The pathology of serial murder has always been tricky in horror cinema. Plenty of films have documented and displayed the easiest aspects, namely the killings themselves, but fewer have examined the real meat of the matter. Which are the inner workings of why and inner-killer perception that puts the audience in the actual head space of a sociopath. The latter is an admirable though risky move. It’s the classic thing of where most demand “edgy” horror, but when it is actually delivered, they quickly back out. The cinema of acute discomfort is a beautiful thing, though only if you’re up for it. A fine example of this is Jörg Buttgereit’s 1993 (though shot in 1992) film, Schramm.
Like Buttgereit’s past masterworks before it, the film opens with a quote, courtesy this time from noted 1920’s era American serial killer, Carl Panzram: “Today, I am dirty, but tomorrow I’ll just be dirt.”
After the poetic and disturbing quote, we see borderline surrealistic imagery inter-cut throughout the introduction credits, featuring blurred flesh in blue light and legs running and running, with no destination in sight. There are shadows pointing to shadows, building the intrigue level immediately. The audio sewn throughout is strange and somber in a way that words can barely touch. A man’s breathing can be heard on top of all of it. Welcome to the inner cortex of Lothar Schramm (Florian Koerner von Gustorf).
In the style of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), the film opens up with our main character already being dead. A newspaper headline splashes, “Lonesome Death of Lipstick Killer.” (An unusually poetic sounding headline, no?) The editing is still kinetically disjointed, cutting to a blood stained, paint splattered floor then we see Lothar talking with his apartment neighbor, Marianne (Monika M., who was also the lead in Buttgereit’s Nekromantik 2). He asks her if it bothers her to have a “…complete stranger roam around your flat?” She states. “Simple wishes come expensive.”
A religious couple visit, offering the word of God to a quietly welcoming Lothar, with the progressing results flashed forward throughout the whole film. A throat slashed, Polaroids being taken and a sexuality that feels more comforting in the atmosphere of fresh death than current life. Scenes of his childhood glimmer in grainy Super 8mm. Small figures in a pastoral setting bleed into adult life with lurid pulp novels (“Tortured Love” by Tim Taylor lays out not so proudly near the bed) and inflatable sex torsos. A leg brace is revealed which may or may not result in Lothar having a vivid dream of him waking to a wholly severed leg.
There are shots of him washing his hands like Lady Macbeth, but minus the obvious melodrama. Everything is overt dreams and subtle hints in Schramm.
Two much older “gentlemen” end up propositioning Marianne to come to a mansion 36 minutes away, which she nervously accepts. Afterwards, she asks Lothar if he would drive her there and wait outside, for safety’s sake. He’s quite sweet to her and accepts. Cut to him listening to the sounds of her working with another client, driving Lothar to mount his ghoulishly-cartoonish inflatable sex torso. This leads to one of the most beautiful acts of camera work in a film that is riddled with some of Manfred O. Jelinski’s best cinematography out of all the ’80s and early ’90s work for Buttgereit. As Lothar thrusts more furiously, the camera starts to move away from him, his vinyl lumpen sexual apparatus and his bed, panning to the bathroom. It sounds simple but this small sweep gives our protagonist privacy for his climax, which given some of the acts we have and will see him do or dream up, is an oddly chaste move.
He dreams of dancing with Marianne, their moving forms depicted with blue light, double exposure and a sad beauty pregnancy that feels inevitably stillborn. Lothar dutifully drives her to the mansion and waits. There’s more dream type visions, including one of him limping to the front door of the Mansion only to be denied entrance silently by Marianne, dressed up as a male Nazi youth. (The outfit itself is not so much only a vision, since we see her peak out of the door before this, in full on WWII Deutschland era kinder regalia.) His mind drifts to an upcoming dental visit, which results in an nontraditional eye extraction. (As if normal dentistry isn’t harrowing enough!)
Marianne comes out, taking about how the gentlemen were pleased with her “application test” and that she’s done “worse things” for money. We are never allowed to really know the specifics on this, adding more subtlety than your average “extreme” (an adjective that is about a third close to needing to be hari-kari-ed and buried in a field) film. There’s an amazing peek into Lothar’s physical exercise routine, with him being clad only in socks and blood stained underwear. More stellar camerawork comes into play, where all of this is displayed with an overhead arc style motion. (The way this effect was achieved is shown in full, inspirational glory in the behind the scenes featurette that is included on the Blu-ray release.) The effect is continually fluid and smartly disorienting. We are in Lothar’s world, where terra firma is a smeary ground streaked with blood, fluid, emotion, and loss.
We see a drawer full of random red lipsticks, hair and a knife. He ignores the last two and tests out a couple of lipsticks until he finds the right one. Then in a scene reminiscent from a very real moment in the terrific Bob Flanagan documentary, Sick (1997), Lothar pulls out his uncircumcised penis, makes a mark on it with the chosen lipstick and then hammers a few small nails into his foreskin. Inter-cut with this are flashes to his sexual assault, very likely post mortem, on the religious woman we saw earlier. Given that there is little evidence of any physical pleasure as far as the nailing of the foreskin goes, it feels more like an act of ritualistic punishment or extreme penance for Lothar’s psycho-sexual nature.
Marianne treats Lothar to a fancy dinner as a thanks for looking out for her. The food looks like a mix of an 1950’s aspic-laden nightmare and the borderline inedible “squiggle” food of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. They have an awkward but friendly enough conversation, detailing Lothar’s past “one-sided” engagement. Walking home, they pass by a vagrant man who commits suicide via gun to the head. No one seems to notice. Lothar and Marianne are already past and no one else goes to investigate. It’s an ugly world and it smells funny.
Lothar invites Marianne over for a nightcap and from there, we see more of the unexpected, brutally surreal visions and a final la ronde that connects the film into one thoughtful, no-fun and fascinating coil.
Schramm is a singularly amazing movie. Which is an easy statement for me to make when it comes to Buttgereit in general but even in the realm of his own small but quite mighty filmography, Schramm is the darker and stranger child. Fans of the outré pitch-black humor of the Nekromantik films will be disappointed since Schramm is a closer heir to the artier intro/outro-spectiveness of Der Todesking (1990). At barely over an hour long, Schramm feels like one part day-in-the-life and one part fever dream with the roof, walls and floor being Lothar’s mind.
It is an intentionally slippery film for either the weak, overly sensitive or the “fucking A” gorehound fanboys looking for the cinematic equivalent to a “what’s grosser than gross” joke. Thank god on all fronts since with that, we have a smart, weird, and effective little film that while it is not quite the masterpiece that Der Todesking is, it is still something for all involved to be proud of.
Both Florian Koerner von Gustorf and the always captivating Monika M. are very well suited in their parts, giving understated, bordering on naturalistic performances. Koerner von Gustorf would go on to the production end of filmmaking while Schramm is the last film Monika M. is credited with participating in any capacity, which is too bad, since she is always a welcome sight. Now this would not be a Buttgereit film without a wholly effective musical score and Schramm is no exception. The music, this time around courtesy of the team of Max Muller and Gundula Schmitz (who also worked on Buttgereit’s short film, Mein Papi), is less on the forefront of Buttgereit’s past features but is still effective in adding an abstract sonic type of dread.
Schramm was out of print for years but is now available, along with his prior past three features, on Blu-ray via the always reliably great Cult Epics. There’s a cute intro with Buttgereit, where he mentions that he made the film with the intention of wanting to get into the mind of a serial killer and to “enjoy it anyways.” There is the aforementioned making of, where Killing for Culture author David Kerekes makes a brief appearance on set, two different audio commentaries, including one with Buttgereit and Rodenkirchen and another with Koerner von Gustorf and Monika M., some trailers and several of Buttgereit’s shorts, including Mein Papi. It’s great to live in an age where Buttgereit and his work are getting the releases that they have always deserved.
In a genre full of either automaton killers or manic eyed creepers knee deep in the viscera, Schramm stands out as its own entity. Any honest film about the darker fringes of life is not going to give you easy answers to grip on to. This is Schramm and bless Buttgereit and company for it all.