Vampire stories are constantly being updated to fit the times: they fight off school bullies in Let the Right One In and play baseball in Twilight. And a new film from Italian artist Andrea Mastrovito, NYsferatu: Symphony of a Century, modernizes a distinctive part of the vampire’s mythology. Mastrovito seeks to retell the story of the vampire through the lens of modern-day fears about Islam, immigration, and refugees.
The original Nosferatu, based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, premiered in 1922. In that story, Thomas Hutter travels to Transylvania, where he discovers that his host is a vampire. His wife Ellen, back home in Germany, has terrible visions of Hutter and his dangerous host. The vampire eventually makes his way to Hutter’s village. Terror ensues as villagers panic and mysteriously start dying. Eventually, Ellen sacrifices herself to the vampire, who is destroyed. In NYsferatu, much of this storyline remains intact, but there are key revisions. Hutter is from New York City. The vampire is from Aleppo.
The resulting film prompts some questions that are as important today as they ever have been: What do we owe a people whose homeland has been destroyed? How, through fear and xenophobia, do we tear our own cities apart? And do we really understand what it is that we’re afraid of?
Vampires, like any good monster, scare people because they draw on what society already hates or fears. Dracula is riddled with anti-Semitic stereotypes typical of the Victorian Era: a hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, greed. And vampires love to prey on women who are young, beautiful, and white. This is a popular way to foment racism: white nationalists often use rhetoric about young black and immigrant men victimizing white women. Mastrovito says that what initially drew him to the story was how the vampire has always been identified with the “other.”
During the Vietnam War, Mastrovito says, Dracula was given to American soldiers because it provided them with a villain who was purely evil. That lack of nuance was an issue when Mastrovito tried to reimagine the story. “The problem was not the drawing,” he says. “In the original, Nosferatu was a bad guy. I wanted to make him not evil, but a symbol of someone coming from outside. I decided he didn’t have to be a good guy. He was a normal guy.”
The resulting vampire is almost pitiable. We see his bombed-out city, the ruins of his castle. In the original versions, the vampire spirits away soil from his home inside coffins so that he can use them to rest and replenish his strength in a new country. In this film, the vampire brings land from Aleppo because he has nothing else left of his people and he wants to somehow preserve a piece of his homeland. “Even if it’s no good,” he says, “it’s still ours.”
To build out this portrait, Mastrovito incorporated real stories and artifacts from immigrants in New York. He and 12 assistants, in collaboration with the New York nonprofit More Art, worked on the movie over the course of three years. As he worked on the flickering rotoscope animation, Mastrovito conducted workshops with immigrants at the Queens Museum and Turning Point Brooklyn. He screened scenes from the film and discussed them with participants, integrating their words and stories into the movie. In one scene, a picture that Hutter sends home to his wife is a real drawing by a Yemeni refugee girl whose home was bombed. During the vampire’s sea voyage to New York, the ship carrying him keeps flickering to show a small boat packed with refugees: another element drawn in because of the workshop feedback.
The film revels in anachronisms and Americana. The Statue of Liberty’s crown hangs off a chair in Ellen’s room. A poster reading “Johnny got his gun” hangs inside a medic tent in Aleppo. At one point, Donald Trump’s silhouette can be seen in a shadow. Though all of the characters wear period clothing, they live in modern cities and use modern expressions. Many of the humorous moments come from New York-isms which, Mastrovito says, they had to re-work entirely for the film’s showing in Rome. Hutter exclaiming, “You’re slower than the G train!” to his coachman proved difficult to translate.
Another pointed city reference, and one that ties in with the film’s themes of xenophobia, occurs when Hutter leaves for Aleppo and his distraught wife calls out, “If you see something, say something!”
The New Yorkers in NYsferatu do not simply fear dying. They fear conversion. They fear their city and their society changing. They fear that an empire in decline has come to seek its revenge. “The main fear of the Western world is to be counter-colonized by the Eastern world,” Mastrovito says.
The film makes the case that the West’s fear is perhaps karmic: a fear of retaliation. After Hutter lands in Aleppo, after he sees the shells of buildings and paramilitary troops, he reads a section of the Declaration of Independence that talks about how, once a people have been forced to suffer abuse and indignities, they have reason to overthrow a totalitarian government. Seeing these words in the context of a foreign country, it’s hard not to think about the times America has installed dictators overseas, and the ways in which the U.S. has had a hand in the Middle East’s current instability. Here, that fear of counter-colonization is a fear of vampiric chickens coming home to roost.
Perhaps the film’s most compelling scene is near the end, when the violence and destruction of Aleppo are superimposed onto New York City. It is one thing to watch Manhattan being torn asunder by aliens or giant gorillas. But to understand that the current, ongoing violence of another, very real place, can be so easily transferred to one’s own home is chilling. It makes the cities we live in seem almost interchangeable.
America has not encountered a foreign attack on its soil since 9/11. But outside forces are not necessary for a nation—or a city—to fall. In NYsferatu it is the city’s own residents, driven by fear of an outsider they do not understand, who inevitably destroy it. The film depicts the way in which a society convinced it is under attack will tear itself apart in order to eradicate a perceived threat.
The vampire is not the film’s most dangerous monster.
NYsfteratu runs 65 minutes. It will be shown at the Rome Film Fest from October 26 to November 5, and more screenings will be announced on the film’s website.