In a genre littered with controversial films, works which have been heavily censored or outright banned, Jörg Buttgereit’s 1987 Nekromantik is in a league of its own, an underground German oddity whose bold title does not even begin to convey what is contained within, nor is the black and white recap of the final scene which opens the 1991 sequel Nekromantik 2 any less shocking, graphic or ridiculous than when first seen.
Subtitled Die Rückkehr der Liebenden Toten (The Return of the Loving Dead) and now available on Blu-ray from Arrow, it is a substantially different film from its predecessor with the stated intention of Buttgereit that it was to be told from the point of view of a woman, the modest production – none of the cast or crew received any significant financial remuneration for their contributions – both enhanced and informed by the recent fall of the Berlin Wall.
In the short accompanying supporting feature Necropolis – one of many – Berlin based film scholar Doctor Marcus Stiglegger describes the film as “a document of an era long gone by, it’s about the myth of Berlin, it’s about a city of two faces… a kind of romantic story about growing out of the ruins and building something new.”
Begining with a dreamlike visitation to a dilapidated and overgrown churchyard where an unseen woman disinters Robert Schmadtke from his grave (actually producer Manfred Jelinski’s back garden due to prohibitions about shooting in an actual cemetary), unsurprisingly it is a tactile film, but unlike the black-gloved killer of Dario Argento’s films Buttgereit’s as-yet unseen lead touches everything with her bare hands as she shifts the earth in high heels and short skirt, worn not for practicality but for the sheer fetishistic delight.
Rob’s corpse is still, mercifully, substantially intact and by means unseen the woman, Monika (Monika M, who also performs on the soundtrack and appears in the accompanying documentary and on the commentary track) transports him to her apartment block where as the flowers decay around him Rob’s enbalmed body stubbornly refuses to rot.
Elsewhere in the city Mark (Mark Reeder, who also performs on the soundtrack, appears in the accompanying documentary and contributes to the commentary) loops ADR for a porn film, an activity presented as entirely normal, the whole presentation of the film springing from German realism, daily life a sequence of matter-of-fact activities, the film as far from sensationalist as can be said of any whose central concern is necrophilia.
Events bring them together, and as Rob lies in her bathtub Monika and Mark begin to date, the normality of eating ice cream at a carnival almost tediously dull, another world lived in daylight and shared with the humble herbivores whom they visit at the zoo, content to graze and never question in their pens and cages.
In one of the setpieces, having met Mark and attempting to establish a healthy relationship with him, Monika cuts up the remains of Rob, a scene more shocking for what it represents rather than the actual achievement, and as difficult as it can be to watch it would only be more so if it were in any way approaching realistic.
As Buffy Summers once described religion as freaky for the devotion of the reliquary, a preserved body part of a saint such as a hand or finger said to possess mystical properties, even the object that was used to kill such a person, is it any odder that Monika should choose to keep her favourite parts of Rob than someone who keeps the ashes of a relative in an urn on the mantel simply because he was a random guy whose grave she dug up?
Far more disturbing and upsetting is the needlessly graphic genuine vivisection of a seal shown later, condemned within the film by Mark when he views Monika’s videotape, but as with Nekromantik the laidback and personable Buttgereit makes it clear that this sequel is not to be taken entirely seriously. “For some reason you can’t really judge or be angry about the stuff that Monika is doing on screen… in her world this stuff is normal and she’s trying to be normal. That’s the struggle of the character.”
Cast when co-writer Franz Rodenkirchen approached her after seeing her sat alone in a screening of a Lucio Fulci film, Buttgereit believes her lack of experience on camera and his decision to offer her little direction gave her performance an innocence, though as a self-confessed horror fan who was involved in the underground music scene of Berlin his leading lady says “It wasn’t really something totally strange to me.”
A Manchester musician who moved to Berlin in the late seventies and had played a small part in Buttgereit’s previous film Der Todesking, the success of which helped fund Nekromantic 2, in his plain-speaking northern accent he describes his character as stiff, ironic for a film about necrophilia though perhaps what encourages Monika to take a chance on him, though stiff is certainly how he was feeling after filming his final bloody scene, eighteen hours strapped under a dummy body.
Reeder and Manford touring the filming sites in City of the Loving Dead while offering equal insight into the political history of the city over the last quarter century, the conformist blocks of concrete and glass representative of the intimidating and impersonal style of German architecture while other streets recall Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Buttgereit sees Berlin as “a city that has fallen out of time,” the rapid changes over the years since reunification meaning “we captured something that was only there for a few moments.”
The disc also featuring two short films continuing Buttegreit’s fascination with death, one equally controversially satirising Hitler, two music videos, one featuring Monika M, and various other sundries, Nekromantic 2 is never going to be a film to appeal to a wide audience; with only a handful of prints made initially, one was seized in Munich and legal actions followed, Buttgereit more concerned that his personal video collection might be taken in evidence, but nor can it be simply dismissed as worthless grot: as Monika M says, “that is what art if for, to be interpreted.”
Nekromantic 2 is available now on Blu-ray from Arrow Films and Video