“In six days, God created Heaven and Earth. On day seven, he killed himself.”
The nature of life and when it is snuffed out by one's own hands is, like anything else that is barnacled to the human condition, a loaded one. It takes an especially brave and honest filmmaker to do it right. This topic is tackled in the most deliriously curious of ways in Jorg Buttgereit's incredible film, 1990's DER TODESKING. Made after 1987's NEKROMANTIK and a year before the latter's sequel, DER TODESKING is a fascinating entry on Buttgereit's tempura-red and each-title-is-its-own-unique creature filmography.
DER TODESKING, or as it was originally going to be titled, 7 SUICIDES, is tied into one of the absolute biggest strengths of Buttgereit as a director. Everything he has worked on is like the fingerprints of one man. All are undeniably belonging to the same hand but each one is singularly unique and different. DER TODESKING is 100% Buttgereit and yet it will be a surprise for anyone who has only seen titles like NEKROMANTIK or its equally brilliant sister-sequel, NEKROMANTIK 2.
DER TODESKING's opening is on the somber side of delirium, with well executed editing that sets up a rhythm of non-safety, a score that is simultaneously epic, big and human and intense and a crossing of imagery. We see a supine male form, nude, lying in the darkness and a young girl drawing in pastoral golden daylight. The duality of death and life. The former's soul-ascended form is waiting patiently for nature to do what it does and the latter is sketching the film's title and deceptively cute crowned-skeleton figurehead.
Before the film properly begins, we are greeted with a quote from famed French poet/murderer and the inspiration for Doestevsky's Raskolnikov, Pierre Francois Lacenaire. “What kills me, will remain my secret.”
DER TODESKING is broken into segments that are structured like days of the week. Like any proper work week, we begin with Monday, where we meet a man who is writing letters in his tiny studio apartment. Judging by the fish ephemera, the gentleman, whom we found out later is named Horst (Hermann Kopp), is either a marine biologist or a really big fan of sea life. Either way, he quits his job and sinks further into his spartan life, with the end result being him overdosing on pills in the bathtub. Like his beloved fish (including a living pet goldfish who looks less and less well as his owner begins to give up the ghost), Horst is submerged in water. The whole fish/water symbolism is fascinating because water surrounds us before we are born (albeit via an amniotic sac) but also when one thinks of the fish as a symbol of transubstantiation that has been used for thousands of years. Pre-Christian Pagans used the fish as a symbol for life and the womb. Later on it would be used as symbol of Christ and affixed to many an obnoxious automobile. (The less thought of the latter, the better.) In short, if we are talking the life-death cycle, the fish is one ferociously appropriate symbol to utilize.
Cut to the supine man, whose own form is starting to rapidly disintegrate. Throughout the week, we will see his body break apart more and more, with planes of flesh and muscle moving apart Pangaea-like and organs being broken down by an army of insects and maggots. The fast-motion, time lapse photography is grotesquely beautiful, not unlike a charnel-house version of KOYAANISQATI.
Tuesday, a long haired fellow gets one of Horst's letters and opens it up at one of the most impressive video stores ever, aptly named “Videodrom.” Woody Allen opuses are side by side with copies of AUTOPSY and GODZILLA. Amazing. The man ends up picking up a (fictional) Naziploitation film entitled, VERA'S DEATH ANGEL OF THE SS. Settling down with a case of beer and a trashy film, he begins watching scenes of your requisite icy blonde Nazi femme fatale and her striking looking male accomplice (played by NEKROMANTIK 2 co-star, Mark Reeder), who grins as she begins her ministrations of torture on a chained man. His face covered with a black bag, she pulls his penis out and severs it with a giant pair of shears. (Little trivia, the poor emasculated figure is none other than our fearless director, Jorg Buttgereit.) Suddenly, a woman comes into the apartment, yelling at him for being late for Uschi's birthday party. Things get dark quickly as it is murder-suicide time as the heavy metal music swells.
Cut to the same image being showm on a TV in a dimly lit apartment. Great circular camerawork reveals a cat resting on a messy bed and a part of feminine legs dangling lifeless mid-air. More and more, it feels like Der Todesking is a presence visiting those who are lost and cannot and will not be found. (For something slightly similar tonally, also see The Resident's take on The Gingerbread Man.)
Wednesday. In the most striking and disturbing segment of the entire film, a beautiful woman walks in the rain, sad and tossing a letter into a puddle of water. (Note that the envelope paper attached matches the one used by Horst back on Monday.) She goes to sit on a bench, where a young man, umbrella-less and soaked to the skin also sits, looking every inch of a man who is at the end of the line. The man (expertly played by Michael Krause), starts talking to the girl, who remains sad eyed and distant. He begins talking about his wife and despite how much they love each other, they are having some serious issues. Namely, that she bleeds profusely everytime they try to make love, no matter how gentle he tries to be. She goes to a doctor, who can't find anything medically wrong with her. Frustration and sadness simmer in the worst of ways, as he states, “I couldn't stand her kindness any more.” The double twist for both the gentleman and the young lady in the rain is handled with a great mix of a slice-to-the-brain jarringness and sad poetry. Only Buttgereit could pull off such a disturbing and yet emotional-to-the-bone scene.
There's a long segment of a “suicide bridge,” where in lieu of seeing what you are expecting (IE. Teary eyed and/or disaffected looking characters leaping to their physical doom), you just get shots of under the bridge both from the ground up and a continually moving shot from near the undercarriage of the bridge. (Which if you have any solid of fear of heights, you have been forewarned.) A series of names are dutifully listed. Students, artists, workers, farmers, all ranging from age 11 to 83 and all unified by their methods of escaping this mortal coil. The depth of it all is effective without clubhammering your psyche or talking down to you.
Thursday is more decomposition in harmonia with Friday centering on an attractive, single older woman (Eva-Maria Kurz) placing a single calla lily in a vase. She peers out her window and spots an attractive blonde man in the building across from hers. Her smile soon clears as he is joined by his girlfriend and they begin a make-out session, soon tucking themselves back into their space. The woman frowns and opens up a letter, that matches the identical brown paper envelope that was used by Horst. What she unravels is a death-centric chain letter, that contains lines like “We lose our life with joy” and basically demands the receiver to take their own life, ending the note with “Let's die.”
She ignores it, eats some chocolate and then takes a nap where she has a flashback of walking in on a couple, presumably her parents, having oblivious sex. Waking up, she looks outside and is greeted with nothing, including any signs of the young lovers. There are reasons for this that our spinster never quite discovers.
Saturday involves a film crew reviewing footage of a one-woman shooting spree with a camera strapped to her chest to capture the sudden and shocking carnage. Then Sunday, the day of rest, is a peek into the mental anguish of one young man's internal/external episode of what I have always called “the interior worm.” (Code for the mental-emotional pain and illness of depression and anxiety.)
DER TODESKING is, like so much of Buttgereit's work, a creation of the unexpected. Unlike other directors whose manufacturing of twists, shocks and gasps are practically tangible, with Buttgereit every move feels wholly organic. One thing he should be touted more for is being a smart director. The use of the Lacenaire quote in the beginning is big proof of this. When it comes to suicide, the living can speculate eternally on why a loved one or a personal hero would kill themselves, but the only person that will ever truly know the truth is the one who is gone. Which is one of the most maddening and painful aspects for anyone who has lost someone they cared about to suicide. It's the world's worst guessing game that one can never truly win at and really, would you really want to?
In addition to being artistically whole, it is one of his best edited films, equally matching the powerful soundtrack, thanks to the team of Hermann Kopp (who played Horst), Daktari Lorenz (who was also the lead in NEKROMANTIK) and John Boy Walton, who also scored NEKROMANTIK 1 and 2. Some of the best soundtrack work from the 1980's is courtesy of this team, enhancing the already strong visuals, strange tones and fearlessness of the work.
Like the bulk of Buttgereit's work, DER TODESKING languished in out-of-print land for years, but thankfully has, much like both NEKROMANTIK films, received a proper and beautiful release on blu-ray via Cult Epics. The thing I love so much about a company like Cult Epics handling an artist like Buttgereit is that his work is given the proper treatment it deserves. It is strange to me that he is not more regarded as an auteur, because he really and truly is. Perhaps the combination of lacking pretension and being an underground filmmaker made him a figure whose work was never going to be regarded with any sort of respect or seriousness by the art house circles. What Cult Epics is doing with their releases is presenting these films with the hard work and love that one gives to works that merit it and Jorg's films deserve all of that. Speaking of the man, he appears in a recently shot intro for the film, where he stresses that DER TODESKING is a film “...about suicide, not one that endorses it.” There are also some choice extras including a stills gallery, a making of featurette and the documentary, CORPSE FUCKING ART, which shows some great insight and behind the scenes footage of both NEKROMANTIK and DER TODESKING. (Side note; CORPSE FUCKING ART used to be available as its own entity via VHS back in the 90's, as anyone who used to read Film Threat Video can tell you.)
Anything creative that challenges you in a way that is pure, smart and honest with the beautiful/garish/absurd nature of our own existence is something worthy of your time and attention. Jorg Buttgereit's DER TODESKING is all this and more.
Copyright 2015 Heather Drain
Bonus: For you Buttgereit fans out there, please check out this fantastic article by Graham Rae involving the director, Xerox Ferox author John Walter Spuznar and Rae himself road tripping to visit Ed Gein's grave.