Der Todesking, 1990.
Directed by Jörg Buttgereit.
Starring Hermann Kopp, Heinrich Ebber, Michael Krause, Susanne Betz, Eva-Maria Kurz, and Andreas Doehler.
Seven short stories based around the notion of suicide, all from the director of Nekromantik.
If ever there was a call for a movie about suicide – and why wouldn’t there be? – then it seems only fitting that Jörg Buttgereit, the filmmaker that spewed forth grubby corpse-loving classics Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2 into the world, should be the director to make it. However, true to the man’s style he hasn’t just made a film about suicide but seven vignettes all tied together by themes of suicide and/or violent death.
The film is broken up into seven sections all named after the days of the week, with a vague wraparound that shows a disintegrating corpse in between each segment. Monday is the first and begins with a man sitting his apartment writing letters before phoning his boss and quitting his job. There are various fish-related notices and posters in his room, and after he hangs up the telephone and goes to take a bath, and that is where things take a darker turn. Tuesday sees a man renting a Nazisploitation video from his local shop and watching it at home just before his wife walks in and berates him for being lazy, which doesn’t turn out well for anybody, and Wednesday is a very odd short of a depressed man telling a complete stranger about his less-than-satisfactory sex life with his wife before being handed a loaded gun. Thursday is a more haunting piece as a famous suicide bridge is filmed from many angles as the names and occupations of some of its victims are listed on the screen. Friday has a voyeuristic middle-aged woman spying on her young and frisky neighbours before the real reason for their sudden silence is revealed, while Saturday sees a murderer going on a killing spree whilst filming everything via a first-person-style camera rig. Things finish off with Sunday, in which a very distressed man wakes up and proceeds to have a mental breakdown.
Seven short films in under 80 minutes would be a stretch for some filmmakers but Jörg Buttgereit is a director who knows how to make the most of having very few resources and Der Todesking (The Death King) is nothing if not effective in getting across the different aspects of death and suicide. All of this is helped by Buttgereit’s naturalistic style of filmmaking, his eye for framing a shot and the gritty, unfussy way he makes something as grotesque as vomiting underwater seem beautiful and visually poetic. Of the seven films it is Thursday and the bleak, unflinching manner in which Buttgereit’s camera swoops across the various platforms and structural joins of the suicide bridge as the names of several people – unknown to us – flash up on the screen that is the most affecting. It is probably because it is left to us to work out the connection between these names and the bridge that we are looking at, and because it is a real place where real deaths took place as opposed to a piece of fiction told with actors and special effects, that Thursday, ironically given the director’s other works, is the most morbid and, in a strange way, most gratifying section of the film.
Housed in packaging that features new artwork by Gilles Vranckx that most death metal bands would sacrifice their grandmothers for, this spookily splendid special edition set features the film on Blu-ray and DVD and, like the Nekromantik HD conversions before it, isn’t the greatest movie to lend itself to high-definition as it is very grainy and grimy but if you’ve only ever seen it on a grubby VHS rip then there is a considerably noticeable difference. The discs also come with the soundtrack CD, a 60-page booklet, a replica of the chain letter seen in the film and a certificate featuring the original artwork, and special features include an audio commentary by Jörg Buttgereit and co-writer Franz Rodenkirchen, interviews with Jörg Buttgereit, composer and actor Hermann Kopp and Buttgereit fan Graham Rae, archive making-of featurette, original 1990 premier footage, 1992 documentary that includes the making of Der Todesking, Nekromantik and Nekromantik 2 plus shorts from Jörg Buttgereit and producer Manfred O. Jelinski. Overall, Der Todesking isn’t going to appeal to everybody but that is what makes it quite a unique viewing experience. It doesn’t repel in the same way that the Nekromantik movies do as this is not a movie designed to provoke but instead one to invoke a mood and to leave you feeling like you have just witnessed death, albeit without the showy, over-the-top theatrics that many horror movies usually succumb to. There are moments of brutality and splatter – like the darkly amusing climax to Tuesday – but these are few and far between, making them all the more memorable when they do happen and never at the expense of the grim atmosphere that is almost grave-like in its omnipresence. Give Der Todesking a go for something a little different as it is an experience that most hardcore horror fans look for but rarely find done with such sincerity and artistry, although if you’re after a horror movie to put on with your mates and have a laugh with/at then best skip it because a feel-good film it is definitely not.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★