Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantiks, or the Sadean Shock of the Body

A woman’s legs and big flowery knickers as she urinates on the side of the road, soon to be followed by her mangled severed torso lying next to the crashed car in which she was travelling with her husband. A man stabbing himself in the stomach while abundantly ejaculating out of a large penis amid profuse blood splatter. Those are the first images that assault the viewer at the beginning of, respectively, Jörg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik (1987) and Nekromantik 2 (1991), the credit sequence of the latter repeating the exuberantly messy climax of the former.[i] With a heavy dose of facetious dark humour, Buttgereit confronts us from the start of both films with the shocking reality of the body through extreme representations of two of its fundamental experiences: sex and death. Further breaking taboos, he joins together what conventionally should elicit opposite reactions in what follows: images of tender lovemaking with putrefying corpses, sensuous body rubbing with cat guts, the romantic dismembering of a cadaver, the pleasurable decapitation of a lover.

It is unsurprising that such imagery provoked fierce reactions and the banning of the films in some countries, and most notoriously the prosecution of Nekromantik 2 by the German authorities. And yet, although the Nekromantik films have often been reviled as primitively made, pointless trash, or seen as nothing more than shock for shock’s sake,[ii] with few attempts made at serious analysis, their deliberate outrageousness constitutes an entirely coherent, and exceptionally potent, form of radical artistic rebellion, and one that has an illustrious ancestor. Through the startlingly hideous images of both Nekromantik films, Buttgereit wields the body like a weapon against oppressive systems of thought. By associating sex and death, he overturns traditional notions of attraction and revulsion and asserts the primacy of individual desire over social conventions, thus challenging dominant moral codes. This very specific manner of revolt against authority through extreme physicality, inversion of values and vigorously idiosyncratic libido places him within the sparsely populated sphere of Sadean filmmakers. Like the Marquis de Sade, albeit with much more explicit humour, Buttgereit attacks the repressive ideology that underscores the laws, rules, values and standards of his time through the scandal of the body, in the obscenity of both its erotic and deathly disorder. This Sadean aspect of the Nekromantik films shows that far from being coarse, haphazardly put-together shockers, they create a consistent, intelligently subversive world; it helps understand their full impact and import, as well as Buttgereit’s position in his time.

The all-out grossness of Nekromantik was a reaction to German censorship and the attitude of the authorities to horror film in the 1980s. In a country keen to forget the horrors of its Nazi past, the depiction of extreme violence on film was heavily controlled and restricted, and horror cinema viewed with suspicion. A slimy flicking of the finger to the law, Nekromantik goes out of its way to be as rank, grimy and putrid as it can be with gleeful irreverence, throwing irrefutable death into the face of Germany’s hypocritical strategy of suppression with its glutinous, mangy, rotting corpse. But it is not just a decomposing body realistically created by special effects that is brandished against society’s disingenuousness; Buttgereit takes things further with the footage of the rabbit in the first film, and the seal in the second. These are not random, or sick, insertions, as they have often been perceived; rather they are key to the films’ deeper significance, and add a layer of complexity through the play between real and fake. Both sections are documentary footage, one of a rabbit breeder at work, the other an extract from a film about a disease affecting seals. For Buttgereit, it was essential to include something real amid all the faked death, something that could not be dismissed as special effects.[iii] The killing, skinning and gutting of the rabbit, the reduction of the seal to a bloody, wretched mess, are indeed the most harrowing scenes in both films. In the same way that de Sade opposed the concrete, indecent truth of the body to the abstract ideological constructs that sustained the political, social and religious power structures of his time, Buttgereit physically assaults Germany’s collective attempt to deny and obfuscate through the abominable realness of dead flesh.

But the German authorities are not the only target of this attack, and this creates another fascinating parallel with de Sade’s position in his time. Both de Sade and Buttgereit find themselves at odds with two seemingly opposing camps, the repressive authorities on one hand, and marginal groups who seem to share their unorthodox interests on the other hand, libertines in the former’s case, horror fans for the latter. Like de Sade, Buttgereit is as irked by the restrictions imposed by the upholders of mainstream society’s values, as he is by the confining principles of an unconventional minority with whom he is only superficially aligned. De Sade takes the libertines’ unfettered pursuit of pleasure to its extreme, but logical, conclusion, annihilating both the dominant ideology of his society and the libertines’ tepid non-conformism. Comparably, Buttgereit takes filmic death and violence so far that it dynamites both Germany’s anti-horror stance and the precepts of the horror community. By introducing real death among make-believe atrocities, Buttgereit thwarts the expectations of gore-thirsty horror fans and refuses to provide violent entertainment that can be mindlessly consumed. To those seeking visceral thrills, he gives them actual viscera. To those seeking realistic horror, he gives them real horror. By taking the demand for realism to its extreme with the documentary footage of the rabbit and the seal, he forces audiences to confront their own enjoyment of horrific imagery, as well as the terrible reality of death.

And the terrible reality of love too, as, most obviously, the revolting foulness of the body subverts traditional romantic notions: the lovemaking between Rob, Betty and the corpse in Nekromantik (including a passionate eyeball-sucking moment) is accompanied by effusive piano music that creates a comic counterpoint; the opening of Nekromantik 2, in which Monika disinters Rob’s body, is shot like an erotic scene, with close-ups of Monika’s attractive red lips, red nails and legs. Domestic happiness and syrupy new love are parodied in darkly funny vignettes: Rob and Betty having breakfast, intercut with images of the corpse hanging on their bedroom wall; Monika taking photos of herself cuddling Rob’s corpse on the sofa in Nekromantik 2; Monika and Mark loved up at the fair,[iv] punctuated by shots of Rob’s corpse in Monika’s flat, with the whimsical score again playing a key part in skewering sentimental conventions. But beyond the deviant eroticism and humorous satire, the scenes of necrophilia in both films fundamentally rattle our most dearly held convictions, revealing the atrocious, concrete reality that lies underneath the abstract, ethereal thing that we call love. The ardent lovemaking with a decomposing cadaver serves as a chilling reminder that the living beings in the picture are also just bones, flesh and blood, equally destined to rot. The putrefying carcasses expose the skeleton beneath Betty and Monika’s glowing skin, the ineluctable promise of decay inscribed in their own soft bodies as they sensually kiss and caress their viscous lovers. The hacking to pieces of the rabbit and the seal gruesomely, unbearably hammers the point home. It is not just the unholy union of dead and living flesh that makes the necrophilic images so unsettling, but the revelation of the crude, base, corruptible matter underneath what we want to think of as the loftier side of the human. Here again, the awful reality of the body blasts the glossy romantic veneer of another set of illusory constructs.

This confrontational use of the body and the concomitant association of death and desire leads to a reversal of values that is profoundly Sadean. While de Sade topples the dominant morals of his society by inverting vice and virtue, the Nekromantik films upend repulsion and attraction, challenging Germany’s conception of the normal and the abnormal. Through this reversal, what is demonstrated in both cases is the arbitrariness of men’s laws and moral codes.[v] During a cinema outing in Nekromantik, Rob is the only audience member (which Includes Buttgereit) to walk out of a violent slasher film. What is really the most aberrant, this scene implies: Rob’s necrophilic practices, frowned upon by the majority, or the consumption of sleazy, misogynistic horror for entertainment, which society deems acceptable? This is developed further in Nekromantik 2, in the contrast between Monika’s unusual sexual preferences and Mark’s job dubbing pornographic films. When Mark unexpectedly turns up at Monika’s flat while she is watching the seal autopsy with her friends and tells her that ‘it’s totally perverse to watch this for fun’, Monika replies, ‘I find it less perverse than films that always show dicks and cunts in close-up. [It’s] supposed to turn you on. But it doesn’t work with everybody’. Questioning the conventions that hold the pornographic reduction of human beings to body parts for sexual arousal as acceptable, and the attraction to death as anomalous, the film rejects the validity of the social code that demarcates the norm from the deviant.

‘It doesn’t work with everybody’. For both de Sade and Buttgereit, it is indeed frenetic, savage, obscene, singular desire that violently overthrows values and violates precepts. In de Sade’s world, a world stripped of divine laws, in which the sole remaining authority is that of nature, the only rule is the pull of one’s passions. In Buttgereit’s world, a world divested of credible moral authority by the horrors of the past and the lies of the present, the only rule is the supremacy of individual desire. In the work of both men, tremendous amounts of frenzied, frustrated energy are expended in seeking satisfaction of atypical sexual needs, pulverizing established morality in the process. In contrast to de Sade, the Nekromantik films present this in a simple, matter-of-fact manner, with a profound sense of the characters’ innocence. As they doggedly, almost naively, pursue sexual fulfilment, there is something childlike about Rob and Monika that makes them deeply sympathetic even as they engage in alarming acts.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that Nekromantik 2 is a little more radical than the original film. Nekromantik is the tale of a rejected male that ends with ecstatic self-destruction; the sequel sees a triumphant female finding fulfilment in the destruction of her lover. The first film is chaotic, episodic and grimy-looking; the second is controlled, measuredly paced and has a bright pop art aesthetic that jubilantly contrasts with its grisly content. Despite the taboo nature of their acts, Rob and Betty do not kill anyone for their necrophilic pleasure. On the other hand, Monika in Nekromantik 2 does eventually commit murder to reach her blood-soaked climax; what’s more, the film makes uses of a subjective camera in the opening and closing sequences, forcing audiences to identify more closely with her than with Rob. In the first film, Rob’s love of dead things is elliptically explained: the footage of the rabbit refers back to the killing of his pet rabbit by his father.[vi] In the sequel, there is no attempt to find a cause for Monika’s necrophilia in childhood trauma, or to justify the inclusion of the seal autopsy footage as a memory: it is simply something she and her friends enjoy watching. In this manner, Nekromantik 2 not only gives the lead role to a female aggressor at a time when such characters were still uncommon, but it also asserts the sovereignty of her desire more categorically and unapologetically than that of her male predecessor.

Fundamentally, then, what Buttgereit shares with de Sade is the insistence on having absolute freedom in representing the truth of the human as he sees it, stripped of the ideological constructions that repress it or attempt to soften its harshness into something bearable. Although Buttgereit’s unflinching, iconoclastic vision is tempered by goofy humour and sympathy for his characters, it was inevitable that, just like de Sade, he would provoke the wrath of those who promulgate the laws with his oozy, libidinous defiance. Tracing the lineage of that defiance back to de Sade shows that the bodily excesses of the Nekromantik films are not simply facile provocation, but cohere into a formally complex, multi-layered, articulate act of dissent fuelled by the singularity of individual desire. Few contemporary filmmakers are capable of such blistering radicalness. Few films so compellingly unleash the liberating power of shock.

[i] The scope of this essay unfortunately does not allow for a discussion of the nature of the continuity between the two films, and the circular motif that runs through them. 

[ii] For instance: ‘…the most repugnant, vile piece of garbage to pass itself off as a kosher feature-length motion picture that I’m sure has ever been made. There doesn’t appear to be any rhyme-or-reason behind director Jorg Buttregeit’s [sic] extremely low-budget production, aside from to be shocking.’ Dustin Putman, 21 June 1999. http://www.thefilmfile.com/reviews/n/87_nekromantik.htm

[iii] Interview with the author, 15 December 2014. http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2014/12/15/nekromantik-interview-with-jorg-buttgereit/

[iv] This reprises a similar sequence in Buttgereit’s 1985 short Hot Love.

[v] As is also the case in another great filmic moment of Sadean reversal: the dinner scene in Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty (1974), in which the guests defecate together while politely chatting at the table, but retire to a small, private room to engage in the shameful activity of eating.

[vi] Jörg Buttgereit quoted in David Kerekes, Sex, Murder, Art: The Films of Jörg Buttgereit (Manchester: Headpress, 1998), p.39.

Essay published in the booklet for the Nekromantik 2 dual format box-set (Arrow Video, 2017).

Picture credit: Nekromantik 2 (Dir. Jörg Buttgereit, 1991).

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