An authentically post-modern horror film from Germany’s wildest wild man Jorg
Buttgereit. It was the 1989 follow up to his sicko classic NEKROMANTIK (1987),
and Buttgereit’s concerns here were far loftier...which is to say far artier.
The subject? In a word: Death.
Jorg Buttgereit proved with NEKROMANTIK that he’s not afraid to plumb the
darkest depths of depravity, and DER TODESKING (THE DEATH KING) continues the
tradition. It showcases a far more thoughtful side than the
anything-for-a-gross-out NEKROMANTIK or its 1991 sequel, and is far closer to
Buttgereit’s third (and, sadly, latest) feature, 1993’s non-linear
phantasmagoria SCHRAMM. Like that film, the word for DER TODESKING is,
fortunately or unfortunately, “interesting.”
Divided into seven days, the story has something of a connecting thread in
the form of an English language chain letter espousing the glories of death (“In
six days God created Heaven and Earth and on the seventh day he committed
suicide”), but this is just a ruse, as Buttgereit’s real aims are far more
abstract. Each day has a different character committing suicide in some manner,
under control of the “Death King” who “makes people not want to live anymore.”
On Monday, a man returns home from work, seals a letter, tidies up his
house, shaves and takes an overdose of pills, expiring in his bathtub.
On Tuesday, a dude watches a Nazi exploitation video
where a guy gets his dong cut off; the viewer’s girlfriend enters and he shoots
her in the head...and later puts an empty frame over her brains splattered on
the wall. But this entire episode, it turns out, is playing on a TV screen in a
room where a nondescript man has hung himself.
Wednesday: a woman runs into a man on a park bench who launches
into a brooding monologue about how his wife bled every time they had sex and
how he killed her (or something) because of it. The woman pulls out a gun and
points it at him. He promptly takes it from her and shoots himself in the
Thursday’s segment consists of shots of a bridge over
which are superimposed a series of names, ages and dates belonging to people who
have committed suicide from it.
On Friday a woman spies a couple making out in an apartment window across
from her who then disappear inside, apparently to have sex; a subsequent shot
shows they’ve actually committed suicide.
In Saturday’s episode a woman straps a super-8mm camera
to her shoulder and loads a gun. The remainder of the segment consists of
soundless POV footage of her shooting people at a concert.
On Sunday a shirtless, emaciated asshole beats his head
against a wall until he dies.
As he proved with NEKROMANTIK, Buttgereit really knows how to make the most
of his limited budget and 8mm film stock. This film looks quite good, with a
desaturated color scheme that fits the overall conception extremely well. It
also has a suffocating air of morbidity and despair, which is, of course, also
integral to the subject matter. The explicitly post-modern elements are
striking, including a stretch during the end of the “Wednesday” man’s monologue
where the picture flutters and seems about to break, and “Saturday’s” disturbing
POV shooting spree, easily the film’s finest scene.
The segments are interspaced with loving close-ups of a decomposing corpse
swarming with maggots. There’s also a little girl who draws a stick figure
Death King and informs us of his ultimate purpose. Such elements are never
explained, not unlike the film’s most boring, superfluous sequence, the
names-superimposed-over-the-pastoral-bridge bit. I also could have done without
the sloooooooow pan around the room that takes up far too much of the
“Monday” sequence—I can take experimentation, but excess pretension is never
DER TODESKING (THE DEATH KING)
Film Threat Video
Director: Jorg Buttgereit
Producer: Manfred O. Jelinski
Screenplay: Jorg Buttgereit, Franz Rodenkirchen
Cast: Susanne Betz, Jorg Buttgereit, Heinrich Ebber, Bela B. Felsenheimer,
Angelika Hoch, Baerbel Juette, Hermann Kopp, Michael Krause, Eva-Maria Kurz,
Nicholas Petche, Mark Reeder, Hille Saul, Simone Sporl, Ades Zabel