The Art of Trash: J

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An ongoing column that draws clear lines between high art cinema and low trash exploitation.

Genre cinema has often been thought to be the antithesis of the arthouse. Sure, people accept that there are artistically inclined genre films but these are often thought to be the exception and not the rule. While while these lines continue to erode, exhibitors have done their best to keep these worlds separate. Exploitation films were enjoyed in the raunchy, rambunctious grindhouses while those from European Auteurs were viewed in arthouse theaters. What happens, however, when a film straddles the line? The distinctions between grindhouse and arthouse are not always so easily defined. [Title] aims to look at movies that reside somewhere between these two spheres. These are films that appeal to both exploitation as well as arthouse sensibilities, and, most importantly, these are films that challenge the ways that we view and judge cinema.

Born in West Berlin in 1963, Jörg Buttgereit has grown into one of the poster boys for arthouse/exploitation cinema. Following a handful of short films and collaborative productions, Buttgereit completed his feature directorial debut in 1987. The now infamous film, NEKROMANTIK, is an unnerving, dark Super-8mm feature that focused on a necrophiliac couple’s downward, depressing spiral and perverse love triangle. NEKROMANTIK earned Buttgereit worldwide acclaim but, most importantly, it made him a figure in the horror world. NEKROMANTIK’s brand of dark visuals and themes set to Buttgereit’s stark cinematography and realistic gore appealed to the burgeoning gore hound community — keep in mind, this is only two years following the first GUINEA PIG film, “Devil’s Experiment”, so much of Buttgereit’s style was still extremely fresh and controversial — and more was expected to come.

Buttgereit was not eager to fall in to line following the release of his debut but rather sought to expand his interest in death in a way that wasn’t necessarily aimed at horror fans. While NEKROMANTIK’s political intentions are clear, Buttgereit was sure that his follow up would be more art than exploitation. In his introduction featured on Cult Epics 2015 Blu-ray release to his follow up film, DER TODESKING (THE DEATH KING), Buttgereit stated that DER TODESKING’s focus on suicide — to which he specifies was an anti-suicide take — wasn’t as easily exploitable as NEKROMANTIK’s fixation on necrophilia, an intentional move on his part to appeal not just to horror fans. While the resulting effort can be argued, it cannot be denied that DER TODESKING is far more in tune with that of arthouse, experimental cinema than what may be expected out of the splatter, gore community — a world certainly not without artistic merit, as this column aims to highlight.

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DER TODESKING opens with the sound of disparate voices crying out. At first, their cries appear to be in ecstasy or perhaps slight pain, but they soon evolve into a far more horrific manner until their transformation into screams is clear. All the while, Buttgereit has the introductory credits interspliced with the image of a lifeless, naked body scrolling past the screen. Before the narrative of the film begins, Buttgereit leaves audiences with a quote attributed to a failed poet, murderer Pierre François Lacenaire: “What kills me, will remain my secret,” a line that will prove to be the essence of Buttgereit’s film. Buttgereit develops, within the first few minutes, the entirety of the film; a work that aims to reveals the boundaries between pain, love, sex, and death.

Following the credits, DER TODESKING develops over the course of a week’s timeline and features fleeting snapshots into the psyches of a myriad of characters struggling with thoughts of suicide, murder, or both. In this light, Buttgereit’s film can be classified as an anthology work, but one that progresses in a far more nuanced and unorthodox manner than the wealth of anthology pictures that have seen release in recent years. From the opening story of a well-put-together man’s inexplicit and non-violent suicide — methodically enacted to a T — to a woman’s violent rampage captured by the use of a steadicam (one of the film’s best segments), Buttgereit spares the viewer any sort of explanation. There are no answers, no solutions. Death is, rather, presented as a fact of life.

This is one of the reasons that DER TODESKING remains a powerful piece of cinematic art and not a schlocky musing on death as some would like to write it off as. Lacenaire’s secret becomes the characters’ secrets; they know what kills them but we don’t. This is best demonstrated in one of the film’s most haunting and disturbing scenes, as a young man writhes in agony alone in his bedroom before beating himself to death. Even more distancing is another of Buttgereit’s segments, which features only the images of a bridge with overlaying text giving us the names, ages, and occupations of those who have used the bridge to commit suicide. It takes a moment for the effect to take hold but, once it does, it is clear that the scene contains far more emotional power void of any sort of exploitative content. The stoic manner in which the camera figures the bridge juxtaposed with the statistical information is far more disturbing and confounding than any image of death could ever be.

Death is intrinsically linked to time, and Buttgereit uses this for his advantage. While the aforementioned framing structure develops over the course of a week — falling in line with a passage in the film that ‘God created the world in six days and killed himself on the seventh’ —, DER TODESKING utilizes a secondary framing device which bookends the segments with the image of a rapidly decomposing corpse. For the effect, Buttgereit and his crew created the corpse using real innards (so it would attract actual maggots) and shot a time lapse over the course of 5 weeks as the fake corpse literally decomposed. It’s not perfect but the mixture of artificial and authentic viscera is deeply unsettling and serves as a constant reminder in the film of life as a prolonged act of decaying. Time is further represented through a number of circular shots that Buttgereit utilizes at numerous times during the film, making it clear that every aspect of the film is working towards his vision.

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One of the most interesting commentaries in the film, and one that could easily be overlooked, is what Buttgereit seems to be saying about media violence. As Buttgereit lived in a country where his own films couldn’t be distributed freely — unless under the pretense of ‘adult cinema’ — the film seems to be mockingly attacking the notion that media violence has a direct effect on reality. In the film’s second segment, a character rents a fake Nazisploitation title (modeled off the Ilsa series that was banned in German) and proceeds to kill his mother after taking in the horrific images of castration in the video. Buttgereit doesn’t stop here, however, but rather then has his character literally frame the remnants of his carnage by hanging an empty frame over the blood splatter on the wall. Using a match cut, the sequence is then revealed to be playing on the television inside the room of an unidentified woman who has just hung herself. The levels of remove creates a sort of Russian nesting doll out of the relationship between violence and media, where the direct connection is anything but simply reduced. Buttgereit returns to this commentary later in the film, when a nameless woman equips herself with a bevy of guns and a steadicam to film an inexplicit massacre at a heavy metal concert, the actions are presented without sound (somehow adding to their disturbing effect). To further complicate these scenes, Buttgereit has them presented to audiences vis-à-vis two unknown men who are watching the reels of footage after the fact. Investigators or just fans of snuff cinema, they are yet another aspect of the film that is left intentionally unanswered. All in all, these sequences combined beg at the question of the connection between art and reality, between media violence and human violence, but they come no closer to answering them; a fact which seems to be the entire point.

While CORPSE FUCKING ART is the name of a documentary featured on the recent Cult Epics Blu-ray disc — which also dons a surprisingly crisp HD transfer of the 16mm elements —, it can also be said to represent Buttgereit’s brand of cinema. It’s a clash between stylistic tendencies. He may be a director interested in the grue and grime of life but he is one that depicts these harsh realities in an intelligent and artistic manner. Buttgereit is a figure that perhaps best prefigures the illusionary boundaries between arthouse and grindhouse spheres, as can be seen in the types of people attracted to his works. Both a staple on film festival and bootlegging — a necessity over the years, as many of his films have been banned — circuits, Buttgereit beautifully blends the high brow with the low brow. Yet it hasn’t always worked out in his favor and it is safe to say that Buttgereit remains far more praised in gore-circles than in the pages of the elite critical factions. As his work becomes more and more accessible, however, this will be sure to change because it is works like DER TODESKING that best challenge cinematic expectations and push film into boundaries that art needs to be taken. Taken on a purely entertainment level, DER TODESKING could be chastised for being inaccessible, flippant, and uneven, but taken as a whole and as a political statement, Buttgereit’s film matches the uncertainty of life and death in the real world with an equally ambiguous and challenging work. DER TODESKING asks questions that perhaps can never be answered, and this is its strength, this is its intention. Life isn’t always easy…why should film have to be?

DER TODESKING is now available on Blu-ray and DVD via Cult Epics.

 

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Weekend: Nov. 15, 2018, Nov. 18, 2018

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