Nekromantik Blu-ray review

Arrow Video have given Jörg Buttgereit's 1987 cult favourite a hi-def make-over. Here's Craig's review...

At London’s Frightfest this year, director Jörg Buttgereit introduced this new hi-definition transfer of his 1987 film Nekromantik. He talked about how, when the film originally screened in London, he and producer Manfred Jelinski had to hide in an alleyway behind the cinema, clutching a copy of the print, terrified the police would seize it and throw them in jail before it could be shown.

Now, having being granted a BBFC 18 certificate for the first time, Buttgereit joked that it was no longer a “cool” film. In fact, this newfound acceptability made it outright “uncool”! On one hand, I suppose there’s an element of truth to the jibe. Viewers coming to Nekromantik for the first time in 2014 won’t be able to get a full rite of passage “experience” like the ones described in the new Morbid Fascination featurette by genre luminaries who tell of passing along badly edited bootlegs, smuggling tapes across the German border or risking arrest for selling copies…

Even my own discovery of Nekromantik was through postal tape-trading back in the day. One of my contacts enclosed a note saying he’d put 10 minutes of a film I ABSOLUTELY MUST SEE onto the end of a tape full of my usual gore/sleaze trash. When I got to this “teaser”, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. It was a dark, grimy, low-quality scene with no context; a woman sliding a condom down a sawn-off broom handle, squelching the handle into the rotted groin of a worse-for-wear corpse and then, along with her partner, making love to the thing! At one point, the corpse’s eyeball got sucked out and rolled around in the guy’s mouth. The whole affair was conducted to a soundtrack of lush romantic piano music and shot in some kind of weird soft-focus that made it seem curiously tender. I was shocked, disorientated, completely rocked out of my comfort zone. Most of the films I was into at the time were far more straightforward horror fare: gore galore, a couple of jokes, hard rock soundtracks. This felt different. Even without knowing anything about the film, I could feel it was “dangerous” in some way. So, of course, I wrote back to my buddy immediately demanding a copy of the full movie. It didn’t disappoint.

The “plot”, if you’re not familiar, is a kind of love story between two Berlin misfits, Rob and Betty (Daktari Lorenz and Beatrice M). They live in a grotty flat decorated with chicken wire and serial killer mugshots. Rob works at “Joe’s Cleaning Agency”, sweeping up the detritus after road accidents and such. His employers don’t know it but Rob has been secretly stealing limbs, blood and internal organs to take home and keep in jars that adorn his and Betty’s bookshelves. They dream of acquiring a whole corpse, and one day – in the aftermath of a bizarre gardening accident – their dreams come true. Rob brings home a rotted body and the aforementioned threesome occurs. Unfortunately, for Rob, Betty begins to form a bond with the corpse and her feelings for it threaten to overtake the ones she holds for Rob… Can their relationship survive? I won’t tell you how it ends but it’s pretty far out. The depravity just escalates right until the grisly end.

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For many years, this xth-generation VHS copy was all I had of Nekromantik. It seemed fitting to the film’s grubbiness and added to its seedy allure. Shot on 8mm and funded by Buttgereit and his friends, it was a proper “underground” effort and I was surprised when I read that Arrow were remastering it on Blu-Ray for a new release. To my further surprise, the transfer looks incredible. It’s a bright and clear picture but this doesn’t sacrifice the scratch, dirt and depth of the 8mm. Somehow they’ve managed to preserve the aesthetic and the spirit of the movie while also making it a pleasure to watch and a whole new experience. If anything, the new transfer helped me appreciate the technical aspects of the film (including some artful tracking shots and clever edits) more, something I’d not paid so much attention to in the past.

But that’s the thing about Nekromantik. It’s not as dumb as it looks. I won’t try to kid you that it’s high art. It’s flawed, obviously. It’s a debut feature by a bunch of punk kids who were more influenced by the visuals in the background of Throbbing Gristle shows than they were any conventional school of cinema. As a result, some scenes just don’t work (the real rabbit skinning, while just-about thematically justifiable – and allegedly not “cruel” because it was done on a farm – still jars) and the semi-improvised narrative constantly threatens to teeter over the edge into nonsense.

It’s not a bonafide classic in the traditional sense and yet still it retains a special something. A unique tone, perhaps borne out of its wild sense of experimentation. It flits from slapstick comedy to brutal gore to wicked melodrama to – yes – actual romance and somehow holds together. Despite being shocking and rough and knowingly grotesque, there’s something else beneath it. A rage or a sadness that it can’t quite elucidate. This emotion is neither a focused or fully formed one but it’s passionate and mad enough to be compelling. It’s a bizarre high-strung hysteria that provokes feelings in the viewer as extreme as any of the film’s more visceral content.

So even without the historical context and the legend surrounding this once-obscure film, it’s still easy to see still why Arrow have chosen to release it and give it – what has to be said – the royal treatment. It could sit comfortably alongside the BFI’s Flipside releases both in terms of the esoteric content and the sheer level of extras and information packed inside its gorgeous box. Besides a full commentary, highlights include two early Buttgereit shorts (Hot Love and Horror Heaven), an unmodified 35mm transfer of the film (incredible to compare with the HD version), the original Making Of Nekromantik documentary, and several newly-shot exclusive featurettes.

It really is everything you could ever want to know about this film, short of actually being in it. Of particular note to anyone who doesn’t already have one, the release also includes a soundtrack CD and this is a huge treat. The film’s main love theme in particular (composed by improbably-named Berlin rockabilly John Boy Walton) is up there with the best for me; a joyous piano piece, evocative of Riz Ortolani’s delicate and resonant Cannibal Holocaust score. The whole thing is a great disc to stick on at a dinner party if you want to feel a bit subversive while nibbling your quinoa…

While Nekromanitk may not be as “cool” as it once was and will still alienate a lot of viewers, anyone with an interest in transgressive cinema should be ecstatic that we live in a country where a film like Nekromantik is now not just available legally but actively celebrated with a premium release like this. It’s a perfect Christmas gift for the beloved degenerate pervert in your life. Or maybe just for the corpse you’ve got stashed in the bed. Depends which one you love the most, I guess.

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4 out of 5