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Death and Art: A Conversation with Jörg Buttgereit

Uwe Rohbeck

Jörg Buttgereit is a man of many talents. He’s widely known for his cult films Nekromantik (1987) and Der Todesking (1989), both of which explored the topics of sex and death. However, his work has hardly stopped there. In recent years, Buttgereit has become a prolific and talented stage director, even adapting his own short film Captain Berlin (1982). A true artist and creative force, Diabolique recently spoke with him about his films, current projects, and future plans.

Diabolique: When we were conversing earlier this week via email, you mentioned touring for a new stage play—is this Captain Berlin, or something new?

Jörg Buttgereit: No, it’s a new stage play. I’m preparing a new stage play that will be premiered on the 16th of September.

Diabolique: Can you tell us about it?

JB: It has a German title: Im Studio hört dich niemand schreien, which could be translated to “in the sound studio no one can hear you scream.” Have you seen a British movie called The Berberian Sound Studio (2012)?

Diabolique: Of course.

JB: That’s what it’s inspired by; it’s an homage to the Giallo movies of the 1970’s. That’s what I’m working on at the moment, and also the new edition of the Captain Berlin comic that will be out next month. I’m working on comics and the stage, but not on films at the moment.

Diabolique: It’s interesting that Captain Berlin (1982) started as a short film and was turned into a stage play, could you tell us about that?

JB: When I made the first Captain Berlin movie in 1982, it was just a little joke about super heroes. After that, I was offered to do a radio play here in Germany. I started doing radio plays in 2002, and have made at least one each year. I believe in 2004 or so I decided to do a Captain Berlin Radio Play. Based on that, I did the stage play in 2008 called Captain Berlin VS. Hitler. It was short and made with a video camera from a friend of mine, and that’s how the Captain Berlin VS. Hitler DVD was made. When we released the DVD of the stage play, we included a comic book, with the origin of Captain Berlin. That was the first chapter in the comic book, which is strange because Captain Berlin should have been started as a comic. Doing the comics is something I would have done ages ago, but I didn’t have the right people to do it with. Now I have a small distribution company that puts out the comic book for me.

Diabolique: You’re most famously known for Nekromantik (1987). Going from your early films such as Captain Berlin and Mein Papi (1982), what starts the conceptual process of the postmodern marriage of sex and death?

JB: The plan was to do a feature film for the first time. The producer, Manfred Jelinski, gave me the chance to work with a professional cameraman and use his editing equipment for Super 8 films. I was the executive producer of the film, but Manfred was the backup in terms of equipment. For some reason the film became more serious than some of the other works I did. We started building the corpse, and it became very convincing to me, and it evolved over a period of two years into Nekromantik. There was no master plan behind it, I read true crime books about Edward Gein and watched a lot of horror movies. There was no idea that it could be screened anywhere outside of Berlin. Normally all my films were screened at punk clubs and small cinemas. I made some tours with the film, but I never imagined going around the world with it.

Diabolique: It’s interesting that you mention true crime. When most people think of Nekromantik, necrophilia is the first thing that comes to mind. I’ve always thought of it as a character study. Rob certainly has a lot of traits that are common with many serial killers, such as him being a misanthrope, and having trouble holding down a job or a relationship. What planning went into him as a character?

JB: Half of the character of Rob was inspired by the British serial killer Dennis Nilsen, and partly Ed Gein. That was something that emerged into The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Psycho (1960). When you look at the living room where Rob is living, you have all the organs and body parts; the entire place is decorated by items related to death.

Diabolique: Another question I had refers to a scene in the beginning where Rob watches a television program and the subject of people being desensitized to violence is discussed. There’s a later scene where he’s in a theatre watching what looks like a typical slasher film from the time period. The audience is clearly complicit with it and unaffected. Was this a comment on the slasher oversaturation from the time period? Especially how several titles were being banned?

JB: I think the comment could be saying “Why are horror movies sometimes so stupid?” Slasher films are very basic and you don’t have real characters. On the other hand, I was also a fan of these movies. I was always asking myself, “Ok, there are some movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre that have so much more to them, you can read into these movies.” Much of the mainstream stuff seemed kind of pointless to me. If you look back at some of the movies now, they’re more interesting. They’re a lot grosser; they’re more daring then movies today. Back then I had the feeling that horror movies lost the bite. In Germany of course, we had a censorship movement that was painful. Nekromantik was a protest from me on how far you could go without being arrested.

Diabolique: Here in the United States, and my age group in particular have little to no problem with censorship or getting our hands of movies. What was it like, especially during the time period where there was still a West and East Germany, attempting to get underground movies then?

JB: During that time the punk rock movement and the new wave movement was going on. I had a lot of friends who were busy doing music. I was working in a concert place and an independent cinema that we shot a lot of scenes of Nekromantik. We had a DIY punk rock spirit, so it was easy to get an audience because we had a cinema where we could screen stuff. On the other hand, horror movies were heavily cut and censored in Germany. Even teenager movies like Friday the 13th (1980) were thought of as subversive and banned in Germany. This was a strange mix. We had punk bands like the Dead Kennedys playing in Berlin. We had lots of influential bands playing. I would go see British bands like Throbbing Gristle and Australian groups like SPK. They would often have screenings in the back where they did the concerts. They had very strong images often related to death. I remember SPK came to Germany and they screened footage of body parts that they shot in a hospital. The connection of early industrial music and underground movies was something very close together for me.

Diabolique: There’s a Black Metal band named Carpathian Forest that performed a really great rendition of the theme from Nekromantik. I know a lot of people who hold the film in very high regard as a representation of the counter culture.

JB: What many people were surprised about when the film came out was the music of the film. Many were expecting heavy industrial music, metal, or punk. It was totally different. It was Piano music. I was also a fan of punk, metal, and industrial, so the music was an extreme contrast to the movie– strong images, but beautiful music. The movie is presented from the point of the main character, Rob. He thinks the things he is doing aren’t bad, so I placed beauty in the death image. It was a daring concept to use the ‘wrong’ type of music for the film, but I’d say it paid off in the end.

Diabolique: I’d say it did, as did the music composed for Der Todesking (1989) . Speaking of which, in a recent release, you mentioned the film being a statement against suicide. Can you elaborate on that?

JB: To me, there was no question in the first place. Because of the fact that it’s a movie about suicide, some people might interpret it as pro suicide. I could never understand that. To me it’s very obvious that it’s against suicide. It’s a depiction of the many aspects of how we deal with death.

Diabolique: One of the most memorable scenes in Der Todesking is the infamous homage to Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975). I love how it starts in a video store, complete with many banned titles from the time, followed by someone watching the movie on television which influences him to murder his girlfriend, to which a character on screen nods his approval. What was some of the thought process that went into this scene? I’m assuming any title from the Nazisploitation sub genre would have been banned in Germany, was this the case?

JB: That’s true. That was the main idea, to show something that was normally totally invisible in Germany, because no Nazi exploitation film has ever been released here. We couldn’t afford to buy any clips from Ilsa, so we had to shoot it ourselves. I knew this blonde woman who was a bartender, and I asked her if she wanted to play the Ilsa character and she said yes. The video shop that you see in the film was a very important shop at the time because it was the first in Berlin to have Nekromantik. The shop is still going on today, but it’s nearly closed because video shops don’t have a bright future ahead of themselves because of the Internet. It was also closed by the authorities at one point because of the movies it had. So the shop is something very important for the film.

It’s also a reflection of the childish concept that if you see something violent on screen, you’ll do something violent afterwards. This was something that was never proved or taken seriously by the people who deal with these matters. In Germany, of course there is a concept of youth to ban a lot of movies with the excuse that they might kill their parents afterwards.

Diabolique: One of the things that we see in Der Todesking that carries on into Schramm (1993) is you experimenting with new camera techniques. In particular the bridge scene from Todesking, which utilized a lot of pulleys and ropes to get some very impressive tracking shots. What inspired you to experiment with these new ways of shooting?

JB: I wouldn’t say I was experimenting. When I wrote these films, I was mainly thinking in terms of pictures. I had pictures in my head and I asked the camera people “How could we approach this?” or “How could we approach that?” Then we started building the equipment. If you watch the ‘making of’ feature in Todesking you could see how we made everything. You could say every shot was an experiment. Making tracking shots that weren’t bumpy was the big challenge. Sometimes it was very easy in Todesking, such as the rotating camera in the final episode that we used in Schramm as well. I asked Manfred who did the camera on Der Todesking how we could use a rotating camera; we didn’t have a motor so we ended up doing it with a rope. What many people cannot remember today is that we didn’t have a chance to look into the camera. When you have a camera hanging from a ceiling you can’t look through it. Often times we were just assuming what we were shooting. So a great deal of it was trial and error.

Diabolique: I know you’ve moved on from film to working on the stage plays and comics, but is that how you’ve always created? Thinking of the image first and then letting everything fall into place?

JB: Yes. When we started shooting Nekromantik, we didn’t even have a finished script, it just evolved, the same thing with Der Todesking, which was easier because it has an episodic structure. I was always open to changes, because I never knew what was happening while shooting a scene, so you had to be open minded to finish a movie at all. That was the challenge, not so much just coming up with ideas. It was a kind of survival shooting I would say, and I learned a lot. I know how to be reasonable with what I shoot. I never shoot stuff that I don’t use. I learned in those early days how to prepare.

Diabolique: Also in Todesking, there’s the segment where the person goes into a club and shoots a band performing on stage. It almost comes across as the opposite of the music video for My Way by Sid Vicious. Who were the actual band members on stage? How did you approach them about being a part of the movie?

JB: The musicians on the stage aren’t a band. It’s only a mix of people I know. The guy with the guitar who is singing was actually a famous German musician, but he’s a drummer for a band called Die Artze, which could be translated to The Doctors. He goes by the stage name Bela B. They are very popular in Germany, and have a huge following. I met him when we went to school together, and he’s a good friend of mine. He’s in the first Captain Berlin movie, actually. He’s the one under the Hulk mask. He’s also going to be playing Dracula in the Captain Berlin radio play. He’s in some of my movies but it’s hard now because I can’t afford him anymore.

Diabolique: Schramm was the last movie you worked on before German Angst (2015). I’m curious about the conceptual work behind it. It reminded me of certain aspects of Nekromantik, especially how it studies the character traits of a serial killer. The title character in particular seems reminiscent of Carl Panzram.

JB: That’s pretty much my take on the serial killer hype back in the early 1990’s. I think a lot of films came out about serial killers, but I was always disappointed with them because they never cared about the serial killer. It was often about police work and chain-smoking detectives who had lots of personal problems, and I couldn’t care less. I was thinking, “Let’s try to capture the guilt and strange feelings that these people must have.” That was the beginning of that film. It was inspired by early David Lynch movies because you can’t separate between his dreams and reality. That was the freedom we took.

Diabolique: I always found it interesting when the love interest goes away with businessmen, and they dress her in attire similar to a member of the Hitler youth. I was curious about what went into conceptualizing that scene in particular.

JB: The basic idea was to have something happen to the love interest, and he wouldn’t be the one who was killing her. He could have been her savior, maybe. It didn’t work out because the rest of the world is messed up. I think these people who tie her up in the ending are worse. We had a concept for them but we never had the money to shoot them all. They would be like club of people, the type that appeared in Hostel (2005) later on, people who pay others to kill one another, that was what we had in our mind.

Diabolique: Besides the comics, stage plays, and movies, I was surprised you also worked on a German sci-fi television show called LEXX.

JB: That’s German-Canadian, yes.

Diabolique: How did your collaboration with that come about?

JG: I believe I met the producer, Paul Donavan, in Spain at a festival. He saw some of my movies and he got some financing from the German film fund and had to spend some money in Germany. He gave me a job to produce one of his episodes for a Canadian director and direct an episode in Canada. That was one of the first series to include digital effects, so it was a lot of work in front of a green screen. I earned some money, but it was boring. What I ended up doing a little earlier was second unit and special effects on a film called Killer Condom (1996), which was later picked up by Troma for distribution in the United States. So I had a mainstream film experience, but I could see pretty soon that it was not very satisfying to me because I was looking for more artistic freedom. I found that on the stage, because the stage is different from filmmaking. Nobody asks you if it’s commercial or not. You’re allowed to do more experimental stuff on the stage. I did plays about Ed Gein and The Elephant Man. I got to do all these things I wouldn’t be allowed to do in Germany with movies.

Diabolique: It’s almost like you’re going the opposite route of Rainier Werner Fassbinder, who went from stage to screen.

JB: Yes, normally it’s the other way around, that’s true. If you remember, my films have been done with no money. For me it’s good if I work for big stage houses because they have money and can pay me. For some people it’s not easy to understand, but there was no money involved with my films. There’s money involved now, especially when they get released in the US and on a bigger scale, but when we made them we couldn’t pay everyone who worked on them. You can only do that for a certain time. It was mainly friendship that made my early films possible.

Diabolique: Speaking of Fassbinder, there’s certainly a legacy with German film, from the expressionist era of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, to the New German cinema of Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog. Where do you see yourself in this lineage?

JB: I would see myself where the movies came from, the underground. I would say that maybe I’m comparable to John Waters. What he did in the United States is what I did in Germany. Maybe with different films, but he was a big influence on me. Speaking of the expressionist cinema, I recreated Nosferatu for the stage. I took the old film scene by scene and created a play out of it. That was pretty successful over here in Germany in the city of Dortmund.  You could say that I react to the legacy, that’s something I said in interviews when we released German Angst. We have this sort of responsibility, because we created the horror genre in Germany, but the Second World War ruined all of that.

Ellen: Annika Meier; Orlok/Nosferatu: Uwe Rohbeck

Diabolique: Besides John Waters, who else would you name as some of your favorite directors and influences?

JB: I was always a fan of the Cronenberg movies and David Lynch. I’m also a big Godzilla nerd and love the Japanese monster movies, which is very present in my early short films, and the comic books and radio plays I do. It’s this mix between the trashy horror movies I had as a kid and films that are more serious like The Bride of Frankenstein. I saw it as a kid and was totally amazed; it was such an influence on me.

Diabolique: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers who are just starting out and are working with little to no money?

JB: I don’t understand why there aren’t more movies by young filmmakers. When I started out it was really hard. You had to learn to operate a camera and come up with the money to do the editing. Everything I had to work for you can do with your cell phone today. I would think it would be easy to do a movie; you could even distribute and show it online. You have so many opportunities today– it’s so easy. To me it’s a wonder that there’s not more coming out, but maybe there are just too many chances.

Diabolique: Aside from the new stage play, what else should we be keeping our eyes out for?

JB: If you’re in America there’s not going to be much to look for. The stage plays and comic books are all in the German language. Many people thought I stopped being artistic, but I just turned out to be a professional. I think German Angst has just been given a blu ray treatment in the United States, and I think distribution is sort of tricky at the moment. If you spend money on a film now, and you have the idea of paying everybody, it’s very hard to earn your money back because you have lots of bootlegs and have your movie leaked online. It’s difficult to say what American fans can expect, you’ll have to come to Germany and watch my stage plays live, and learn to speak German. That’s the only advice I can give. The comic books could be translated into English, so maybe an English distributor can buy the Captain Berlin comics and put them out. It would be hard to say if these comics work in the United States because they’re very German, they’re very much playing with the fact that we Germans don’t have super heroes.

Diabolique: And this is where the original concept of Captain Berlin comes from, correct?

JB: That’s true. He’s something impossible; he’s the link between pop culture and the Second World War. All of the things I put into the comic where he fights against Adolf Hitler would have been impossible at the time of this pop culture in the United States. Over here, something like this never happened. It’s the same thing with horror movies, which might be my goal over here. I also do film reviews for radio and magazines and I always try to explain genre and pop culture to people who are over here.

Diabolique: Will we see another run of the Nekromantik toys that came out last year?

JB: That was more of a joke and an art type of thing. There was 30 made for the films thirtieth anniversary, and we also made a Todesking action figure as well. They’re normally sold within thirty minutes online, and most of the customers are from the United States, eighty percent I would say. The artist who does the sculpting of the action figures is from a small toy label called Goodleg toys. He’s thinking of doing a Schramm action figure and even a Mein Papi action figure, which would be even more strange. I’m doing more and more work for art galleries. Mein Papi, my short film, was being presented at art galleries recently over here. Last year in Austria we had a show with old movie props of mine called The Remains of Cinema. There might be something over here next year in Berlin as well, an exhibition of movie props and some film screenings complete with original artwork. That’s happening next year, but it’s all in Germany!

Diabolique: Speaking of Mein Papi, I had never heard of it until recently. It’s been prominently featured on many of the newer Blu ray releases of your other films. It’s so different in tone and content than some of your other works. I found it to seem very personal.

JB: It is, yes. I think that’s one of the reasons why it works in a setting like an art gallery. It’s something totally different and it works more the older it gets. When the film was new, I screened it at punk clubs and everyone was laughing. Whenever I screen it now, nobody laughs anymore.

Diabolique: I could definitely see that. After watching Nekromantik, Der Todesking and Schramm, it was interesting seeing a tribute to your father.

JB: What we’re doing at the moment is a high definition transfer of the film. It will probably be included in an upcoming release of Schramm, possibly this year. You will see a print that is much higher in quality.

Diabolique: I think we’re going to be bringing this to a close. I would like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us over at Diabolique.

JB: No problem.

Im Studio hört dich niemand schreien is debuting on September 16th in Dortmund, Germany.

About Jerome Reuter

One comment

  1. Great wee interview.

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