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Der Tödesking

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Art and exploitation collide in shockingly bleak and uncompromising fashion.

Image of Der Tödesking

Jörg Buttgereit/ West Germany/ 1990/ 74 mins

Available on Blu-ray Mon 26 Feb 2018

Over the course of a few short years, the mordant young German Jörg Buttgereit made his name with low-budget, death-obsessed horror.  His most famous are Nekromantik and its sequel, still banned in several countries due to its scenes of necrophilia.  Der Tödesking was made in between those two films, and is a more sombre, bleak and experimental piece than those other infamous works.

Taking place over a week, Der Tödesking looks at death and suicide in its various forms, one each day.  There are no motives examined, nor the backstories of its characters.  One takes pills, one shoots himself, another banging his head repeatedly against a wall.  These scenes are framed by the graphic decomposition of a naked corpse over a period of months.

Obviously, for most viewers this film will be a hard sell.  There is no trace of the sick humour found in the Nekromantik moviesInstead is a nihilistic pit of existential despair that seeps into the soul and lingers for days.  As challenging as the film is however, there are moments of power, and even beauty.  The “Thursday” segment for example consists simply of shots of a bridge from various angles, with the names, ages and occupations of various people who have ended their lives jumping from the structure appearing on screen.  It’s simple, undeniably haunting, and emblematic of Buttgereit’s attempts to meld outrage and art.

Buttgereit is a filmmaker whose talent way exceeds his budgets and is more thoughtful and inventive than most of his peers working in exploitation cinema.  A scene in which a young man shoots a woman in the head may be a tacit acknowledgement of some link between fictionalised and real violence.  The man has been watching a video featuring Nazis castrating a prisoner (a nod to the notorious Ilsa sequence of Nazisploitation films) when the woman walks into the room.  After shooting the woman he removes a painting from its frame and places the frame over the brain and blood splatter on the wall.  The message is muddied further as it is revealed this entire scene is playing in the apartment of a woman who has just hanged herself.

The intense, cloying atmosphere of the film never lifts, but fascinates as it repels.  It is very, very hard to recommend, as it festers in the conscious like the decaying corpse to which Buttgereit’s camera constantly returns.  That said, it is an ambitious, well-made piece of avant-garde cinema that straddles the world of horror and the arthouse.  The imagery (and the director’s reputation) will always pull it more into the territory of the former, but one can’t help but admire the audacity and ambition of Der Tödesking, even if you find the material shocking.

This new Arrow Video Blu-ray version also contains the documentary Corpse Fucking Art which chronicles the making of the Nekromantik films and Der Tödesking.  It’s a fascinating look at the ingenuity this crew of young filmmakers in making these no-budget films, far removed from any studio system.