian-language soundtrack would be off-putting. For me right now, though, it was great!

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Tags: disabilities, dracula, films, films watched 2015, gender, history, language, reviews, romania

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