Armond White, the American critic, once wrote a very fine thing. In his online essay on Sam Fuller's White Dog, he stated that: "No movie is ahead of its time, just ahead of cultural gatekeepers."
Jörg Buttgereit's 1988 film, Nekromantik, was recently passed uncut and certified with an '18' certificate by the British Board of Film Classification. The film, notorious even among horror fans, has been given a HD transfer by Arrow Video and is set to be released on Blu-ray and DVD in the near future. The film screened at Film4 FrightFest in the retrospective part of the programme and the house was packed. The director was present for an introduction and post-screening Q&A.
Before I saw the movie at FrightFest, on Sunday 24th August, I had wondered if watching it was a bridge too far. When it comes to cinema, I don't have any taste whatsoever. I reject any notion of good or bad taste in art and entertainment. So, it's never going to offend me on that front. But sometimes, a film can be so controversial, that expectations go through the roof. I was somewhat afraid of the film's title, too, and the lurid box cover art I'd seen online that looked lowest-common-denominator manky. I was apprehensive, for sure...
In terms of content, I didn't quite know what to expect. I knew it was about two necrophiles living in an apartment getting jiggy with the body of the recently deceased. However, I'd never read a review or seen a clip. I was going in cold...
I wish I could tell you that I ran screaming from the room. I wish I could tell you it is the sickest film I've ever seen. But you know what? I find Hollywood's movies infinitely sicker. I'm not talking content-wise, because Nekromantik is revolting in a way Hollywood could never achieve, but at least there's a point to Nekromantik's gruesome tale and there is a satirical edge to the material. Hollywood's straight-faced normalisation of hardcore violence and treatment of the fairer sex is way more frightening, in my opinion. Yes, the movie is as transgressive as they come, but it was directed by somebody who knew exactly what they were doing and with something to say.
Nekromantik was shot, according to the director during his brief introduction at FrightFest, with a Super-8 camera over many weekends with his friends. Even with the HD job rendering the images less murky – lords know what it must have looked like on VHS in the 1990s – it still looks like a student film made for peanuts. One of the scenes at the beginning used what looks like reams of videotape as human intestines.
Nekromantik opens like a photo shoot for a wank mag guest-edited by JG Ballard. A middle-aged couple driving at night crash their car and both are killed. The choice of shots – they are almost documentary-like – linger and focus on twisted metal and messed up corpses. They have been transformed by death into art objects. Almost immediately, you sense the surrealist touches. Actually, it was all rather surprising. Far from a soulless video nasty, Buttgereit made an art film. There is a poetry to it, not only in its imagery, but in the use of sound collages. The design and mixing very much reminded me as inspired by Alan Splet's work for David Lynch. The sound and image, at times, felt strangely disconnected, furthering the notion that the film is one big joke/experiment. Buttgereit himself has reduced his movie to the status of a joke. But gags can be as profound as 'serious' messages in the movies, right?
Okay, to the infamous sex scene. It just isn’t at all shocking. For example, the use of lap dissolves and the deliberately cheesy romantic theme music furthered the idea, for me, that behind the camera, and later, in the editing suite, Buttgereit was laughing his head off. The woman puts a condom onto a piece of phallic-shaped metal. She attaches the schlong to the corpse's putrid body and straddles the thing. Cue: sex montage as the man and woman get it on with their new lover.
There is a big difference between fucking and making love, right? The scene is absolutely hilarious because it's depicted as love-making (at least to the living participants). The couple are in the throes of a profound passion that is not, perversely, pornographic. But, of course it is, because they're screwing a dead body! The irrational frisson evident in the scene - between their experience and the camera's eye - is quite amazing. It might be the funniest thing ever shot for a film.
There was only part of the film that made me want to puke: the moment Rob (Bernd Daktari Lorenz) smears cat guts over his body and face. Rob, the film’s troubled protagonist, has killed a cat he brought home for his girlfriend, Betty (Beatrice Manowski). Only, she has left him and taken the corpse with her. At a loss because he's been dumped, and slowly going mad, he kills the cat and proceeds to rub the viscera all over his body, while taking a bath ... in bloody water. Uh-huh. That's the scene that made me want to run to the bathroom and vomit.
To the title. I think Buttgereit could be summing up society's fondness for and overindulgence of nostalgia. It's entirely a 'nekromantik' world we live in. I mean, just look at the ratings Downton Abbey receives, right? Going with the idea of a doomed generation, such as the one famously detailed in Siegried Kracauer's book From Caligari to Hitler, was Buttgereit making a movie, too, about Germany's past and its conflict with the then present? Even having these basic notions about the meaning of the film, even if they're ultimately incorrect regarding the director's vision and message, it shows that Nekromantik at least stokes debate and thought.
Like Buñuel and Dalí's Un chien andalou, Buttgereit's film is one of the strangest romantic comedies ever made. What surprised me most of all was how the themes and arty style transcended the extremely low budget. It looks awful, the acting is rubbish, the sense of humour is warped and I never want to sit through it ever again. But I am glad I saw it.