Tuesday, December 30, 2014

I Love the Dead: Jorg Buttgereit's NEKROMANTIK

It takes a hardy artistic soul to explore cultural taboos with a flat-out bare-knuckles, wild Turk type of approach. But it takes an even hardier (and often, beautifully mad!) artistic soul to incorporate comedy with said culturally taboo exploration. Ladies and gents, let me pull back the curtain and introduce you to Jorg Buttgereit's 1988 underground classic, NEKROMANTIK. It's not the first film to delve into the topic of romancing the dead, since an earlier example of that would be the Lyle Waggoner wonder LOVE ME DEADLY from 1973, but it is truly unlike anything made past, present and future. Necrophilia or not.

Looking like a cross between a scratchy handwritten note and bathroom graffiti, the film opens with, “Warning! Some of this film may be seen as 'grossly' offensive & should not be shown to minors!!!” That kind of lurid hullabaloo can only mean that you are either in for a fun smear-on-your-soul kind of dark ride or a just bad carnival ride. Mercifully, it is the former. After that, the actual opening begins with a woman peeing by the side of the road at night. As she is relieving herself, her flowery panties splayed, her male companion starts yelling at her from the driver's side to hurry up. Getting back in the car, they almost get hit by one car and then as he starts to bitch more about her small bladder, it's time to cue up the Bloodrock since they get in a nasty and very fatal car wreck.

The beginning credits roll over the highly gruesome crash site, including the woman being not so neatly bisected and her partner's eye dangling from his newly empty socket. Soon the J.S.A. (Joe's Streetcleaning Agency) show up to tidy up the accident scene. The newest member of the crew, Robert (Daktari Lorenz), despite constantly irritating his team's leader, quietly enjoys his job. To the extent of bringing home little mementos---this time around being the driver's now completely severed eyeball. In a beautifully composed sequence, we get to see Robert, in his Ed Gein-meets-junkie-esque pit apartment, meticulously prepare a jar of (presumably) embalming fluid for him to place his newest acquisition in. There's a great shot of some of his previous souvenirs, including a hand, some organ meat and what looks like a fetus. (Hey, it beats the hell out of Precious Moments figurines.)

He's greeted by his girlfriend, Bettie (Beatrice M.) who shares Robert's enthusiasm for the dead and their assorted bits. Later on, she takes a bath in some especially ruddy looking water while the sounds of an academic discussion involving fear, desensitization and even, briefly, the video nasties, plays in the background. The sound is emanating from Robert's television. As fear and the confrontation of it continues on, it triggers a particular troubling flashback for him, inter-cutting footage of a live rabbit being killed and promptly skinned with Robert performing an autopsy of sorts on a corpse and removing some lard-type gunk out of the incision. Adding to the no fun ambiance is the quite brilliant white noise soundtrack. The whole sequence is hard to watch but so well put together that it puts you through a seesaw effect of compelling and wanting to look away from your screen.

An interstitial sequence involving apple picking and the dangers of doing so near a drunken German redneck who is listening to military-style music and trying to kill innocent birds plays out. (Here's a hint. It doesn't end too well for our intrepid apple picker.) The J.S.A. are called on an unrelated case, this time involving removing a long decomposed body out of a pond. (One of Robert's teammates remarks, “Picked a good day to go swimming!”) Everyone goes home and Robert's boss tells him to take over the wheel, leaving him alone with the husked out, waterlogged corpse. Faster than you can throw on Alice Cooper's “Cold Ethyl,” Robert brings the body home, to a very delighted Bettie. It has been said that necessity is the mother of all invention and as Robert saws off part of a pipe, the truth of this old saying has never been brighter. Attaching the metal form of a luscious apparatus to their new “friend,” Bettie makes sure to sheath it with a condom before one of the strangest menage-a-trois' ever to be committed to film occurs. It is, despite all of its tawdry eyeball licking and rot-goo glory, strangely arty and as tasteful as a three-way with a drowned corpse is going to be. Also, I absolutely dare you not to get what I am going to call “Love Theme from Nekromantik” out of your head. It's a strangely sweet tune that is more befitting of a chaste lovers holding hands in a field than rubbing your naughty bits up on a putrefied body. 

The afterglow is nice but things soon deteriorate when Robert loses his job and Bettie, worried about where they will find the next one, ends up leaving him. Everyone has a breaking point and for Robert, Bettie's terse departure is it. His path of self-destruction leads him from drinking to killing a cat (in a mercifully faked scene) and inevitably, murder. There's also a hilarious dream sequence involving a lovely maiden in white and playing a game of hot potato with a severed head. All of this leads him to one fluid and anguished climax, which I dare not spoil here. You just really need to see this for yourself, not to mention the sweet little twist ending.

For being only 75 minutes, NEKROMANTIK packs a lot into its fairly short running time. Having first read about it back when I was in junior high and managed to find an issue of the long defunct magazine, Film Threat Video, I thought I knew what kind of ride I would be in for. The associated still, a shot of Beatrice M. cuddling up to her long dead amour, flanked by a picture of Charles Manson on the wall, backed my assumption up. But NEKROMANTIK is more than just an extreme tale of the love that is hopefully outlawed in your home country. Sure, it has plenty of inventive uses of gore, ooze, goo and outre imagery to horrify your family and delight your more hardy friends. But if NEKROMANTIK was simply just another gross-out gore film, it would not have the level of notoriety that it does today.

For starters, despite its extremely DIY origins, complete with being originally shot on Super 8mm and taking around two years to complete, the film is incredibly well made. There is some great camera work that is utilized with a keen eye on composition, especially during the sequence when Robert finds out Bettie has left him. Another visually remarkable scene is when Robert and Bettie sit down to eat dinner. As they smile and eat quietly in the bright primary red room, the film keeps cutting back to the squalid gray of where their lover is hanging on the wall. It's a truly rich juxtaposition. Equaling the cinematography is the editing, which is tight and rhythmic when it needs to be. There's some especially great editing during Robert's meltdown, where the film is cut back and forth between him murdering the stray cat and burning a picture of Bettie. Then there's the soundtrack, which is terrific and ranges from schmaltzy love tones to industrial white noise. The fact that one of the composers is credited as “John Boy Walton” makes it all the better. The acting is fun with both Daktari Lorenz (who is also credited as one of the composers) and Beatrice M. being especially good as the young, attractive and damaged necrophiliacs in love. There could not have been better casting. Also, keep an eye out for director Buttgereit as one of Robert's co-workers at the J.S.A.

Director Jorg Buttgereit with the film's love interest.

Buttgereit, who had made a number of film shorts (including HOT LOVE, whose poster you can see in the film when Robert goes to a local movie theater) before his feature film debut with NEKROMANTIK, manages to do the near-impossible and deftly include both a fabulously twisted sense of humor as well as genuine horror. Merging the worlds of comedy and horror can be tricky, which is why most films that have tried are usually terrible. (There are exceptions, but that is a different article!) Buttgereit handles it like a director twice his age and three times as experienced. (He was only in his early 20's when he started shooting NEKROMANTIK.) The fact that you have this humor juxtaposed with gruesome imagery and a subject matter that is automatically going to put a lot of viewers in an extremely uncomfortable head space is borderline Artaud-like. It is a queasy but needed combination. It's healthy. After all, art can only hurt you if you let it.

Formerly available via Film Threat Video and Barrel Entertainment, NEKROMANTIK has found a new home in the US via Cult Epics. Thanks to them, the film is now available in a definitive edition of the film and on Blu Ray to boot! This release includes both a HD transfer of the original Super 8mm negative, as well as the “Grindhouse” version that was taken from the film's sole 35mm print. The former features the film looking as crisp as Super 8mm footage shot in the mid-80's is ever going to look and the latter features the film looking especially gritty and murky. Interestingly enough, one of the disc's extras includes Buttgereit introducing this version at a film festival and noting that it was his favorite since it looked more “dirty.” Which is pretty apt. In addition to these two versions, there is also a director's commentary, a “Making Of” featurette, the aforementioned HOT LOVE short and the gem itself, the film's soundtrack. It's a beautiful release of a still very much controversial and striking film.

One of the most inspirational lessons that one can take from NEKROMANTIK (and there's a sentence I have always wanted to type out) is that it is proof that you can be a film school reject with limited resources and finances and still make something that is potent enough for people to still be shocked, repulsed and entertained by twenty plus years down the road. With the right vision, tenacity and attention to technical film details that you don't need a lot of money for, like good editing, framing and music, you can create something unforgettable too. Even better is that Buttgereit is still working on film to this day, including a segment on the upcoming anthology film GERMAN ANGST. Like any true fringe film, it's not for everyone but if it was, where would the fun be in that? Let other people watch the latest codified, bloated boring-as-beige Hollywood epic. Thanks to film distributors like Cult Epics and artists like Buttgereit, we have better alternatives.

Copyright 2014 Heather Drain