To say Jorg Buttgereit is “controversial” or even “singular” would be understating the case a bit. Nekromantik has been considered a transgressive classic since its release in 1987, and all his subsequent three features have attracted significant underground attention.

“Polarising”, though? That’s probably fairer. Even dedicated horror and cult fans can chafe at a viewing of Nekromantik, while his oeuvre is sometimes viewed as overtly crass by the arthouse crowd.

Indeed, none of Buttgereit’s movies are necessarily easy jumping-on points if you’re looking to take your first steps into the world of transgressive cinema. While certainly not the most extreme movies ever made, there are a few barriers to entry. They’re all extremely low-budget, deeply ugly to look at and highly confronting both in subject matter and visuals. Some of them are still banned in several countries, too!

With this said, I do think all four of his films should be seen, and seen more widely. Before we dissect his actual features, it’s worth laying some groundwork.

“Left for good. Took the corpse.”

To the novice viewer, all graphic or transgressive imagery in cinema can seem as though it springs from the same place. By default, surely, it is all created equal.

If you move in the world of cult cinema or literature, these sorts of assumptions and discussions are pretty frequent, often annoying and even more rarely carried out by anyone with any expertise. It seems that many people are still eager to carry the same torch as Tipper Gore or Mary Whitehouse, albeit under more secular auspices.

The good news is that the incorrectness of such an assertion tends to become self-evident as people watch more films and accrue more life experiences over time. Friday the 13th Part IV and I Saw the Devil both feature a lot of violence; most adults watching them back-to-back would see that violence is deployed for drastically different reasons, even if they didn’t necessarily care for the violence itself.

However, I would argue that what we consider “transgressive” is often quite relative. It must be measured in relation to our own personal experiences, the media we have previously consumed and even the environment where we experience it. A forbidden episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may be more revolutionary to a sheltered child than Pasolini’s Salò is to a seasoned arthouse adult viewer.

Washing that salty taste out of your mouth

Few recent films exemplify this better than Saltburn, which in 2023 seems to have been many people’s introduction to more transgressive content in movies. There have been some good memes and some amusing products, but there’s also been the predictable discussions about whether it was “too much” or “the most offensive movie of the year”.

The consensus amongst most of my friends who tend to stick to Hollywood fare has been “Well, that was shocking.”

Among other friends with a broader background in cult and weird cinema – and I would daresay that includes most of you reading right here on Cinepunx – the reaction has been more “Yeah, it’s gross. I’ve seen much worse though.”

I tend to think both are valid reactions. People’s desire to explore more difficult subjects cannot be discounted; a closed door for some is a gateway to others.

By contrast, Buttgereit’s works tend to be considered more universally transgressive. With these considerations in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of his four films – Nekromantik, Der Todesking, Nekromantik 2: Return of the Loving Dead and Schramm.


Nekromantik (1987)

At its core, Nekromantik is a zero-budget black comedy/horror movie that features a grave-robbing couple with an ahem interesting sex life. Over the course of a few days, we watch their relationship rot away like the titular corpse, fuelled by a blend of apathy, poor communication, and a wide range of shocking imagery that culminates with a blend of sex and death rarely seen onscreen before or since.

Now, it’s a gross film, there’s no question there. But it is also a movie that was ultimately made to offend, and it shows in the final product. Even today, it’s a pretty shocking watch, thanks to the subject matter, low image quality and disgustingly impressive special effects.

Critique of authoritarian government power is certainly implicit, and the lack of connection in real-life relationships is a little more explicit. Yet the overall effect is quite different to something like Salò, where the onscreen cruelty and abuse is metaphor for the very real abuses that fascist governments executed during World War II. Nekromantik instead emerges from its own ooze as a somewhat shallow movie – less of a grim memento mori for audiences to seriously contemplate and more of a middle finger to the Tipper Gores of the world.

This has value in its own right, of course. However, it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to repeat viewings and it’s easy to point to other movies that can offend in a more effective fashion. Perhaps, admittedly, not with the same audacity.

Still, it’s a must-view for any aspiring indie filmmakers. Whether or not you are a horror fan, it’s worth watching to see what can be achieved with an unsettling vision, a camera and generous friends.


Der Todesking (1990)

Rather than choosing to double down on the grotesquerie of Nekromantik, Buttgereit wisely pulled back somewhat for Der Todesking. Although far less overtly disgusting, it’s arguably a far more confronting film in its own right – and possibly Buttgereit’s best overall.

Lacking in central characters, the plot is conveyed by a series of vignettes broadly tied to violent death or suicide. Hints of a malign cult or conspiracy emerge periodically, though the viewer is never able to form a complete picture. Each vignette is ambiguous, self-referential and despite interstitial cards that suggest a trip through the week, may not be entirely linear.

Even this description suggests a more straightforward narrative than we see onscreen. Many movies have used film-within-a-film as a technique; Der Todesking takes it several layers further, leaving the viewer quite unsure what’s “real” in the final product – such as the names of those flashed during the agonising “Thursday” sequence, or the appearance of numerous VHS copies of Nekromantik.

All of this is offset by footage of a slowing decaying corpse that recurs in between the main sequences. Yet it’s no simple grand guignol spectacle, either; where Nekromantik trades in black comedy, Der Todesking is far more bleak and sincere.

Ultimately, Der Todesking appears to be a meditation on death – particularly the violent variety – possessing a Rorschach-like quality that leaves the viewer drawing their own conclusions from what they’ve just seen. It’s one of the rare films I’ve seen that I’d truly describe as haunting.


Nekromantik 2: Return of the Loving Dead (1991)

The quest for true love and human connection continues in this audacious sequel to Nekromantik. It’s certainly a far better-made film than its predecessor; Buttgereit had clearly learned a great deal from his prior two features, as well as the various shorts he’d worked on.

The characters are more well-rounded and fleshed-out, rather than being simple ciphers or pervert archetypes like the first. The ending is also impressively shocking – unquestionably one of Buttgereit’s boldest.

The attention to detail in the set-dressing is particularly impressive. Keen-eyed viewers will spot an artwork by notorious real-life necrophile and self-described “morgue rat” Karen Greenlee hiding within plain sight.

With all of this said, it doesn’t quite recapture the dubious magic of the first when taken as a whole. The black comedy of the first is largely lacking, though there is an amusing parody of stereotypical arthouse movies as a film-within-a-film. At almost 2 hours long, it straddles a fine line between being genuinely introspective and simply being meandering and moribund.

If you like off-putting art, though, it still comes highly recommended. And it’s definitely a shame that the implied sequel has only ever seen the light of day as a comic, instead of a complete movie.


Schramm (1993)

Kicking off with a quote from the monstrous Carl Panzram, Schramm is a slice-of-life approach to the grim goings-on in the life of a serial killer.

Buttgereit’s interest in serial killers is evident in previous work (Nekromantik 2 includes quotes from Ted Bundy) and to be fair, could probably be inferred from the broader subject matter of his films. But this is the movie where he digs deepest. Buttgereit presents not only the horrors of murder and self-harm; he also casts an eye over the relatively mundane aspects that follow. After all, bodies need to be disposed of; bloodstains need to be whitewashed over.

Yet Schramm himself is not a one-note character. He echoes some of the complexities shown by the aforementioned Bundy.

During the early 1970s, Bundy volunteered at a suicide prevention hotline, where eventual true crime writer Ann Rule worked alongside him. This seeming incongruity was – understandably – something Rule struggled with when Bundy was eventually caught and convicted. To quote from her book on Bundy, The Stranger Beside Me:

“If, as many people believe today, Ted Bundy took lives, he also saved lives. I know he did, because I was there when he did it.”

So too do we see Schramm acting as some kind of protector for the sex worker who lives next door to him. The relationship is not a wholesome one, given his actions toward her throughout the film, but the effects of his eventual absence become clear in some of the film’s closing scenes.

Schramm doesn’t play around with narrative structure to the same degree as Der Todesking. In many ways, though, it still subverts audience expectations with its strangely understated tone and unconventional ending. It’s thought-provoking, not easily categorised and not easily forgotten.


“My favourite characters are people who think they’re normal but they’re not.” – John Waters

One of art’s functions can be to make the seemingly repulsive into the relatable. Buttgereit’s collection of underground pervs are (on the outside, at least) normal, working-class people. They are complex, difficult and repulsive in their own ways – but they are not the authoritarian sadists hiding behind respectability that you might find in Salò or the first season of True Detective.

Their desires and goals are more universal than their extreme tastes and actions might initially suggest. The couple in Nekromantik are highly dysfunctional long before the central corpse enters their relationship. The older lady in the “Friday” sequence of Der Todesking is disappointed with the choices she’s made in life.  Nekromantik 2’s Monika struggles to reconcile the drives of her id with her desire for a functional relationship. Schramm’s titular character is ostracised for his strange looks and lack of ability to make friends in a conventional way.

Likewise, we have all felt the need for connection, the sensation of not fitting in, been fired from a job we didn’t want in the first place or sought affection in ways we know are not good for us.

To be clear, this is not the same as approving of or excusing everything these characters do. Rather, what it does demonstrate is that transgression onscreen need not only shock; it can serve as a profound metaphor for the everyday.

As for Buttgereit himself? Today, he primarily works in TV production and theatre. He films the occasional short, but has not made another feature since the 1990s. He’s certainly no recluse either, being periodically interviewed and making the odd convention or panel appearance. When asked, he has tended to cite internet piracy as an obstacle to securing financing for further features.

It is a shame. Though a James Gunn-style reinvention from underground gross-out filmmaker to major media mogul seems unlikely (and probably unwanted), it is hard not to assume that Buttgereit would still have some interesting things to say, given the right resources.

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