Content warning: here be spoilers (I guess), and discussions of depictions of extreme content. This is extreme horror. Discretion is advised.
In this instalment of my series on extreme horror, we’re going deeper, diving into the work of one of the most iconoclastic filmmakers to work in extreme horror. German director Jörg Buttgereit directed four feature length films – Nekromantik, Der Todesking, Nekromantik 2 and Schramm, before leaving film mostly behind to work in television, theatre and comics. What was left was a collection of films that purposely baited censors and social mores, and demonstrated a filmmaking style that falls outside of what is usually dubbed “splatter” or even horror. In this article I am focusing on Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2.
Buttgereit was raised in West Berlin. David Hasselhoff was still looking for freedom at this stage, and therefore the Berlin wall was still up. The federal republic of Germany was controlled by Britain, France and the US, and young Jörg grew up watching films of these countries, as well as Japanese Kaiju films at the cinema. He received a super 8 camera for his communion – renouncing Catholicism shortly after! Young JB became an avid devotee of monster movies.
He began making films in 1977. This led to his first feature Nekromantik. Jörg collaborated with screenwriter Franz Rodenkirchen and producer Manfred Jelinski, working on the film at weekends for two years.
The film follows Robert Schmadtke (Daktari Lorenz). Robert lives with his wife Betty (Beatrice Manowski), in a normal looking apartment. He works for a company that cleans up after fatal accidents. The company’s name and emblem seem to have connotations of fascism. Robert’s job allows him the ability to indulge him and his wife’s particular interests – those being death in general, and necrophilia. Their flat is decorated with jars of preserved human body parts. A picture of Charles Manson leers at us from the wall. It’s reminiscent of a mad scientist’s lair, but also the furniture Ed Gein famously made from human bodies .
Death is, of course, always a constant fixture in horror films. In Buttgereit’s film, however, we are confronted with the sheer viscerality of our corporal forms. The indelicate way in which the clean up crew handle bodies reminds us that we are but sentient pieces of meat. At the end of the day we will die and our bodies will just be clutter in the world.
One day Robert and the crew are tasked with dealing with a dead man found in a lake. Robert sees his chance and sneaks the body home as a present for Betty
They put a chair leg in the place of the corpse’s penis. What follows is what I can safely say, are the most romantic necrophilia scenes ever filmed. It’s disgusting, the slimy textures that seem to ooze off as Betty kisses the corpse being a highlight, or lowlight depending on your perspective. It is also – if you’re a sicko – hillarious! This is mostly due to the contrast between the gross content and the romantic cinematography, all soft focus and kaleidoscopic lenses. This is enhanced by the film’s score by Hermann Kopp, Daktari Lorenz and John Boy Walton, which in these scenes takes the form of a romantic banger. What’s also hilarious is that Betty places a condom over the wooden phallus- safety first always kids!
Soon after Robert loses his job, due to constant lateness and the smell from the dirty overalls in his locker. When he tells Betty she insults and emasculates him. She leaves him and takes their friend with her. Robert has now been “cucked by a corpse”, he has become the losing party in a love triangle where one member is dead. The male main characters in JB’s films are usually pathetic “beta males” like this. They are insipid losers, even when they are murderers who demonstrate the ability to kill.
Robert kills their cat and takes a bath with its guts (be warned- there is also real animal violence in the form of a butcher flaying a rabbit). Eventually, Robert’s misadventures end with him committing suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach. In this climactic moment Robert spews blood as his (admittedly fake looking) penis sprays jism and then blood.
Some people filmed this scene and I watched it and now you have to read about it.
The film ends with an unknown figure in high heels disturbing Robert’s grave. The cycle of necrophilia continues and this will lead into the second film.
It cannot be overstated how absolutely slimy this film looks. Shot on super8, the film is a unique souvenir of that era of Berlin. The film has a unique energy. Buttgereit was inspired by the backing visuals he was seeing used by industrial groups like SPK and Throbbing Gristle, as well as underground cinema. Stylistically the film exists in a space somewhere between a homemade splatter film, and the no-wave cinema of transgression pioneered by the likes of Lydia Lunch , Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. This punk rock spirit means the film still feels vital, and its still shocking. Some of the special effects are genuinely stunning, made even more shocking by the clear handmade nature of the picture.
All of which is to say that I really like this gross little film!
The film was deliberately made to bait the German censors but managed to cause little furore in its meagre home country release. The movie screened at some cinemas and was released independently on video, avoiding certification. Nekromantik 2 however would cause the filmmakers no end of issues with German authorities. More on that later…
After a legendary screening at the famously decrepit Scala cinema, the film acquired a reputation in the UK. Since the film did not have a snowball’s chance in hell of being passed by UK censors, who had just been through the “video nasties” debacle, no one bothered to attempt an official VHS release in the UK and Ireland. The film instead became a subject of frenzied tape trading, with poor quality second and third (and so on…) generation copies circulating. Rumours began to spread that Buttgereit used real corpses – probably due to the fact no one could see the thing properly! Of course In 2014 the UK censors passed the film uncut and you can now purchase the once forbidden object in sumptuous blu rays through Tower Records or HMV. It’s funny how things turn out!
“It’s the return…of the loving dead”– tagline from the trailer for Nekromantik 2
Nekromantik 2 is a much more professional production, JB and co no longer shooting on super 8.
The film follows immediately on from the events of Nekromantik, showing us a flashback of Robert’s suicide. We are then introduced to Monika (Monika M) who is revealed to be the woman who takes Rob’s body. The film essentially follows Monika’s double life. She is having a relationship with Mark (Manchester born music legend Mark Reeder, in one of his few leading roles) – a timid English-born man who dubs porn films – but she is also drawn towards necrophilia. Much like Rob in the first film, she struggles to relate to living people. The film is mostly about intercharacter relationships (and a hilarious parody of My Dinner with Andre) but of course there is a sensational finale.
Nekromantik 2 is my least favourite of Jörg’s films. As my partner pointed out, the first film presents the necrophiliac scenes as romance, whereas the second film presents them as horror scenes. It loses something. There is also an interminably long scene of Monika and her weird friends watching a real autopsy on a seal that just ruined the vibe for me. However the very last moment is sensational.
In June of 1991 the film was seized by German authorities for “glorifying violence”, a dubious banning since there was no trial or hearing. Jörg’s producer’s home was raided and they hid the negatives. There followed a lengthy court battle, after which the film was deemed art.
I mean that says it all, surely? Jörg Buttgereit is an artist. Loathe as I am to fully endorse auteur theory -being that film is an intensely collaborative medium – I do think there is a clear voice to his work. His films are his own and he only made what he wanted to. Furthermore, there’s a filmmaking craft to his work far beyond shock value, waiting for those with strong stomachs and curious intellects to discover.