Directed by Jörg Buttgereit
German with English subtitles
Germany, 1989; 1992

U.S. theatrical premiere: July 1995

A Boy, A Girl, A Rotting Corpse:

Jörg Buttgereit's Nekromanticism is Horror's New Aesthetic

"For each man who regards it with awe, the corpse is the image of his own destiny. It bears witness to a violence which destroys not one man alone but all men in the end."

-- Georges Bataille

There was a time when it seemed movies couldn't get any weirder than David Cronenberg. When so much blood and mayhem had been served up to us on cinema screens (courtesy Brian DePalma, Clive Barker, or even the hundred-million dollar antics of Jim Cameron) that these days, we thought, nothing's shocking. When murder had been elevated to such a glossy spectacle (thanks to Sharon Stone and a dozen other alluring psycho killers) that murder hardly seemed to matter anymore.

Leave it to a low-budget young punk moviemaker from Europe with a vision of the dark taboo to show us what we've been missing.

Try these for graphic impact: A man's morbid sexual deviance is so pronounced that his ultimate orgasm, his erect penis squirting blood and semen, comes finally when he sticks a knife into his gut, killing himself. A woman jams a length of pipe into the rotting crotch of a corpse so that she can get off humping the remains. Our hero takes sensual delight in eviscerating his dead cat -- the one he wrapped in a garbage bag and slammed repeatedly against the walls and furniture of his apartment -- and rubbing the glistening innards against his face.

Perverse, twisted, misogynist? These are some of the images that fuel the Nekromantik movies, the output of one Jörg Buttgereit. His filmmaking is the visual equivalent of the prose of a few of horror's most visceral authors -- the relentless John Shirley, say, the satirical Douglas F. Winter, or the seductive Poppy Z. Brite. Buttgereit sets out to find out not necessarily what scares you, but what makes you really uncomfortable, what concepts and ideas stir some gag reflex deep inside you. Having coaxed it out of you, he rams it back down your throat.

Buttgereit's concept is crude, but his execution is remarkable, sometimes stunning in its low-budget convolutions. Nekromantik is, simply put, a story of a boy, a girl, and a rotting corpse. Buttgereit would have you believe it's a tragic love story, and maybe it is. The cult of horror buffs who follow his work would have you believe it's art, and again, they may be right.

Audiences of this movie generally start it with a happy-go-lucky attitude, laughing through the first few scenes. That laughter is tempered somewhat when the grisly stuff starts, and becomes indicative of a defensive posture instead of a good time. While there are gorehounds out there who hoot all the way through this, folks with a more serious interest in horror films are usually more than a little disturbed by the whole thing. Many game viewers simply can't finish watching it. And the staff at the video store all looked at me really funny when I rented the tape, as though I had just wandered into a seedy cafe in lower Transylvania and whispered "Nosferatu."

There's nothing at all supernatural in Buttgereit's world, and relatively little violence. The movie doesn't linger on murder, but instead deals with characters who cavort with the already dead. It's no coincidence that the film opens with a close shot of a woman squatting, panties down, and pissing in the dirt. That's the in-your-face vulgarity Buttgereit lives for.

The protagonist (played by Buttgereit's comrade-in-arms and crack special effects technician, Daktari Lorenz) works on a highway crew that cleans up the gore from traffic accident sites. He collects organs from the victims and keeps them in jars in the apartment he and his lover share. The complete rotting corpse he finally brings home jump-starts the couple's sex life in some scenes of sticky gooey carnality that are the first real test of a viewer's patience with the film. When he loses his job, his girlfriend becomes fed up with his lack of motivation and leaves him. The kicker -- she takes the corpse with her, evidently preferring its company to his. The boyfriend's life is destroyed as he realizes, in a scene where he strangles and screws a prostitute in a cemetery -- in that order -- that he can no longer get it up unless the object of his affections is cold and growing stiff.

So, we might ask, what's going on here, anyway?

In one scene, we watch a movie-within-a-movie. It's obviously a slasher film, but one with an emphasis on the slasher's knife as phallic substitute. He uses it to cut his (female) victim's clothing off -- in loving close-up -- and later has her hold it in her teeth as he ties her up. It's possible that Buttgereit put this digression in as a self defense, showing the misogynist tradition of horror films and thereby acquitting himself through his awareness of that mechanism. It's true that, once you get used to the spectacle of watching actors fondle wet corpses in bed, the slasher movie is the most unsavory portion of Nekromantik, perhaps because that's the kind of sexual violence we've grown used to -- and dismayed at -- seeing in the movies.

At any rate, Buttgereit's approach to this material is far more thoughtful than one might expect, and he takes his films seriously. Nekromantik is at once a sick sex joke and a definitive defense of the darkest dreams of horror filmmakers as cathartic therapy for artist and audience. The hero's penis spurts blood and semen at Nekromantik's climax, in an outrageously artificial scene that cements the connection between bloodletting and arousal for the character, the director, and the audience.

Nekromantik 2 quite wisely abandons the gross-out and pursues a kind of low-key humor. The idea of corpse-fucking has lost its novelty (if you can imagine that), so Buttgereit pursues the peculiar sexual problem of his female protagonist, using the slimy corpse as both a prop for sight gags and as a symbol for the alienation of a woman with a peculiar sexual proclivity.

The hero is a women (played by one Monika M.) who digs up the fresh grave of Nekromantik's deceased protagonist and hauls the corpse home. Rather than just humping the damn thing, she's interested in spending a little more quality time with it. She props it up next to her on the sofa and takes Polaroids of the two of them together. But sex is unsatisfactory, so she carves out the corpse's genitals and stores them in the fridge while she courts a real live boyfriend (who dubs porno films for a living). Again we see a movie within the movie, this one a black & white parody of "art" films -- again Buttgereit seems to be making a point about what his movie may be expected to be, in sharp contrast to what it really is. "The classic European art film is worthless to my generation," he may be saying. "This means nothing anymore."

Buttgereit later said that he tried to make Nekromantik 2 a film that would appeal to women, and he feels that he succeeded. Indeed, Buttgereit is very kind to his women. They are consistently portrayed as more independent than his men (if a little on the weird side), and the most violent scenes in both movies are the deaths of men rather than women.

More on Jörg Buttgereit's Perverse Fantasy
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