The Countess Elizabeth Báthory, wielding the weapons of benevolent blasphemy and ferocious finesse, bludgeoned her way out of history into the cultish reverence of modern society. Since her physical death in 1614, writers and artists have embraced their imagination-inspired, craft-condoned right to creative license by liberally adding and subtracting to and from the Báthory story, thus forging a personality who defies certainty and defiles sanctity. Consequently, the dark allure of the infamous ‘Blood Countess’ confronted twentieth century society with a legend shrouded in mystery; a legend that has rolled over into the naughties with rebellious momentum.
With ravenous relish, popular culture has embraced the gloriously gruesome image of Báthory bathing in the blood of her 650 virgin victims, whose liquid life was thought to have inscribed beautiful youthfulness onto the countenance of the vain Countess. And, of course, when blood and murder are involved there must be a vampire lurking in the shadows. Read the logic: Countess Báthory was Hungarian, Hungary conquered Transylvania in the 9th century, Brahm Stoker’s Dracula came from Transylvania (aka Hungary) – so popular culture therefore concludes that Countess Elizabeth Báthory was a vampire who not only soaked her soul in blood but also fed on its redness. Sensational! Pop culture, in an attempt ‘truthify’ the hyperbolic horror of the Báthory legend, has included the ‘Countess Dracula’ in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most prolific mass murderer. Exaggerated extravagance… or perhaps not? The beauty of Báthory lies in the mystery.
A mystery that Art has complicated and elaborated since the sixteenth century.
Báthory, the 2008 film directed by Slovak filmmaker Juraj Jakubisko, offers a ‘fact behind’ the fiction interpretation of the Countess Elizabeth Báthory. The film describes the Countess as a woman who ultimately fell victim to her enemies’ aspirations for power and wealth. Jakubisko’s film is based on the rather-dull-but-most-likely-true theory that Báthory was set up by György Thurzo, the Palatine of Hungary, who was charged with investigating the accusations made against the Countess. The film paints the greedy Thurzo as the architect of a grand conspiracy that set Báthory up as a murderess. Báthory claims that Elizabeth’s accusers were tortured, paid and conveniently murdered, thus escaping accountability. And it’s all perfectly plausible…
Although plausible is usually synonymous with boring, the film would only be considered mundane by the masochistic many who prefer ‘Báthory the serial killer’ to ‘Báthory the victim of a grand conspiracy’. Popular culture is, by and large, endeared to the descriptions of the savage torture that emerged during the ‘Báthory trial,’ atrocities that included: severe beatings over extended periods of time, often leading to death; the burning and mutilation of hands, faces and genitalia; the biting of flesh from faces, arms and other body parts; death by being frozen alive; surgery on victims, often fatal; the starving of victims; and sexual abuse implemented withe the use of needles. The fact that these descriptions, although mostly consistent, were based on hearsay, is made redundant by the charm of sensationalism. Murder is cool and an enigmatic chick murderer is way cool. Ten murders a month for six years is not too far a stretch of the imagination; Báthory did have lots of peasants at her disposal after all. And people are mostly fucked in the head. Hope springs eternal for this virulent viewer… but not in the form of Juraj Jakubisko.
Anna Friel is cast as the enigmatic Erzsébet, who, in spite of her character’s ‘afro bob’ hair-do (which is very distracting), invokes Countess Báthory with charismatic charm. Erzsébet is portrayed as a woman who was unfortunate to have been born at the wrong time in history. As a female living in a male-dominated society, Elizabeth was too weak to face the odds pitted against her; not even her aristocracy afforded her protection from the likes of government rank and misogyny. But Jakubisko does not completely debunk the preferred Báthory legend; in the film Erzsébet beats the occasional peasant, brandishes a sword as aptly as any man, survives the ingestion of deadly poison, and murders a servant in a violent rage. Jakubisko shows the Countess to have a strange fascination with cadavers, and throughout the film there is a subtle psychosis that resonates through Friel’s performance. Erzsébet is shown to be fun-loving, intelligent and vulnerable but also strong-willed and dangerous. Susceptible to the psychological trappings of narcissism, the Countess succumbs to the frailty of the human condition and gives in to her heart’s desire, at the cost of the ruination of her reputation. An interesting theory.
The film boasts a pan-European cast, including Franco Nero from Italy, Karel Roden from the Czech Republic and Hans Matheson from Scotland as Merisi Caravaggio, the Italian painter. Countess Báthory has a sexy, strained and somewhat sadistic affair with the tumultuous Caravaggio – a relationship that has been fabricated by Jakubisko in order elicit an intrinsic tenderness within Erzsébet. Through her interaction with both art and artist, Countess Báthory exudes a sagacious sensitivity; a rather unique perspective on the Báthory temperament, which accentuates the director’s attempt to show her in a different light.
For the audience that can forget about the aggrandizement of lesbian lust, voluptuous vampires and murderous massacre, Báthory will be nothing less than intriguing. Draped in a miasma of atmospheric goth, the film successfully disquiets the spirit with uncomfortable ease. Primarily a dramatic gothic saga, Báthory moonlights as a murder mystery-cum-crime story, which is intensified with political intrigue and some occult-inspired horror. The contentious genre overlaps are magnificent and serve to emphasise the ideological and theoretical inconsistencies attached to the mystery of the Countess, making the film’s textual mish-mash a metaphor for the legend of Báthory.
Through cinematic medium and the assimilation of ‘reality’ and fantasy, fact and fiction, Juraj Jakubisko has created his own legend. Although Báthory disallows the obsessive bloodlust prescribed by the avaricious appetite of popular culture, the film does not destroy the inscrutability of Countess Báthory but instead propagates it. Rather than defining her life, Báthory is a mode of artistic discourse that contributes to the question that is intrinsic to the ideological survival of the ‘Blood Countess’. And so the legend lives on…