For a few years – somewhere between 1987 and 1991 – Jörg Buttgereit and his movies were a central part of my life. I’d run the first reviews of his work outside Germany, when David Kerekes wrote about the short Hot Love in the second issue of my fanzine Sheer Filth. Hot Love was Buttgereit’s first statement of intent, something of a dry-run for what was to come after a handful of more disposable home movie efforts like Horror Heaven. There’s no fat on this one, as it tells the old boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy rapes girl/boy kills himself/girl gives birth to mutant baby story, with the birth scene possibly outdoing anything in his more famous later works in terms of outrageous grossness. Following this, I ran the first interview with the director, as he plugged his debut feature film, a little something called Nekromantik. I’d later hang out with him at film festivals and parties, go with him to see The Cramps playing in Manchester (where he was mobbed by fans who had seen his film at the Black Sunday festival a few days earlier) and even co-founded what would become Headpress in order to release the Nekromantik follow up Der Todesking on video in the UK.
I saw Nekromantik several times in those years, even though my own copy had been seized by customs on the way into the UK (a not uncommon occurrence for the film). The unwanted attention of the authorities wasn’t just in the UK – in Germany too, Buttgereit’s films were something of a clandestine pleasure, though it was Nekromantik 2 that finally brought the director and his team into conflict with the powers that be, when a film print was confiscated in Munich during a 1991 screening. Even today, the film is still problematic for some – a few years ago, eBay pulled my listing of the German film poster for Der Todesking because the site had a blanket ban on anything Nekromantik related, even as the BBFC were passing the film uncut.
It’s a film that had a life far beyond what you might expect for what is, essentially, a feature-length home movie. The poster – an artistic masterpiece that still stands among the best ever – became something of an iconic piece – when Slash from Guns ‘n’ Roses was seen wearing the Nekromantik T-shirt, you knew that the film had gone far beyond its limitations. There was the soundtrack EP, the legally-dubious VHS releases (in the British mail order porn tradition, you would send your money to Germany, mysteriously receive your tape from London) and the ‘eccentric’ – yes, that’s as good a description as any – comic book. Nekromantik played UK festivals like the afore-mentioned Black Sunday and Shock Around the Clock, Buttgereit having to run the gauntlet of UK customs to import a print each time. It was, for a while, the most wanted and desired movie out there, the height – or depth, depending on your point of view – of extreme horror cinema in the post-Video Nasty underground.
I watched the film several times in the early 1990s, but as time went on, I’d always had the nagging suspicion that this 8mm movie wouldn’t hold up to re-viewing – that, like too many other films I’d loved as a youth, the curtain would be pulled away and the wizard would be exposed. Some films seemed best left to the memories of the past.
But watching Nekromantik again – in a high definition transfer that finally allows to you see exactly what is going on in scenes that were previously murky and indistinct – has thankfully proved to be a joyous reunion with an old friend rather than an awkward meeting with someone who you no longer have anything in common with. While Nekromantik’s technical flaws (of which, to be fair, there are few given the limited production values) are now all too visible in the cold light of day, the film remains an audacious, satirical, outrageous and entirely unique cinematic experience. Often imitated but never equalled – not least by a bunch of ham-fisted German video monkeys who thought that all a film needed was to be as offensive as possible, thus spectacularly missing the point with atrocious detritus like Violent Shit.
Nekromantik is the story of repressed Berliner Rob (Daktari Lorenz), who has what might seem an unlikely relationship with the sexy Betty (Beatrice M., effortlessly channelling what would become early Nineties cool) if it wasn’t for their mutual interest in body parts and necrophilia. Luckily, Rob is an employee of Joe’s Streetcleaning Agency, a rather ramshackle post-mortem clean up crew who turn up at the scenes of accidents and take away what is left of the victims. Rob gets to pocket the odd eyeball, heart and other body parts along the way, but when a decaying corpse is fished out of a pond, he gets lucky – put in charge of disposing of the body, he wraps it in black bin bags and takes it home to his excited girlfriend, leading to one of cinema’s most notorious and unsettling love scenes. Shot with romantic music, slow motion and overlapping visuals, this could almost be a regular lovemaking scene if it wasn’t for the fact that there is a rotting corpse in the middle, having its eyeballs sucked out and with a wooden broom handle standing in for an erect cock (rigour mortis only goes so far, after all). It’s one of the film’s testing moments. If you’ve made it past the real-life rabbit slaughter and this scene, you are probably going to be able to handle anything the film throws at you – though the film never stops trying, to be fair.
The arrival of Rotti doesn’t do much to salvage Rob and Betty’s crumbling relationship though – threesomes rarely batch up fractured love affairs, after all. When he loses his job, she leaves – taking their new plaything with her. Rob responds to this by killing the cat he’d brought home as a gift (a simulated scene, you’ll be relieved to hear, though still an ugly one) and bathing in its guts – but his life seems increasingly empty, as he wanders to a sleaze pit showing a cheesy slasher movie, picks up (and kills) a prostitute and ponders his own existence, finally realising that his love of death has only one natural conclusion. This leads to arguably the most audaciously outrageous scene in film history, which I won’t spoil – though frankly, even if you know nothing else about Nekromantik, you may well be aware of this astonishing *cough* climax. It’s a moment that John Waters at his peak would’ve been proud of, a scene that defies you to not be aghast and one that uses crude special effects to somehow make everything seem even more delirious and offensive.
You could argue that Nekromantik adds up to more than the sum of its parts. More accurately, it’s a film that is essentially a series of set pieces tied together with a fair amount of padding, but those set pieces combine to create an extraordinary atmosphere of moral decay and an enclosed world that is not entirely dissimilar in its rancid claustrophobia to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Of course, the story is rather slight. Huge chunks of the film seem to be there just to push the running time up to (a still short) feature-length, and maybe this would be an even more potently repulsive experience if the extraneous moments were removed. On the other hand, maybe it would be impossible to watch without at least some moments of light relief to offer the audience breathing room.
Lorenz is suitably twitchy and rather unlikeable as Rob – it’s questionable just how much the film expects us to sympathise with him, of course, and while he gets his own version of a happy ending, we’re well aware that he is no loss to society once he starts killing. Beatrice M. projects a Nineties hipster cool and effortless sexiness – her nude scenes with the corpse probably led to rather conflicting emotions amongst many an adolescent goth back in the day. Both performances are rather better than you’d expect in what is essentially an amateur film.
But it’s the production values of Nekromantik that impress most. The new print that you’ll find on the blu-ray finally allows us to see just how well shot the film is. Okay, it’s never going to look pristine, being made on 8mm – but importantly, it’s shot like a real film, and so it feels like one, rather than a glorified home movie. Full credit to Buttgereit and DoP Uwe Bohrer for ensuring that this always feels cinematic. It’s helped of course by the impressive soundtrack (originally released as a seven-inch picture disc) – rarely has a film and its score seemed so entwined. And the special effects, from the corpse to the decapitation, hold up rather better than they should, given the minimal amount spent on them. Like Nekromantik as a whole, in fact.