The artwork on the old VHS covers of Nekromantik (1987), which featured a decaying corpse clutching a woman’s breast, might lead to the assumption that it’s a work of exploitation. While this particular image illustrates the marriage of sex and death within the film, it’s slightly misleading. While necrophilia is depicted, it’s only an aspect, not the premise. What Jörg Buttgereit accomplished with this postmodern work of art hasn’t come close to being replicated since. The film arrived at the end of a decade filled with an endless cavalcade of slasher films, and emerged from a country separated by the cold war. Nekromantik is a self-portrait of the counter culture. More than that, it contains a subversive commentary regarding the establishment. Those in the audience are granted a glimpse into the behavioral patterns of those who exist on the outer fringes of society.
Upon closer examination, Nekromantik shares more in common with Eraserhead (1977). David Lynch’s magnum opus depicted a fear of fatherhood and defied convention in the process. Buttgereit follows this example by creating a lead character who’s faced with the struggles of day to day life. Rob (Berndt Daktai Lorenz) is an outsider whose interests and behavior differ from what’s considered socially acceptable. At his work, he helps to remove crime scene aftermath. He’s inept, and constantly bullied by his coworkers. At home, he and his girlfriend Betty (Monica M.) exist in a sanctuary which shields them from the outside world. While society would label them deviants, here they embrace what they consider a normal existence. Their apartment contains a treasure trove of discarded human remains collected from Rob’s work. Scattered upon their walls are images of pornography and Charles Manson.
It’s within this self-contained world that a slight jab at the establishment failing to understand the outer fringe is made. Rob watches a television program in which the topic of the younger generation becoming desensitized to violence is discussed. Rob drifts off into a fantasy involving a rabbit being eviscerated and him performing an autopsy. Violent content in entertainment leading to deviant behavior has long been a ridiculous platform. Standing upon it are those out of touch with the younger generation. Throughout its entirety, Nekromantik will continue to play with this topic in a variety of ways. Depicting death with a tinge of black comedy, the macabre and morbid take a backseat to the gentrification of the subject.
This depiction of death in a manner that strays from expectation is best exemplified in two sequences that utilize comedy and sensuality. Naturally, what’s discussed the most regarding Nekromantik is the manage-a-troi with Betty, Rob and a rotting Cadaver. As the trio consummate this union, Herman Kopp’s piano score accentuates the scene with serenity and eroticism. More than that, it normalizes the act of necrophilia. This itself is indicative of the counter culture having interests that go against what’s considered acceptable. If the orgy that merges sex and death together is one of beauty, than the origin of Rob and Betty’s third companion is slightly comical in its presentation.
Much like something you’d expect from John Waters, Nekromantik pushes the limitations of transgressive imagery, yet retains its comedic edge. This is present at an orchard, where a field worker falls to his death, later becoming Rob and Betty’s new friend. The sequence is light hearted in tone, contrasting with the company that Rob works for removing the cadaver from the pond it which it’s rotted. While it might be assumed that the scenes of explicit sexual content would be the climax or catalyst of the film—they aren’t. In reality, it’s what’s occurred to many members of the counter culture—inability to fit in with normal society. Rob’s termination of employment and the subsequent departure of Betty as a result are what cause our lead to go from a sympathetic protagonist, to a harbinger of post traumatic induced violence.
Rob soon begins a downward spiral. This is when Nekromantik goes beyond visceral exploitation, and delves into psychological exploration. Our main character begins to exhibit certain traits that are found in serial killers. A practice among some is the act of animal torture and mutilation. Harming something that can’t fight back is almost natural for someone like Rob. This is someone who’s constantly pushed around by people stronger than him, and can only exert authority on something completely helpless.
In returning to the theme of the youth being desensitized by violent images, the film comes close to tearing down the wall that separates it from the audience. Partaking in an activity mirroring the fictional reality that Rob exists in, he attends a screening of a horror movie. Not since Marilyn Chambers took in a picture at an adult movie theatre in Rabid (1977) has irony been better executed. What plays out on the screen is what one might expect from a typical 80’s slasher entry. Perhaps there’s a comparison to be made between Buttgereit’s transgressive artwork to the mass-produced product of the decade. When I spoke to him in an interview, I asked him about this subtle commentary. His response was straight and to the point— “The comment could be made, why are horror movies sometimes so stupid? They’re very basic.” Nekromantik travels further than some were willing to go, all the while containing a surprising amount of depth.
The crowd at the theater in particular are completely removed and unaffected by the images that appear before them. A gloved killer tormenting a victim with a knife plays out before the disinterested spectators. Even Rob leaves the theatre as the rest continue to watch. This scenario serves as an effective counter argument to those who insist violent entertainment has dangerous repercussions. Those in the theatre are aware of the fantasy being presented to them. They’ll most likely leave the theatre that night and go on with their lives as if nothing happened. Rob’s behavior comes from general ineptitude and trauma. It’s not the violent images, it’s the state of his mental condition.
“You don’t lose yourself in fantasy, you don’t lose yourself at all. If your baby isn’t here anymore, you should talk about it. Poor dear.” – Peter Sotos
The third act depicts how serial killers evolve from animal torture to a different prey. Even stranger, it echoes a reality that was occurring during the time of filming. Rob attempts to have a sexual encounter with a prostitute, but can’t sustain an erection. Mocking him for his shortcomings, she’s murdered by Rob who then initiates sex with the corpse. This mirrors the behavior of Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. The infamous ‘Ripper pf Rostov’, whose killings were kept secret due to Soviet propaganda, was on the prowl from 1978 to 1990. It’s been documented that more than once he attempted intercourse with a prostitute, only to murder them when they laughed at his impotence. Chikatilo would then achieve sexual climax as he murdered his victim. This, as well as Chikatilo’s ineptitude at his occupation make for an interesting comparison alongside Rob.
Nekromantik certainly elicits a wide range of emotions and responses from those who experience it. While some will dismiss the film as just exploitation, others will fully embrace everything it represents. Much like the counter culture and the establishment themselves, perceptions will differ greatly. For those of us who don’t fit in, and keep finding ourselves at odds with normal expectations, we see something in this film that others might not. If you don’t understand the counter culture, that’s fine. If you’re ready to dismiss Nekromantik as just exploitation with no artistic quality or redeeming merits, that’s fine too. Both of them will be perfectly alight without you.