Author Shelley Harris has been a teacher, a local reporter, a stuffer of envelopes, a shop assistant and a bouncer at a teen disco. As part of her research for her latest novel Vigilante (Weidenfeld and Nicoloson), in which an ordinary woman, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, dresses up as superhero and sets about righting wrongs, Shelley took to the streets of High Wycombe in a mask and a cape. As she says on her blog: ‘we want to be mighty and we want to be magnificent. We want to be heroes.’ Eithne Farry
Whip-smart, snappily-dressed, and with an infallible bullshit detector, Hildy Johnson is my cinematic alter ego, a fantasy version of myself: a woman cleverer, quicker and funnier than I could ever hope to be.
In Howard Hawks’s mile-a-minute screwball comedy His Girl Friday, ace reporter Hildy (played by the luminous Rosalind Russell) fences with her former editor – and ex-husband – Walter (Cary Grant) as he tries to persuade her back into the newspaper game. She has other ideas: marriage to stodgy dullard Bruce, and a domestic idyll in Albany (‘I’m going to have babies and take care of them,’ she tells Walter). But Walter knows this new life will be unbearable – to both of them. Charming and unscrupulous, he doesn’t give a fig about her homemaking skills. ‘Quitting would kill you,’ he says. ‘You’re a newspaper man.’
Much of the action is set in a reporters’ room overlooking the gallows where convicted murderer Earl Williams is due to be executed the next day. There’s sin and punishment here, right alongside the sparkling dialogue; Williams is a pawn for the power mongers in City Hall, who will sacrifice him to their own ambition if Hildy and Walter don’t stop them.
Part of the joy of this movie is its light and shade: a man’s life at stake as wit crackles between Hildy and Walter. ‘There’s been a lamp burning in the window for you, honey,’ he tells her. ‘I jumped out that window a long time ago,’ she counters.
Of course, Walter’s right; everyone can see it except Hildy herself and the hapless Bruce. She’s a reporter to her bones, her brilliance and inventiveness eventually toppling the city’s government. (‘You’ve done something big, Hildy… they’ll be naming streets after you!’) And since, after all, this is a romance, who does she end up with? As we always knew he would, Bruce returns to Albany with only his mother for company, and Hildy goes back to the man who finds it impossible to see her as a cook, or a housewife, or a mother. She goes back to Walter – who tells her she’s the best newspaper man he’s ever worked with.
Writers: Fabrice du Welz, Romain Protat, Vincent Tavier
Cast: Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Héléna Noguerra
Belgium, France 2014
Fabrice du Welz made his directorial debut with the stunningly uncompromising Calvaire in 2004. With Alleluia, he returns to the location and the star of his first feature film, as well as its emotional intensity, this time revisiting the story of the Lonely Hearts Killers, which was also the subject of Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), Andrew Lane’s Lonely Hearts (1991) and Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson (1996). Gloria (Lola Dueñas) meets Michel (Laurent Lucas) through a dating site. Michel is a small-time conman who preys on lonely women, but Gloria is different from his previous marks. Madly in love with Michel, Gloria passes herself off as his sister so that she never has to leave him, but soon her uncontrollable jealousy takes them down a murderous path. Exploring the extremes love can lead to, du Welz’s take on the story is carnal and visceral, set against the background of a bleak, desolate Belgian landscape.
Virginie Sélavy met Fabrice du Welz at Film4 FrightFest in August where the director talked about mad love, his abhorrence of realism, and Bogart and the hippopotamus.
Virginie Sélavy: Alleluia is the second film in your Ardennes trilogy.
Fabrice du Welz: Yes, the idea is to do a trilogy about the theme of ‘mad love’ around Laurent Lucas in the Belgian Ardennes. Calvaire was the first one, now there’s Alleluia, and there’ll be a third part.
Why did you choose the Ardennes as a location?
I spent part of my youth in the Ardennes, it’s a place that is very singular and has always terrified me. I spent a little while in a boarding school there and I was quite troubled by the hostile nature, the perplexing people and the baffling weather. With Calvaire, the idea was to make a film that would play with horror film conventions, but located in Europe, which produced this slightly surprising melange of genres. I didn’t want to make a would-be American horror film. It was the same thing with Alleluia. I play with some thriller and film noir conventions of American cinema, but at the same time I’m very attached to my Francophone culture. And the third film will do a similar thing.
Why is the trilogy based around Laurent Lucas?
Because I think that he’s an under-used actor. He has an incredible range, a terrible ambiguity, he can be very beautiful and very ugly, he can be troubling, unfathomable, difficult to capture. There’s a mystery in Laurent that really fascinates me.
What do you think the effect is of placing an American story in a French context?
The original story of the Honeymoon Killers took place in the United States, even if Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin, but I don’t want to justify the context. The French have this terrible disease, which is, justifying violence through social context. Since the nouvelle vague, French cinema has consecrated realism above all. But before the nouvelle vague there were great filmmakers like Cocteau and Franju, who made films that were on the frontier of dreams, or at least that developed a fantastical universe – not horror, fantastical. The inventor of fantastical cinema was Méliès, he was French. In American cinema, in Japanese cinema, in Almodóvar’s films, you can talk about violence without justifying everything through the mother, the alcoholic father, etc. I’m exaggerating but it is something that is deeply troubling. The CNC [National Centre of Cinematography and the Moving Image, the public body responsible for the production and the promotion of French films] is dominated by this. With the CNC you always have to justify violence through the context. Some people do this divinely well – Jacques Audiard – others not so well. I absolutely don’t want to be part of this, I want to make a kind of cinema that is transgressive and poetic. And that’s what I’m looking for in the context too. Context is as important as actors to me. I look for a fascinating context that I can play with as I would with an actor, and through that try to achieve – modestly; I’m not saying I succeed – some kind of macabre poetry.
Were you inspired more by the real-life story or by the films that have been made about it?
I was inspired by Yolande Moreau. I met her at a festival and I’ve been fascinated by her for a long time. She’s a very impressive actress. I said, ‘I’d like to make a film with you in which you’d play a total bitch’. She said, ‘yes, great, go ahead’. That same week I re-watched Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson, the story of the Honeymoon Killers adapted in Ripstein’s country, Mexico. And I thought that was the perfect role for Yolande, she’d make a hell of a Martha Beck. I started working on the script, but it was very violent and very sexual, and Yolande said she couldn’t do it. So I was hired to make Colt 45, which was hell, it was the worst experience of my life. After that, I returned to Alleluia because the film had funding, and it was really vital to me on a personal level. It was almost an existential thing because the experience of Colt 45 had been so harrowing. But I had no actress. I was ready to abandon the film if I couldn’t find an actress. The producers asked me to pick a reasonably well-known French actress, but French cinema is so bourgeois these days that it’s difficult with French actors. I’d seen Lola [Dueñas] in Yo, también and I thought it could work. When I met her she said, ‘I’m the one you’re looking for, you can stop looking, I’ll do it 100%.’ But then I had to sell Lola to my producers and that was hard. They were saying, the script is difficult, and now you’ve picked a Spanish actress that no one knows. I fought for it and now everyone’s very happy.
It’s also an interesting choice because it plays with the fact that Raymond Fernandez was of Spanish origin. And it adds something to her character, she’s an outsider in a foreign society.
I saw that after. It was the life and death urges that deeply fascinated me in the story, the attraction between them, like magnets, and the character arcs. At first, Michel is presented as the predator and Gloria as the victim, you’re scared for her. And in the end it’s completely the opposite, she’s become an ogress and he’s a scared little boy. The whole journey, with the fetishism of one and the jealousy of the other, was a very joyous and fun thing to build.
Watch the trailer:
Gloria is a great character, both monstrous and very human, but in the end you get the impression that she’s very simply a force of nature, beyond any moral codes.
Yes, that’s right. My films have always been a little at odds with the audience, I’ve often been criticised for my lack of empathy with the characters. Vinyan was particularly badly received for that reason. And it was my fault because I really wanted to keep the characters at a distance, at least in the first part. So with Alleluia I was wondering how to make it resonate with the viewers. And I thought it had to be through mad love, because that’s something in which we can all recognize ourselves, even if Michel and Gloria are serial killers, lunatics with no morals, children who never think of good and evil. After the first murder, you understand that they’ve really found each other. They are polymorphous perverts. They have freed themselves from moral rules. And at the same time they reflect something of ourselves, in particular the dichotomy between that unquenchable thirst for this ideal passionate love, which we all want, and the basic urge for the destruction, the annihilation, the crushing of the other. The couple can be the nest of fascism, there is always one who will enslave the other.
Michel tells Gloria about his past, which may or may not be true, but we never get any explanation as to what happened to Gloria with her husband. Why did you treat the characters differently in that respect?
Because Gloria was also a response to Gloria in Calvaire. In Calvaire, Gloria is a character who doesn’t exist, or rather that you never see but that people talk about all the time. Calvaire is the story of a lonely, desperate innkeeper and a travelling singer, played by Laurent, who arrives at the inn. The innkeeper tells him that he’s lost his wife, she was called Gloria and she was a singer. And he transfers his affection onto Laurent, turns him into his wife and starts calling him Gloria. This is something that will be in the whole trilogy. The films can be seen separately but there will be a Gloria in the third part too. I like creating connections between the characters. And I thought that in Alleluia Gloria didn’t need a story.
Was the witchcraft element in the real-life story or did you add it?
It was in the real-life story but it was never used in Kastle’s film, or Ripstein’s, or the one by Lane. Raymond Fernandez practised black magic, it was a way for him to condition his libido. He was convinced that it helped his sexuality, he thought it made him an amazing lover. I found that very funny.
Why did you choose to film in 16mm?
It seemed to me the most appropriate format for the story. There’s an old-school aspect to it with the smoke, the grain, it had what I was looking for, something olfactory, sensual, because digital is very cold and clinical. It’s like porn today, it’s horrible, it’s surgical. The porn I used to watch as a teenager was sensual, curvy, warm, grainy. And film allows that. I was looking for a sensual experience. I love cinema and I regret that it’s so sanitised today. So, very modestly, I wanted to go back to something where you have smells, bodies, skin, breaths.
That love of cinema appears in the reference to Humphrey Bogart in African Queen. Why that film specifically?
I’m a big fan of Humphrey Bogart and I’ve always thought it was insane to see this big star imitate a hippopotamus in African Queen, especially as he was ill. The story of the film’s making is mythical. John Huston, a great man of a type that doesn’t exist anymore, didn’t give a damn about the film, all he wanted was to go hunting with the Maasai. And I was looking for something that would be funny but would also function as a sort of symbol for their love. The hippopotamus scene, replayed by Laurent at the cinema, makes Gloria laugh the first time, it’s the most sumptuous moment, the peak of their love. Then there’s the scene in the bedroom where he does it and eventually she laughs. And then there’s the moment when she doesn’t laugh anymore. I was looking for something that would indicate the state of their love throughout the film, and to use Bogart imitating a hippopotamus as a referent really amused me.
And you end with a dreamlike scene in a cinema.
It seemed coherent to me in the sense that cinema is the place where they fantasized about their love. Many people live their lives vicariously through film and I think that there is a dichotomy between aspirations that are typically feminine and masculine – without making stupid generalisations. Some women tend to idealise things while men often accept reality more readily. There’s something like that going on with Michel and Gloria. I chose to end the story in a cinema because cinema is heaven – or hell, I don’t know.
Why call the film Alleluia?
I really liked this title, it sounds like a prayer. People have said to me that it’s a very cynical title. But there is no cynicism involved. It really is a prayer, a prayer to love, to God, and then the story goes another way. We all want love so desperately in our lives, but are we capable of it? What are we capable of? As Celine says, ‘it’s within the reach of poodles’, and yet… That’s what accompanied me throughout the film and I pass no judgement on anything. So the title, this sort of call to something, I see no cynicism in it.
‘You’ve made it through Halloween, now try and survive Christmas,’ croaks the voice-over at the end of the trailer for 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, the controversial slasher movie. The film itself is pretty ordinary, but the ad campaign had parent groups across America up in arms, fearful their children would be exposed to a homicidal Santa Claus. On the Siskel and Ebert show, Siskel said: ‘Showing Santa with an axe, on free TV, is sick, sleazy and mean-spirited’ before going on to name and shame Tristar Pictures, Columbia Pictures, CBS and HBO for making it.
The music made for the film comprises two very different offerings: 1) Perry Botkin’s synth dominated score; 2) Morgan Ames’s 80s AOR. Botkin has worked as an arranger with Harry Nilsson, Bobby Darin and Carly Simon; and on TV shows such as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. His work with The Carpenters on the title track of the film Bless the Beasts and Children got him an Academy Award Nomination in 1971. The Silent Night, Deadly Night chaotic jumble of baroque electronic sounds is a whole other world in comparison to his previous output. Its power lies in the jarring and elaborate tonal changes. This is encapsulated in the opening ‘Main Title’, which discordantly attacks from the moment there is sound, but soon descends into an icy, serene electric piano track. In contrast, the rumbling and distorted ‘Never Stop for Strangers’ strips itself down to absolute minimalism by the time it ends. Whatever the tone or shade, it’s always chilling and troubling.
Californian Morgan Ames has written, performed, and/or collaborated with Quincy Jones, Roberta Flack and Al Jarreau. Her 10 tracks take in a gamut of 80s AOR tropes. ‘Slayrider’ is the obvious fist-pumping anthem. However, ‘The Warm Side of the Door’ is a particularly addictive power ballad sounding like Johnny Mathis’s ‘When A Child Is Born’ meets Michael Macdonald. You’ll swear blind ‘Christmas Flu’ is a lost Bob Seger holiday song. Equally moreish is the cod-calypso rock sound of ‘Christmas Party’. The a capella of ‘Santa’s Watching’ is straight out of the songbook of Ames’s jazz vocal group, Inner Voices (coincidentally known for their annual Christmas shows in LA).
Double vinyl is limited to 400 and is strictly a one-off pressing for Christmas 2014. Liner notes are by Botkin, Co-executive Producer Scott Schneid and the writer Michael Hickey. It also features a selection of original reviews, including many of those calling for the film to be banned.
Cast: Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice Manowski, Harald Lundt
Just in time for Christmas, Arrow Video are releasing Jörg Buttgereit’s legendary underground sex-and-death shocker Nekromantik on Blu-ray and DVD for the first time in the UK. Banned in a number of countries, the film was never officially banned in Britain, having never been submitted to the BBFC, although any imported copies would have been seized by British customs. Shot with friends on Super8 in the greatest underground tradition, the story of necrophiles Rob and Betty, and the corpse that comes between them, became notorious and sought after for its outrageously grisly imagery. This release, 27 years after its creation, finally makes widely available a film that has much more to offer than shock for shock’s sake.
Virginie Sélavy talks to Jörg Buttgereit about the naivety of serial killers, disappointing people’s expectations and the academic theory that saved him from jail.
Virginie Sélavy: What’s your reaction to the fact that Nekromantik is getting an official Blu-ray release in the UK?
Jörg Buttgereit: The idea of releasing it on Blu-ray is something we had in mind for quite a while. It took ages because we did our old master from the Super8 film stock, which is not negative but positive film stock, because Super8 is made for daddy’s home films from the 70s, so you don’t have a negative. It was a lot of annoying work and I felt, what’s the use, because I prefer the movie to look very dirty (laughs). But when you transfer Super8 film stock to HD material there is not more depth, and there is no 3D effect, you get more dirt and more grain, so I’m happy (laughs).
That Super8 look is very important to the film.
I think so too. When I saw the dailies – as we say (laughs) – of Nekromantic, which was not the dailies, because when you shot on Super8, it took two weeks for the films to come back… so after two weeks, I saw the footage and I felt that it looked too normal and not dirty enough, so I was a little bit worried. So when we made film prints for the cinema in 16mm (this was a blow-up), we made sure we did it on a certain kind of film stock so the movie had this kind of greenish look, which looked dirtier, and the black looked more right in my opinion. But one curious thing happened. When we put out the film on VHS in Germany there were a lot of bootlegs in the US. I read reviews in magazines – because the internet was not there, this was 27 years ago – that said, ‘the movie looks so strange and it’s very dark’, and the viewer had the impression that they were watching real corpses. And I thought, well, it always works for the movie if you don’t see the real picture. I remember when I got my first Texas Chainsaw 2 VHS from the Netherlands, I couldn’t see anything. It was just darkness and noises, and I thought, what’s happening in that movie? I was totally fascinated. It’s the opposite of a movie experience today.
What did you think when you saw it properly?
It looked a little like a TV movie to me! It’s so bright! The first Texas Chain Saw is also very bright but it’s shot on 16mm so it still looks dirty. There was a hazing, they sprayed dust in the air, and it’s something that I did excessively when I did my episode for German Angst, my new movie that’s going to be finished at the end of the year. That film was shot on HD in CinemaScope so I wanted to make sure that it looked like a film and it looked dirty, so we did a lot of hazing. I was really afraid of seeing everything in HD.
The contrast that comes from using a home movie format and the subject matter is great. But using Super8 also makes Nekromantik look like an underground film, like those of the Kuchar brothers. It seems much closer to those films than to a straight horror film.
That was our thing, it is an underground film. The inspiration came from seeing Throbbing Gristle live in Berlin during that time, and watching John Waters’s movies, like Pink Flamingos, and having the book Film as a Subversive Art. And me being a big fan of old horror movies like Bride of Frankenstein. So it doesn’t work as a horror movie, there’s no tension, it’s terrible in that way – it’s terrible in a lot of ways… (laughs)
And as in underground film, you use non-actors who have a very unique presence. Daktari Lorenz has that weird wired energy, and it’s almost as if he’s not acting but just being himself.
Yes, I wasn’t trying to make them act. I was aware of the fact that they couldn’t deliver any lines and I couldn’t deliver good writing. I started doing good scripts when I started doing plays for German radio, but the first was in 2000. Until that time I wasn’t really sure if I could write good dialogue. Now I’m doing comic books, like Captain Berlin.That’s dialogue stuff I grew up with, very 70s, it’s something I can deliver very fast. So dialogue is something that I’m more able to deliver now. But these people who were acting in the film were just my friends, so how could they act? The film was never planned to be seen outside of my circuit. It was done mainly for this punk-rock-spirit audience inside Berlin. We were in this walled city so I didn’t even dare to take the movie and drive out of the city with it because there was the wall and they would have searched you, so it would have been impossible to screen outside of Berlin. With my short films I did stuff like this. But with Nekromantik I didn’t dare until the wall came down, which was two years later.
Did you not have more ambition for the film than just screening it within your circle?
Ambition maybe, but I was aware of the fact that it was impossible to reach this kind of audience. How could I, there was no internet. I’d only made short films before, that was Hot Love, which is also one on the Blu-ray. With Hot Love I did a tour through Germany. That was the only thing that was a little bigger than anything else I’d done before. I went to 10 different cities, in the West of course.
How do you see Nekromantik now? When you introduced the FrightFest screening in August, you seemed surprised that people were interested.
I’m amazed that it gets so much… not attention, because I understand why it gets attention. The poster we did back in 87 is an attention-grabber, but the movie doesn’t deliver on the poster. It does something else, and that’s nice, but I would never dare to hope that it really works. When I see the film I have to laugh. I see some stupid little kids trying to do a horror movie, or trying not to laugh in front of the camera. There’s a new de-noised soundtrack on the Blu-ray and in the first shot, where you see the legs and the panties coming down and then a girl is pissing, if you listen you can hear me laughing behind the camera. That’s how I approached the movie.
I think it is part of the appeal of the film, this anarchic charm, the gleeful pleasure at showing the most disgusting things possible.
I think maybe where we were ahead of ourselves was in the fact that the movie pretends that everything you see is normal. There is no justification, there is no chain-smoking police guy divorced from his wife who is uninteresting, but is there to put law and order into place. The fact that the corpse-loving scene is depicted in a way every normal love scene would have been, with piano music, with slow motion, all the clichés, I think that’s the trick, and that’s what gets people worried. Today Betty is like some emo goth chick, but back in 87 there was no such thing. There was no Tim Burton, no Johnny Depp. I was having fights with people about the fact that the main actress is in the bathtub with sunglasses on. That was actually like making fun of goth chicks before goth chicks were invented (laughs).
The way the music undermines all the romantic clichés is brilliant. You use the music similarly in Hot Love and Nekromantik 2, and running through those three films there is the same disillusioned view of love.
That’s what I was struggling with. If you see the introduction for Hot Love, it’s a revenge against my girlfriend who had left me. And the film is called Nekromantik, you can see it’s a combination of two extremes. Other horror films have the same topic, love and death, but nobody was going straight for the meaning of the word. To me, it’s about a very naïve part of you. I like innocence. And if a necrophile is having sex with a corpse and his girlfriend, then it should be presented from his point of view, that’s the interesting thing. I had some trouble explaining all these things. Two years ago I did a stage production on Edward Gein, the grave robber, so I had to sell it to the authorities by saying that this case is a cultural thing, it’s the basis for Psycho, Texas Chain Saw, Silence of the Lambs. But what fascinates me in this case, and this also became an inspiration for Nekromantik, is the naivety and the childish appearance of this guy called Ed Gein. One and a half years ago I went to his grave and I made a short film there. It’s not on the Arrow disc but it’s on the German Blu-ray. It’s called A Moment of Silence at the Grave of Ed Gein. So you can see that I deal with these people in this sort of sensitive way. I don’t think you can learn anything from them if you just deal with them as monsters. And that’s the same as Nekromantik. You have to care about them, otherwise the movie will be boring. And if you don’t give them a Jodie Foster character in Silence of the Lambs, or someone who can deliver them from evil, then you have to make these so-called bad people sympathetic.
You do that very well in both Nekromantik films and also in Schramm, which is an astonishing serial killer portrait.
I’m trying to do the same thing on stage now in Germany. I found a topic that’s very much fitting because last year I did a German version of The Elephant Man, and that’s exactly the same thing. You have this deformed man and everybody thinks he’s gruesome, but he isn’t. It was very revealing to do that on a stage and to have a different audience. Because The Elephant Man is something that people would go to even if they don’t know who I am, so I have a lot of normal people in the theatre. And they were surprised that the production was so sensitive, that’s what the critics said. Of course they have this picture of me, they see the movie, they don’t see the person. They were saying, ‘we’re so surprised that your stage version of The Elephant Man is so sensitive’. That’s an insult when you think about it, but I was still happy!
A lot has been made of the necrophilia, but the rabbit scene remains the most disturbing scene in the film.
Because you know it’s real. For me it was important to have real death in the film, being inspired by underground movies that deal with this kind of thing. I was always annoyed by people explaining why they watch horror movies – ‘because we like special effects’. And I didn’t want to have that excuse for my movie. The scene is there to make people aware of what they’re watching, and to make people sensitive about why they’re watching it. Because when you watch footage like this, sooner or later you will begin to ask yourself, why am I watching this? That was something I was asking myself. I didn’t have all the answers but it’s a movie, I just made it with my friends. I had this guy who was a producer and was giving me all these facilities, but I did everything on my own, I experimented, I had nothing to worry about in terms of budget because nobody was paid anyway. So we were trying stuff out, which is the opposite of the experience of making films nowadays – or in general.
You said you made the film in reaction to German censorship at the time. What reaction did you expect?
With the first Nekromantik nothing really happened because nobody noticed that the film was there. In Berlin we had two film prints and it was screened at three cinemas. One cinema shared one print by driving around all the time. Only people who already knew me and who were from this underground scene watched the film, so nothing happened. People were a little worried that the film was too serious – that was the first reaction. The first review I read was in a gay magazine, saying that this was the first movie about AIDS, because people are going to bed with the dead now, and that wasn’t something I was thinking about. So I was totally surprised by people taking the film seriously and thinking that it was about AIDS.
Did you agree with that interpretation?
I didn’t have that in mind when I did the script, which wasn’t really a script, it was about 20 pages of scribbling. But of course AIDS was a big thing during that time. I knew people who were suffering from AIDS so it was in my head. If something is in the zeitgeist then it will show up in the things you do, I think. So I agreed with it but I was also surprised by it. And it goes on until today. I read reviews explaining my films and I wonder… (laughs)
What’s the weirdest explanation of Nekromantik that you have come across?
I think the strangest, and on the other hand the most convenient, interpretation was done by this film historian when we were in court with Nekromantik 2. The first Nekromantik was shot in the West side of Berlin before the wall came down, and after it came down we shot Nekromantik 2 in the East part. So the thesis is that Nekromantik 2 is art compared to Nekromantik because it’s a film about the decaying East German part of Berlin (laughs). That explanation saved me from going to jail and having the movie destroyed, so I really embraced it. And of course it was a conscious decision to shoot in East Berlin because everything looked so dead and so old over there, like the 60s, or 50s even. All the outside shots look strange, it was like a movie shot in the past. So that was the weirdest explanation, but it’s also true because it documents a version of Berlin that is not there anymore. But the main reason was of course that we could shoot in East Berlin with no money. I wanted to do all these petting zoo scenes, so we went to the West Berlin zoo because they have much nicer animals and they told us it was 350 Deutschmarks an hour. We went to the East German zoo and they told us it was 50 pence a day, because they weren’t used to professional camera teams. You could take your home camera there and film for the whole day for 50 pence. There was no capitalist concept in East Berlin, they didn’t ask for money. So we paid nothing for shooting outside, it was heaven. It took a while for East Berlin to get a hold of the rhythm of the West, but all the West Berlin people were going to the East and doing stuff there, so it was like tourism what we did (laughs).
At the FrightFest screening you also mentioned another interpretation that was given of the film, which was that it’s about the unearthing of Germany’s past. Do you see it that way?
I know that depicting death in German movies is a problem because of the German past. And if you watch my earlier short film, Bloody Excess in the Leader’s Bunker, which is not as good as the title, together with Nekromantik, you could come to that conclusion. But to me it’s more about Ed Gein than about concentration camps.
But there are references in Der Todesking and Schramm too, so do you think it runs through the background of everything you do?
Nazi trash was something that was part of the punk rock spirit – Sid Vicious was running around in Paris with a swastika. Something like this would have got you in jail in Berlin at once. So doing a film like Bloody Excesses in the Leader’s Bunker… I did a premiere of that film in 1982 in a punk rock club, Risiko, with Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten at the bar and the police came to check if it was a neo-Nazi meet-up. So over there it was daring to use these symbols because even now it is forbidden to use these images.
Is that why the German authorities have such a problem with horror?
Yes I think so. Under the Nazis you had this clean screen thing, there was no dead body during the Nazi occupation, no dead body on the screen. It was just Heimat films, stupid propaganda movies, something like what you would get in North Korea today. And for some reason until today something that is connoted as horror is only possible in the underground, and you need a very good excuse to deal with this kind of matter. So for me it’s only possible to work in this field if I do it for the radio or on the stage. I did a play on Ed Gein for the stage, it would have been impossible to do it for the screen. Because there would have been no money. But for the stage I had lots of money to do it.
Is that why you stopped making films for the cinema after Schramm?
We did four feature films with no money, so as it was like what Throbbing Gristle did once with all their fans, they sent them a postcard, ‘the mission is terminated’ (laughs). I had everything, the movies were banned, the police raided my home, I was labelled an artist in court, and Schramm was nominated for a German film prize. It was the right moment to stop because it wasn’t subversive anymore. And everybody was running out of money. Because getting our money back like today with Blu-ray editions was not possible.
You said in an interview that you like to disappoint people’s expectations. Is that how you would define your general attitude?
It’s a natural reaction I have. When the first Nekromantik came out it had this strange success, people were demanding Nekromantik 2, and of course it should have been even more gross. To me that just felt so predictable and stupid that we came up with Der Todesking, which everybody was disappointed with in the first place. Later on, we gave them Nekromantik 2, which was also very disappointing because it’s even more romantic than the first one. It’s a natural reaction because I don’t like to be told what to do, in terms of what I’m allowed to do from the censorship boards, but also from the audience (laughs). It’s a childish reaction maybe. Nekromantik 2 is full of jokes about what people expect, this art movie on the ceiling in black and white, it’s all stuff people who were waiting for Nekromantik 2 hated. And only after the film was banned did they try to rethink, and they liked it then. You can never trust the critics or the fans. If you give them what they expect they will tell you that you don’t have any new ideas. If you don’t give them what they expect they have another reason to be disappointed (laughs). But in the long run it’s always more interesting to play around with a concept.
It’s interesting that it seems to define your relationship with both the censors and the fans.
Because to me the so-called artistic freedom is very important. And this freedom can’t be harmed by a fan wanting to have ‘Nekromantik 10’ and also by a guy who says, this tape should be burned. In the end it’s the same for me.
Arrow Video’s limited 3-disc digipak including Blu-ray, DVD and CD soundtrack comes with a bounty of extra features, notably Buttgereit’s short films Hot Love (1985) and Horror Heaven (1984), new documentary Morbid Fascination: The Nekromantik Legacy, a new interview with Buttgereit, as well as a 100-page book featuring articles by David Kerekes, Kier-La Janisse and Linnie Blake.
In Take the Money and Run (1969), Woody Allen’s small-time thief Virgil Starkwell is asked by his psychiatrist if he thinks sex is dirty. ‘Yes, if you’re doing it right,’ he replies.
Sex has never been dirtier. With the internet taking porn into the mainstream, such delicacies as facials and cream pies have become, if not exactly household words, certainly much more broadly recognised than when filthy magazines were top shelf or delivered to your home in discrete brown paper bags. Seen as the most degrading act of humiliation by anti-porn campaigners such as Gail Dines, bukkake scenes – in which multiple men ejaculate on a woman – have spread. The Japanese word means spillage and the history of the scene itself is a spillage, an unintended consequence of Japanese censorship which pixelates genitalia but not jizz. The spillage has continued into gay porn and some even argue that even in heterosexual porn, the focus on male genitalia is such that it becomes, well, gay. On one thing porn consumers and anti-porn campaigners can agree: it is one of the dirtiest niches in Pornland.
Custard pie fights are dirty as well. You don’t see them as much anymore. There was a time at the beginning of cinema, in fact, where it seemed difficult to walk past an open window or through a restaurant without getting hit in the kisser by a flan. You could be sitting in a dentist’s chair or talking on the phone. No one was safe. It was an essential part of slapstick comedy, coming from vaudeville routines by the likes of Weber and Fields. Fatty Arbuckle hits Nick Cogley in the kisser in Mack Sennett’s A Noise from the Deep in 1913. They became a patented part of the Keystone comedy armoury. Laurel and Hardy threw hundreds of pies in the Battle of the Century (1927).
Watch the pie fight in Battle of the Century:
Later the custard pie fight would be revived. It featured in the 60s films that harked back nostalgically to the beginning of cinema such as the Tony Curtis movies The Great Race (1965) and Beach Party (1963). Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone (1976) was the last great cinematic custard splurge. The nostalgia was all too obvious in a children’s movie that hailed back to the old-style gangster movies of James Cagney and George Raft. Even as a kid I felt queasy about it. It was basically an adult film with the violence and sex replaced with gunk (though Scott Baio and Jodie Foster have a precocious chemistry).
On British television the joy of getting messy continued with Tiswas and the Phantom Flan Flinger who would attack teachers and parents. The sliming of celebrities during the Kid’s Choice Awards on Nickelodeon continues the Lord of Misrule carnival. Kids have their revenge on parents, idols to whom they are usually beholden and adults generally. These anarchic principles have been channelled into the kidulthood world with the more recent political flannings of such luminaries as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates.
The messiness of the custard pie fight has morphed in mainstream cinema into gross-out comedy, and the clean-to-messy trajectory can be traced in the worlds of porn and horror. Let’s be clear here: I’m suggesting they are analogous rather than identical. We begin fully clothed, intact, civilized, social identities secure, hierarchies in place, in a word, ‘clean’. Then progressively the people on screen, the combatants in the pie shop, the teenagers at the slasher-infested summer camp, the guests at the orgy, become dishevelled. Anarchy ensues, hierarchies are dissolved or reversed, confused, inhibitions lost and in another word everybody gets ‘dirty’.
Custard pie fights, splatter and porn movies have a sense of inevitability written into them. What is under the clothes, or under the skin, or under the surface of social order, is lurking there right from the beginning. Rugby matches are like this too. Watch the players in their bright clean shirts and slicked coiffures transform into muddy, bloody Mugwumps.
And this isn’t purely sadism, or ritual humiliation, although there is undoubtedly some of that. Watching others degraded and getting the same kicks as the kids get seeing their elders being deluged in slime is certainly part of it. But there is a liberating joy in getting messy as well, eating with our hands so to speak, throwing stuff about. Food Fight. Torture porn allows us to voyeuristically engage in other people’s suffering, but we also imagine what it would be like to be the victim. How liberating it would be to be tortured, to endure that kind of total and extreme physical experience. Look at how celebrities jump at the chance to perform the Ice Bucket Challenge – even though they’ve donated money, which means they can forgo the dousing. Likewise, top Hollywood stars like Will Smith and Harrison Ford seem to take an indecent joy in being slimed in front of children.
As a kid, I hated custard pie fights in films. Like many children, I was essentially conservative. I fundamentally distrusted custard pie fights. Something else was at play. They frightened me. I found Bugsy Malone almost unwatchable and despised Tiswas. At the same time, I could watch Nightmare on Elm Street, or Evil Dead with relative ease. Perhaps this was because what was hidden and revealed by custard pie fights seemed sneaky. It was the aggression and sex mixed up in all those flying desserts that set my adolescent nerves a-jangling. This wasn’t just a bit of fun. Porn, or the splatter and slasher films told you straight out what they were. Nowadays, I’ve gone full circle, and when I watch horror films, or accidentally glance at porn (obviously I would never purposefully besmirch myself with filth), I detect the custard pie fight that is hidden in them somewhere down there. At least, if you’re doing it right.
The Created Woman is a three-day festival presented by Mayhem Film Festival and Film Hub Central East, with support from the BFI as part of their nation-wide programme Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder. The festival promises to deliver a new perspective on the genre by exploring the theme of the ‘created woman’, with highlights including screenings of 60s Hammer horror Frankenstein Created Woman, 80s SF B-movie Cherry 2000 and satirical classic The Stepford Wives, as well as discussions on topics such as ‘robot women and created wives’.
Eithne Farry spoke to Mayhem co-directors Chris Cooke and Steven Sheil and London Film Festival Programme Advisor Sarah Lutton, who co-curated the season.
Eithne Farry: Tell me a little about Mayhem.
Chris Cooke: Mayhem started as a short film programme dedicated to horror, but it quickly expanded into an annual four-day festival covering horror, science fiction and cult cinema held in October, bringing great guests and audiences together. We’ve welcomed Nic Roeg, Gareth Edwards and many more through our doors, and the audiences have grown in size and enthusiasm. But Mayhem also screens films throughout the year and our interest in sci-fi has grown too.
Steven Sheil: Over the years we’ve altered and expanded our programming, partly to reflect our own interests and tastes as curators, but also in response to our audience and what they tell us that they’re interested in. Over the past few years we’ve brought more science fiction into the mix, and the BFI’s Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder programme seemed like a good opportunity to do something centred around the genre. We always want to be looking at new opportunities to reach out and expand our audience, while still keeping a solid genre grounding to what we do.
What got you thinking about ‘the created woman’ in sci-fi?
CC: It’s a strong, visible theme in the genre and one that isn’t always given focus and attention. Women can be central to the narrative, but the idea of creating life seems to have led a number of writers and filmmakers to contemplate the notion of ‘creating’ women, from robots to brides for Frankenstein’s monster, and asking what that means for society, culture and sex.
SS: There was an interesting season I saw advertised last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music which was called ‘Vengeance Is Hers’, themed around female-centred revenge movies. It looked great – I really liked its themed, cross-genre approach. I guess that was an inspiration. And as Chris says, the idea of the created woman is a recurring one in fiction – and especially in science fiction – from the Pygmalion myth right up to things like Her and the great British sci-fi film from last year, The Machine. I think it’s interesting from many aspects, not least from a gender perspective. The story of the artificial human is often one which culminates in a fight over agency – whether the creation can be his/her own person – and the fact that this often takes place within a male/female dynamic offers a lot of scope for analysis.
Sarah Lutton: As a woman and a fan of sci-fi I was always intrigued, if not a little bemused, by the common perception that the genre was seen as very ‘male’. In some ways I can understand it, since it’s easy to see that many of the most active roles in sci-fi films are taken by male characters. However, for me, science-fiction film in particular has always offered really interesting alternate realities in which to explore gender relations and dynamics. I responded to the wealth of interesting female characters, both active and more passive, that I saw on screen. I felt that there were some very revealing messages being communicated about creativity and society in general.
Was there a particular film that was the starting point?
CC: Two sprung instantly to mind for me. The Bride of Frankenstein is Gothic science fiction at its wildest, James Whale really enjoys himself here. But the film that immediately made me want to progress with it was 1987’s Cherry 2000, from Steve De Jarnatt, who made the incredible cult film Miracle Mile (1988). Cherry 2000 is another forgotten gem from him. The ideas are really clear in this: a society where people have to draw up contracts before men and women can even go on dates has led to a division between genders, and yuppies, like our central character, have robot sex-dolls. But when those break down, real people (real women) are going to have to come to their aid to find the spare parts in a desolate wasteland (the result: a future American civil war). Metaphors are everywhere, but the film is bold and direct. And Melanie Griffith has a great time as a tough and resourceful ‘tracker’ tasked with finding the elusive Cherry 2000 for her yuppie client (all very 80s). The film was written by Michael Almereyda, who directed the great alt-vampire film Nadja in 1994, which was shot on pixel-vision cameras (continuing a love affair with technology and narrative).
SS: With Metropolis and Bride of Frankenstein, you have two really iconic images of created women, so those two really helped to spark off the ideas for the season. I was also interested in getting something like Hammer’s Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde into the mix – it’s such a weird film with lots of strange undercurrents.
SL: The film Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep have always been iconic for me in terms of thinking generally about artificial life and created female life specifically. I found the ideas about creating life forms for such varying reasons both intriguing and hugely provocative (especially the creation of the niece/Rachael model). We’ll be screening Blade Runner as a kind of coda to the ‘Created Woman’ season on 14 December at Broadway Cinema.
How do you think that the idea of the created woman has changed over time?
CC: The theme of creating women to replace real women has become real – there are sex dolls that talk, and real fembots on the way, disturbingly. Maybe that’s the real difference, that what was suggested by Metropolis has been made fact. But the ideas are there, from Spike Jonze’s Her to S1mOne, the advance of technology suggests new spins on older themes and ideas.
SS: I’m not sure how much has changed really – that’s why it’ll be good to see the films up against one another, to look at whether things have really developed. I think it’d be interesting to see more films that look at created women from a female perspective. We have Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Teknolust, featuring Tilda Swinton as a scientist cloning herself, but otherwise it’s mostly stories of men creating women, which is just a by-product of there being fewer female filmmakers working in the genre, I think.
SL: I think that maybe we as audiences have changed a lot. I’m really hoping that by offering the opportunity to see these films in a more comparative context we can watch them with fresh eyes and make new connections. I think that in the wake of films like Her audiences are approaching ideas about gender and artificial intelligence/life in a rather different way.
Is there a subversive slant to this idea of the created woman?
CC: The main idea, for me, is to get audiences talking and exploring the themes themselves, as well as discovering some new titles they’d perhaps missed, or getting to see some wonderful classics on the big screen. But the perverse pleasure of James Whale casting Elsa Lanchester to play both the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, and the bride that Frankenstein creates for his man-made monster throws up all kinds of readings… And robots from Maria in Metropolis onwards have often been constructed feminine, only to turn on their societies in revolutionary acts. The films we’ve selected are fun, entertaining, exciting and provocative. Hopefully the audiences will have a lot to talk about as well as enjoy.
SS: I don’t know about subversive. With all of these stories there are strong subtexts about the nature of creation and about idealized versions of women, as well as what women’s role should be from a male perspective – which is quite chilling and damning in something like The Stepford Wives. So I guess that opens up a lot of debate about how society sees women and their role, but that’s an ever-present question. I guess we’re presenting the films in this context as a way of opening up a discussion about the theme, and I think it’ll be interesting to see the responses we get.
SL: Yes, I’m not sure about it being subversive but I’m hoping that the ideas are provocative in some way!
Interview by Eithne Farry
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews