Review: Nekromantik (1988)

I wasn’t going to review this, but I’ve spent the last month finding that Nekromantik is haunting me. I’ll be in the middle of doing something and I’ll realise I’m distracted. Abstract thought will have brought me back to some aspect of this extraordinary film, or the truly wonderful ‘Ménage a trois’ theme by John Boy Walton will lilt through my memory, plaintive and romantic. I’ll shudder at the thought of the things I witnessed and feel a slightly shameful pang of admiration for a film so thoroughly unpleasant yet undeniably artistic. Nekromantik is a menace, unleashed on a whole new audience thanks to Arrow Video’s lavish new release, ostensibly the first time it has really been widely available here in the UK.

In truth I knew very little about the film when I took a punt on pre-ordering the set from Arrow. The website laid out the plethora of special features and additional content that would be available here (including a CD of the frankly superb soundtrack). What was this film that I’d honestly never heard of before? If it was deserving of the extensive attention they’d given previous titles such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 then I figured it would be worth the gamble. What did I know? I knew it was in some way transgressive, but probably only mildly now, given it’s age. I knew it was from the 80’s. I’d seen the original poster art. From these disparate notions I’d come to the conclusion that the film itself was likely some long-lost spiritual cousin to Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.

How wrong I was.

Shot almost entirely on Super 8 – remastered now but still comparatively (and appropriately) grimy – Nekromantik begins dauntingly with a handwritten disclaimer that, “some of this film may be seen as “grossly” offensive and should not be shown to minors!!!”. Such tactics are not unheard of, but already the film’s scratched look and 1.33:11 aspect ratio denote a sense that, this time, the warning should be heeded. Sure enough, following a further handwritten card with a V.L. Compton quote (“What lives that does not live from the death of someone else?”) the film begins with a murky shot of a woman urinating on a dead pigeon; the lifeless animal as good as impossible to make out in the gloom. Later there will be a grotty shot of a man pissing in a filthy public men’s room, a trickling dribble complimenting his stream. Nekromantik will be a tough watch for clean-freaks and germophobes (though really the title should’ve warned them).

Directed by Jorg Buttgereit, it tells the story of Robert Schmadtke (Daktari Lorenz), member of a clean-up team who deal with grizzly accidents, who has made a collection of pickled body parts about his ramshackle home. His girlfriend Betty (Beatrice Manowski) is evidently supportive of this. So much so that when, one day, Robert returns with an entire putrefying cadaver, she is eager to incorporate their new guest into their sex life. The trouble is Betty likes the cadaver more than Robert. He is left alone, taking his frustrations out on a domestic house cat (faked scenes but utterly unpleasant nonetheless) before embarking on a journey of self-discovery and reconciliation with his taboo preoccupations.

It’s hard to understate what a harsh and masochistic viewing experience Nekromantik is on first watch. Having received the Arrow deluxe edition (it’s beautiful), I’d scanned the generous accompanying book, rifled through the ‘Polaroid’ stills included in the set and arrived swiftly at the conclusion that my assumptions had been poorly founded. But watching the film was another thing entirely. Watching Nekromantik felt like being an accomplice to a crime. Guilty by association. The film has the same transgressive, sub-cultural feel as amateur porn or extremist political broadcast. Engineered purposefully to shock and challenge notions of taste and conformity, Buttgereit’s film feels political in itself. A provocation from the fringes to remind us the world is a volatile place, filled with unpleasant things. To deny the dark half of both our nature and all nature is to put oneself to sleep. Buttgereit’s film wakes you up, not with breakfast but with a direct, sharp slap.

The scenes with the cadaver are skin crawling. For such a cheap effect it is soberingly convincing (it’s a plastic dummy coated in a similar viscous substance to the drool of H.R. Giger’s xenomorph from Alien), yet the film’s most upsetting and controversial scene is one that appears twice; the genuine killing and skinning of a rabbit. It first appears near the top of the picture, narratively out of context. I found this incredibly uncomfortable to watch and questioned its merit. Yet the footage appears again near the movie’s close in reverse. Suddenly it suggests a return to normalcy; bracketing the events between its inclusion. A dreamlike addition, it gains a level of acceptability through context. The footage is apparently archival and the rabbit wasn’t killed for the purposes of the film, yet still it feels like a step over the line, making Nekromantik feel oddly dangerous.

And if provocation was Nekromantik‘s only aim it would be generally without worth, having all the relevancy of a jump scare. Peek-a-boo! Yet, there is more to this film. With Crash Cronenberg was able to look objectively at irrational human obsession by making automobile accidents a fetish for his protagonists (take his cues from the J.G. Ballard book on which his film is based). Similarly, Buttgereit observes the consuming nature of love, and even celebrates it. Though there are moments of humour here (Betty’s decision to use a condom with the cadaver is, I’m sorry, wonderfully absurd), when it comes to the intimate scenes with the corpse, Buttgereit plays for sweeping romance – captured generously in the remarkable aforementioned score. In all this degradation there’s a surprisingly heartfelt message that love is most precious in the loving, not in the subject.

Robert’s psychological state dominates the film’s second half. He is undoubtedly troubled, prone to a darkness; an outsider in a society that has assimilated virtually all other counter-culture movements. Yet gradually he comes to terms with himself. His grace moment comes near the end when he allows a caterpillar to explore his finger. He doesn’t kill it. Oh, how he’s grown! He celebrates with childlike glee, gallivanting through fields and over hilltops. The rabbit footage reverses. Society may not have accepted Robert, but he has accepted himself, and in this he is able to take the next step, mingling sex and death in a masturbatory suicide that brings the film to its bloody, ejaculatory conclusion.

So, yes, there is an artistry to Nekromantik, down beneath the muck and the murk and the stomach-churning button-pushing. There are few films that feel so removed from familiarity (in that sense it shares space, I suppose, with Eraserhead). Do I regret my purchase? I do not. Though it initially appalled me, I’m oddly thankful for it. It places other films in perspective (largely by reshaping the curve against which ‘gross-out’ can possibly be graded), providing a bass note, if you will. Released now uncut, Nekromantik dares to seem acceptable, yet not accepted. Tolerated, perhaps. Acknowledged at having its place. Will I watch it with any frequency? No. But as a statement, as an example of truly sub-cultural phenomenon in horror cinema, it feels like a key work. If you’re looking for the outer limits, here they are.

Score:  3

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