Nekromantik: Interview with Jörg Buttgereit
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.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy