Juxtaposed against the seen-it-before variety of "safe" remakes, homages directly referential of better films and gutless technical exercises full of phony jumps scares that sometimes pass for real horror these days, Sex Murder Art: The Films of Jorg Buttgereit is a breath of pungent air.
Jorg Buttgereit looks like if an Ubermensch dressed as a punk rock fan. He is tall, good looking, strong and wears black t-shirts with various bands on them. His persona comes off completely different still: he's intelligent, serious about cinema as an art form while also being a goofy, self-effacing boy next door who just likes making movies and having fun with his friends. Similarly, his films are a conundrum, blending elements without regard to cinematic laws. Instead his films have full intention to break almost every enforced rule, like a disobedient child who does the opposite of what he is told.
It's common today for Hollywood movies to be essentially written by a focus group, then produced in a focus group and then screened by yet another focus group. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but not much. I respect that Buttgereit and his troupe are willing to go to uncomfortable places in an uncompromising way. In fact, wherever he feels he is not supposed to tread, whatever you are never supposed to see, he makes sure to take you there.
Robert Schmadtke works for crime scene cleanup and he collects pieces of corpses. Sometimes he brings stuff home for his girlfriend to play with too. There is an early scene where she bathes in blood like Elizabeth Bathory (good for the skin I presume). One day he brings home a fresh corpse for he and his girlfriend to have a lovely threesome with. As the body starts to decay, his girlfriend tells him if he was a real man he would either find a way to keep the corpse from decaying or get a fresh one, that is if he wants their relationship to continue. Like a couple of junkies, he needs to get them their next fix. Instead, he kills the cat and then goes to see a slasher movie both of which leaves him disappointed and unsatisfied. He goes home to drink alone and falls asleep. He dreams of frolicking with a girl and a human head in a sunny grassy field. He awakes feeling lonely, goes to find a prostitute, drives to a graveyard and has sex with her on a tombstone. At some point, he can't get it up so she laughs at him and he chokes her to death which he discovers really turns him on. A gardener catches him the next morning, post-coitus with the corpse and so he cuts the man's head off. That day, he is simultaneously struck by the beauty and wonder of the natural world, but also feels like a martyr for having such unusual taste. So in an act of both self-sacrifice and self-pleasure, he kills himself in a particularly memorable and literally "climactic" scene.
Production design has the feel of early John Waters meets the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Made over the course of two years with friends, the film was shot before the wall came down in West Berlin. The literal decay and use of chain link fences in the film plays quite well symbolically for the social decay and walls Buttgereit and his friends may have felt around them at that time. Nekromantik is based partly on a short film he had made called Hot Love and using many of the same crew and actors, although comes across more serious in tone than that film. The rawness of the techniques used give Nekromantik an almost documentary realism at times like the True Crime books he was reading. Like Hot Love, the film uses an almost entirely romantic piano soundtrack to underscore the point of view of the main character; reinforcing that this is indeed a love story, albeit for a character with odd predilections. At the time he was hanging out with a lot of people in the punk rock movement and the film ends up having a rather punk aesthetic.
"There is no judgement in that movie. There is no law, no regulation. There's just a totally different point of view." (Buttgereit on Nekromantik)
Der Todesking: The Death King (1989)
Originally titled Seven Suicides, the film follows a vignette structure. Each day of the week is attributed to a different way of dying. The film does an effective job of making the viewer ponder their own mortality using a connecting visual conceit of a body decaying in a black void and the bookend of the Death King mythology.
Monday: A man who feels trapped and alone tries to get attention by taking his own life.
Tuesday: A man confuses his reality with the bizarre films he likes to watch and ends up killing his girlfriend when she berates him.
Wednesday: A man sits in the rain talking to a woman about his troubled love life. They share a philosophical conversation before he shoots himself.
Thursday: The suicide bridge. Eerie shots of a bridge along with subtitles of various people who killed themselves by jumping from the bridge.
Friday: An episode about a lonely female voyeur who dreams of connecting with other people but instead drowns her lust with chocolate and booze.
Saturday: A woman makes a POV rig and we watch her going first person shooter on a killing spree.
Sunday: A tortuously depressed man can't deal with his loneliness and pain.
"It's a movie against suicide." Jorg Buttgereit
Nekromantik 2 (1991)
The film picks up its narrative before the end credits of the first Nekromantik. Monika brings home Robert Schmadtke's corpse and lovingly prepares it for her pleasure. Rather than being pornographic, Monika is very sensual in her actions, building her own anticipation with her lover. Then we meet Mark who is doing foley sound and dubbing for international pornography. We cut back to Monika's lovemaking and in the scene there is a painting of a corpse loving a woman, the exact opposite of what she is doing here. This creates a self-reflexivity both with the intercutting and in the scene itself. Afterwards Monika is unsure how to feel about what she's done and seems both satisfied with herself and disgusted with herself at once. She feels sick and vomits in the bathroom. In a meeting of chance at the local cinema Monika meets Mark, he gives her an extra ticket when he's stood up on a date. They try to have a normal relationship. In the end, Mark's own chauvinism and lack of attentiveness as well as her natural inclinations leads to her being very dissatisfied with the relationship. Monika points out his hypocrisy that Mark likes trashy porn, but judges her for her interests even though she doesn't flaunt it in his face. Once again, the climactic scene of the film delivers on both the concept and the cover art in a literal climax.
Returning to the themes and drama of the first Nekromantik, this time with a female protagonist. Visually this film is inspired by the work of Lucio Fulci utilizing snap zooms, paint-colored blood, seventies style color palette and greenish-grey makeup FX. The film deals humorously with self-fulfillment and the difficulty of being yourself when you're into unusual things. Here that underdog concept is complicated by the fact that she's into Necrophilia. Buttgereit includes beautiful details of the natural world such as a little bird singing as Monika digs up a grave, a lizard running along the coffin etc. Perhaps this is a reference to the titles of the Giallo genre which were generally based on bizarre animal mash-ups (i.e. Bird with the Crystal Plumage or Lizard in a Woman's Skin) or it could be just a poetic comment that the natural world is indifferent to the meaning we as humans have decided to put on what is "normal" or not.
Note: I feel like I have to mention there is footage of a dead baby seal being skinned in the film (could it be any more taboo?). Of course the filmmaker states this is footage from an actual documentary he sourced and that no baby seals were harmed in the making of this film. That explanation doesn't help it from being one of the more disturbing images I've ever seen.
Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993)
From the opening fetishized blurry shots, the film plays like a cinematic Rorschach painting where you are presented with coded images that you have to immediately start interpreting. Based off my experience with the previous three films, my mind took it to a more sexual or dark place, which is somewhat misleading. Based on a book about a real serial killer called Carl Panzram, Buttgereit and co-writer Rodenkirchen just used the book as a jumping off point for their own ideas. Like Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, we watch Schramm's more "normal" social interactions with some tension, not knowing what he will do next to his friend next door (played by Monika M of Nekromantik 2). Also like William Lustig's Maniac we are treated to some of the main character's internal visions and habits in a fashion that is ever more disturbing in that they are mostly treated without the comforting distance of social commentary. The spinning camera gag and the circular effect of some of the other shots creates an impression that we are falling deeper into a vortex of Schramm's bizarre, frightening world in a way that also manages to leave a bleak impression of how pathetic and mundane it must feel like to be him. It evokes pity for the murderer, as well as disgust. Visually this is Buttgereit's most ambitious and accomplished effort of the four films included here.
Part of the benefit of tracking a director's oeuvre, as brave souls are treated to here with these Cult Epics discs, is the ability to notice trends within the work itself. Especially if it riffs on similar themes as Buttgereit does with his near singular death/love obsession.
The nudity, while plentiful, does not discriminate towards only showing tastefully nude women for instance, if anything it has more male nudity than female and purposely chooses to take a more realistic or at least plain approach to nudity. Like the violence in these films, while the nudity is still fetishized by nature in breaking it up into shots and lingering on it, it is not glamourized with soft filters or attractive lighting and makeup.
Buttgereit's choices for the music, sound design and mise-en-scene are rooted in placing the audience in the point of view of the main character, rather than making comment on the characters. He also is willing to deal with conflicting human emotions. The characters in his films often wrestle with complex or directly opposing feelings about their actions. It's messy and complicated. Generally, the main characters have a difficulty or inability to connect with other individuals and the world at large. They feel like there are parts of them they cannot share with other people, living people anyway…
There is an excitement for cinematic ingenuity that is hard to miss in these films. The filmmakers build almost all their own camera rigs and props. This is out of necessity, but also gives them a handmade quality that is unlike most other films you see. Much like Tom Savini's effects work in Romero's Dawn of the Dead, the personal nature of the artistry, the fact that it is unlike the so-called "proper" way to do something, is in itself a quality that raises the aesthetic of the film into its own unique place. This rule-breaking also leads to innovations. For instance, looking at the "Saturday" segment of Der Todesking we're treated to a technically impressive and early example of first person shooter cinema. Now twenty-six years later you can see this technique in Hardcore Henry, recently in theaters, touted by some as original and revolutionary.
The special effects are crude, though sometimes rather inspired, using real objects from the butcher shop and mixing them with everyday items. They used a pig's eye and honey for the dead corpse's eye in Nekromantik. They used scrambled eggs and food coloring for the cat's guts in the same film. In Der Todesking, they essentially baked a human-shaped cake over a skeleton so that it would decay properly in a way that flies would be interested in. The result is quite disturbing.
Despite the dark subject matter, or perhaps because of it, Buttgereit's productions seem to be rather fun and light. There is a familial closeness developed by the people making the films and an air of creativity on set with everyone coming up with ideas and pooling their collective resources to make these ambitious films on meager budgets. A lot of the players and key crew stay together so it's a relationship that carries over more than just the subject matter from film to film.
Nekromantik: 1:33:1 Shot and edited on Super 8mm and then transferred to 16mm and 35mm film prints. Included here is both a clean(er) remastering of the 16mm inter-negative and an HD scan of Buttgereit's 35mm film print which has a lot of speckles and some scratches. In both cases the film has a healthy amount of grain and while the presentation is limited by the source material I can vouch for the fact that this is an improvement over the Barrel Entertainment DVD.
Der Todesking: 1:33:1 Buttgereit upgraded to a 16mm camera but the lack of experience with it or age of the negative does show here. Somehow the grainy, sometimes muddy look of the film really adds to the dark feeling of the piece. I assume this is as good as it gets for this film being that previously I believe this film wasn't available stateside.
Nekromantik 2: 1:33:1 Nice HD remaster of the original 16mm. It looks clean and might be Buttgereit's prettiest film of these four. Has a colorful palette that seems well represented although Buttgereit mentions in the commentary (referencing the DVD) it's cleaner than he expected and had made the blood brighter figuring that by the time it was duped to videotape that it would be darker but still have a red tint to it.
Schramm: 1:33:1 Like the films that came before in the set this is a nice HD master of the 16mm materials. It is clean(ish) as per the director's intention and has a healthy amount of grain that supports the look of the film. The step-printed scenes and stylized motions look crisp and unaffected by video noise.
Nekromantik: Available in Dolby Digital remasters of the stereo and 5.1 German tracks with English Subtitles. Sounds fine overall if a little "tinny" to my ears. On the 35mm scan you can hear all the audio pops which could be fun if you enjoy a grindhouse-style presentation.
Der Todesking: Remastered Dolby Digital presentations of both stereo and 5.1 German tracks. While there's nothing remarkable about the track it seems faithful to the original intentions. English Subtitles
Nekromantik 2: DD2.0, DD5.1 surround, DD original mono, English Subtitles There is an improved fullness to the sound in both the 2.0 and 5.1 surrounds. Has even a slight reverb to it that gives the music a nice quality. Also it has smoothed out some of the pops and audio spikes where the mono track is a little too hot.
Schramm: DD2.0, plus what I assume is a newly minted DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. This is a nice track that adds some eerie fullness to the creative soundscape of the film. English Subtitles
Packaging and Extras:
Everything is housed in box cover featuring unique cover art. Inside is the four Blu-ray set inside one case with four slivers of poster art on the cover representing each film. Inside is a 39-page collectible booklet featuring interviews and photos. Also included are two CDs in cardboard slip cases featuring unique cover art with the soundtracks to all four films, two per CD.
•Nekromantik Audio Commentary: Buttgereit and Franz Rodenkirchen
•Beyond Fest Q&A with Jorg Buttgereit (39:56) - on stage interview at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, CA.
•Making of Nekromantik (12:24) - a series of actual behind the scenes film footage with informative promotional interviews of Butgereit, writer Franz Rodenkirchen, and producer Manfred O. Jelinski
•Nekromantik Featurette (9:23) - Talks about the creation of the corpse prop and bringing together of key cast and crew.
•Still Photo Gallery - nearly 100 photographs, some B&W and some color
•Hot Love (1985) (29:05) - shot on Super 8 here available in HD also with commentary. Lots of cinematic ingenuity using matte photography and varying speeds and lighting techniques for effect.
•Hot Love Featurette (3:27) - Sound is off of the picture majorly! I tried playing it several times and still had the issue. Also the German dialogue is not translated into English subtitles. B&W filmed interviews and behind the scenes at a screening of Hot Love. This is a missed opportunity as apparently no one checked the disc or thought to put English subtitles on it. Booo!
•Der Todesking Commentary: Jorg Buttgereit and Franz Rodenkirchen
•Intro to Der Todesking (1:14)
•The Making of Todesking (15:43) - behind the scenes footage and footage from the movie along with commentary or interview from Buttgereit.
•About 100 stills presented in video form.
•Corpse F*****g Art HD (58:11) - a montage of behinds the scenes footage from three of the films. Like the other behind the scenes includes informative interviews some of them are repeated from the other segments.
•Nekromantik 2 Commentary: Jorg Buttgereit, Frank Rodenkirchen and actors Monika M and Mark Reeder
•Nekromantik 2 Intro (1:36)
•The Making of Nekromantik 2 (26:37)
•Still Photo Gallery (about 130 photos)
•Outtakes (11:04) - appears to be more like behind the scenes photography than out takes of the actual film. Played totally silent, without any music or sound.
•20th Anniversary Live Concert (11:44) - has an introduction by Buttgereit to a screening where the live score was played on stage featuring music from the Nekromantik films.
•A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein (2012) (2:14) - Buttgereit visits the family plot and grave site of Ed Gein. There is no human interaction or camera movement, just sitting there at some distance looking at the grave and hearing what could be a stylized version of the sound captured at the site. The wind, flies and bird noises take on an ominous quality.
•Half Girl: Lemmy I'm a Feminist (3:08) - B&W punk rock style music video, features some footage of Lemmy from Motorhead look-a-like.
•Recorded Sound Track (57:30)
•Live recorded sound track (47:10)
•Schramm Commentary 1: Buttgereit and Rodenkirchen
•Schramm Commentary 2: actors Florian Koemer Von Gustorf and Monika M.
•The Making of Schramm (35: 30)
•Still Photo Gallery (about 70 photos)
•Horror Heaven (1984) (22:45) - a short film anthology inspired by classic monster movies that includes audio commentary.
•Blutige Exzesse Im Fuhrerbunker (7:57) (Translates to: Bloody Excess in the Leader's Bunker) - Hitler is still alive and continuing Nazi scientific experiments himself. He's working on the corpse of Eva Braun brought back to life and a Frankenstein Ubermensch, the "breeding bull" to father a new generation (played by Buttgereit himself). They wake up and tear Hitler to pieces.
•Mein Papi (7:10) - A loving and unsettling ode to his father who died in 1993 which is a mix between filmed footage and stills. He also tracks the downfall of his health and subsequent death. All the footage is seemingly done without his father knowing they are rolling the camera.
•Schramm Intro (1:05)
Buttgereit has a unique voice that is still unlike anything in the mainstream and which pre-dated later trends such as the Americanized "torture porn" subgenre (epitomized most famously by Saw and Hostel). He takes a strong stance that he doesn't intend to glorify violence by showing it in full horrific light. He states: "It seems more glorifying to me if you don't see how messy and how awful it is if you kill somebody."
There is a long history of exploitation movies often not delivering on the implied promises of their violent posters or wild concepts. Be warned that Buttgereit's Sex Murder Art collection does deliver on these premises and you will see things you can't unsee. This collector's set contains extensive bonus content to help you put the traumatic imagery in historical context as well as remastered Blu-ray presentations of Buttgereit's four most well-known and previously rare films.
Rating: Highly Recommended