Jörg Buttgereit is the cult German director of four underground gems : « Nekromantik » (1987), « Der Todesking » (1990), « Nekromantik 2 » (1991) and « Schramm » (1993). We haven't heard a lot from him since 1993, until the recent « Final Girl » episode in « German Angst » last year. Following our articles on his work, we decided to arrange an interview with the man himself. He accepted very kindly, and took the time to discuss his career, his thoughts on contemporary cinema, and his current projects.
This interview was conducted in English, over Skype, on February 11th, 2016.
- Lire Version française ICI -
I. « FINAL GIRL »
R é t i n e s : Guten Tag Jörg, and thanks a lot for accepting this interview ! It’s been almost a year since « German Angst » was released on DVD : are you satisfied with the public & critic response to your film (the « Final Girl » episode) ?
Jörg Buttgereit : The response was pretty good, but in terms of financing we are still unable to get all the money back. In order to make money indeed, the producer has to sell the film to TV. But for TV, this film contains too much sex and violence. So if the producer wants to sell, he might be forced to cut down the film, down to what can be shown on TV. It's very frustrating.
R : Do you still have problems with censorship, in a way ?
JB : It's not so much about the violence, but the nudity. In my episode, after 12 minutes only, you can see the penis of this guy, and it's nothing you normally see on TV...
JB : That was just a small part of the budget. But it got us some attention, and led some investors to give us money. But it was hardly enough to start the shooting of my own episode. And when you watch the film, you can see that my episode is very basic and cheap : just one location, only half an hour long, and by the end of the film, when you see the last episode you realize there is much more money in it (« Alraune » episode, directed by Andreas Marschall).
« THE FACT THAT I STOPPED MAKING FILMS AFTER "SCHRAMM" IN 1993 DIDN'T MEAN THAT I STOPPED WORKING »
R : What was your initial intention when preparing « Final Girl » ? Did you feel like you had something new to bring to the screen, more than 20 years after « Schramm » ? Or is it a project that you had had in mind for a long time ?
JB : Actually, the basic idea was quite old. I think I wrote a one-page synopsis for another episodic film, maybe 10-15 years ago. I just took this old story and changed it of course. The fact that I stopped making films after « Schramm » in 1993 didn't mean that I stopped working. I just wasn't working on feature films anymore : I made short films, video clips, comic books, stage plays, radio plays, documentaries, so to me it's a very organic development. And now, making « Final girl » was more of a step back ! But of course, outside of Germany, this work is not so visible. So for my fans worldwide it must feel like I went away, but I'm much more working as a professional when I don't make films ! [laughs] For instance, some of my old film scripts turned up as radio plays. So it’s just the medium that has changed.
R : « Final Girl » was shot on digital film. But your previous films made a remarkable use of argentique film, super 8 or 16mm. What is your feeling about the all-digital contemporary production ? In particular, what do you think has been lost or gained in the transition from live FX to CGI FX ?
JB : I was raised with horror films that had practical effects. So when I see digital effects today, I don't take them seriously [laughs]. It doesn't really affect me. So I try to work with argentique film as often as I can. Last year, I did some video clips, all on super 8 (one of them is entitled « Lemmy I'm a feminist », for the band Half Girl, in 2013). The fact that « Final Girl » was shot on digital film gave me the opportunity to do things that I couldn't do on my previous films : for instance, all those big close ups [macro shooting].
« THAT'S A PROBLEM I HAVE WITH DIGITAL FILM: EVERYTHING IS SO MUCH IN FOCUS ! IT'S ALMOST UNINTERESTING. »
JB : Well, this girl is living in her own world, so everything can't be sharp and in focus, it has to be more blurry, because she's hiding herself. So that was the intention behind the technique. That's a problem I have with digital film : everything is so much in focus ! It's almost uninteresting.
R : Have you heard that Kodak is launching a new Super 8 camera ?
JB : Yes, it's funny because I used a lot of super 8 as well on « Final girl », for the flashback and exterior shots. So it's a mixed media film, after all.
R : Does the release of « Final Girl » encourage you to start a new film project ?
JB : Well, we haven't been able to earn any money with it, so there's no way we can launch another project, because we are still in debts ! [laughs] I haven't been paid properly yet. But that's not something unusual for my kind of films. All of my films were made with low budgets and « German angst » is the most expansive film I have ever made. My older films were more successfull commercially, but nobody got paid. And today I don't want to exploit anymore the people I'm working with.
R : In spite of money problems, did making this film lead to a renewed desire to make films ?
JB : I see that the feedback is much better than the other things I do. But I can earn much more money in Germany making stage plays, which is something I do quite regularly know. And everytime I get back to film, everybody gets to see it, but I don't get paid well, so for me it doesn't make much sense ! That’s why the two other directors of « German angst » really had to convince me to do it. It was a nice experience, but very different from the live stage work, where everything happens right in front of you. When making films, you only do these little bits and pieces : you have more control, but it's also more boring.
* * *
« I WORKED THERE AS A PROJECTIONIST AND I DID THE PROGRAM (…)
DOING WEIRD TRIPLE-FEATURES LIKE « BAMBI » + « ZOMBIE » + « GANDHI »
R : According to David Kerekes’ book « Sex Murder Art », you worked as a projectionist in the eighties, at the Xenon theater in Berlin. What do you recall from this experience ? What kind of films were you screening at that time ?
JB : When I was a kid, I used to go to this cinema. It had a different name then. I used to see monster movies : japenese monster movies, Frankenstein movies… In the eighties, this cinema was run by a friend of mine. I worked there as a a projectionist and I did the program. So we screened films of John Waters, Doris Wishman, zombie movies from Lucio Fulci, this kind of stuff… And doing also weird triple-features like « Bambi » + « Zombie » + « Ghandi »… And of course, I shot a part of « Nekromantik » there, and we also screened it there. This cinema was kind of a Head Quarter for my work. The cinema is still there : I’ve just been there two days ago to watch a film. And this friend of mine is still running it … and I still have free entrance ! [laughs]
R : Your early work, the short films in particular, were influenced by the « punk » movement. Then « Nekromantik » added a romantic dimension to that, which produced a weird combination : romanticism is pushed to the extreme when dealing with death, and doesn’t seem ironic at all. Therefore, would you describe yourself as a « romantic punk » ?
JB : You know, when I made my stage plays, I got a big review in a very important newspaper in Germany and they called me a « Punk Poet » [in fact, the expression was « Trash Poet » in an article by Die Welt]. That’s probably a fitting thing. On stage, it’s even more obvious because I deal with scenes from genre cinema. I made a stage play called « Besessen » , which means « Possessed ». It's about my own fixation on horror films, especially « The Exorcist ». So it’s very personal. « Possessed » is about this one girl, supposedly from the audience, who becomes possessed by the ghost of Linda Blair (the actress from « The Exorcist »). All kind or terrible things happen to her live on stage, and that’s a dimension that you can’t have on a screen. Here on stage, this possessed girl stands right in front of you, and because the audience is under 100 people… it gets so close to them ! [laughs] I am dealing with this horror genre, and the sexploitation films, that normal people, especially in the stage community, don’t take seriously. And I put these film genres on stage to let the audience think about it. So I would say that this « punk poet » or « romantic punk » thing is all the more fitting today, because I am doing all this trashy, underground and horrific stuff inside of the « establishment ».
R : Let’s talk about your four feature films : as opposed to standard, commercial films, we notice a high degree of realism in your films. Sometimes they look like some kind of home movies, they even look « amateurish » sometimes, and they often deal with very harsh situations. There’s also a documentary feeling about some of the locations where you shot them, like the bridge in « Der Todesking », or the dubbing booth for porn pictures in « Nekromantik 2 ». Was all this a consequence of low budgets, or purely intentional ? If you had enough money today, would you rather shoot everything in studio ?
JB : I think it helps the film a lot when you shoot on location. Even if it was a matter of budget limitation, it worked very well for my films. « Final girl » was shot in a real flat, because to me it’s more organic. I would always go for the real thing whenever it’s possible.
« WHEN I MAKE FILMS, I LIKE TO PRETEND THAT IT'S REAL, BUT WHEN I MAKE STAGE PLAYS, I LIKE TO PRETEND THAT IT’S A FILM. »
R : But a lot of horror films are shot in studios and are not dealing with realism, so that’s very striking in your films.
JB : When my films are dealing with reality, it’s good to do it this way. And « Final Girl » was like that. But I also like the artificial aesthetic of old films like the Universal horror classics. And that’s something I like to do on stage : I can build a set that is very appealing to me. But it has to work for the story. « Nekromantik » and « Final Girl » work better in a realistic surrounding because it’s more touching this way. I made a stage play about Ed Gein, the grave robber from the fifties, the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s « Psycho », « Silence of the Lambs », « Texas Chaisaw Massacre »… The stage was very much based on old film sets like the old Frankenstein films. The whole stage was black and white. For me its very tempting to have this studio film aesthetic put on a stage. You sit there, in front of it, and you see a picture… that is not a picture. Something that reminds you of watching a film. So, when I make films, I like to pretend that it’s real, but when I make stage plays, I like to pretend that it’s a film !
R : Now, a question you may have heard previously, but still : when seeing the morbid aspects in your films, especially this rotten corpse brought back from the swamp in « Nekromantik », and some allusions to the Nazis in « Der Toderking », one could wonder if there’s an intentional comment on the German past ; it seems like these rotten corpses stand for a past that should have stayed buried, and kept repressed. More over the « forbidden love » for these corpses may be interpreted as a radical act, that stresses out a broken link between past and present Germany. What do you think of this interpretation ?
JB : Yes, it’s something that was explored by a British professor called Linnie Blake. When I read that, I was totally amused by it, of course, but I also couldn't deny it. Because I live in Berlin, Germany, in this wall city — I used to live surrounded by these guys with machine guns on borders all the time, and we have this Nazi past, so I think she's right in a way, even if I didn’t put it in my films intentionally. It’s just there because it’s something that's here. But it’s something I like when I watch other films, when they tell something about the surroundings in which they are made. So I can understand why foreign audiences think that my films are about Nazi Germany, but for me... they are not ! [laughs]. I did play around with this idea, though, with my short film « Blutige Exzesse im Führerbunker » (« Bloody excess in the Führer's bunker », 1982), or « Captain Berlin vs. Hitler » (a super hero stage play — out on DVD), in which I'm definitely dealing with the Nazi past : the brain of Adolf Hitler is indeed one of the main characters. I also write comic books like this, which I enjoy a lot, because you don't suffer budget limitations. It's also something quite unusual in Germany, to deal with this Nazi past in a trashy cultural way – it's considered very subversive.
But as for the stage play of « Captain Berlin vs. Hitler », it was surprisingly well received – and was even funded by the government ! [laughs] The trailer is one of my most successful trailers on youtube, perhaps because of the « Hitler » tag in it. So this might be my most « commercial thing ».
« NOWADAYS MONSTERS DON'T SCARE US ANYMORE :
THEY GIVE US MORE COMFORT, BECAUSE THE REAL MONSTERS
TODAY WOULD BE THE HUMAN BEINGS. »
R : You have previously stated your love for movie monsters such as Godzilla, and later your fascination for « monsters » like Ed Gein. We can feel an empathy towards their solitary madness like in « Schramm ». What is the ultimate monster for you today ? Has modern society brought some kind of new monsters ?
JB : I did a documentary film for Arte in 2008, about that question : « Monsterland ». It's a film in which I travel around the world, talking to monster makers : Japan, USA, Switzerland... and I ask them if we still need monsters. The final answer is that nowadays monsters don't scare us anymore, on the contrary : they give us more comfort, because the real monsters today would be the human beings, like the terrorists, or the Joker in « The Dark Knight ».
R : Your films are full of hommages to B and Z horror films, but also to the French New wave (Godard, Resnais), and even the experimental US cinema from the 1960s & 1970s. Is this a period in cinema history that you appreciate more than others ? Was it in your opinion a freer period in terms of creativity ?
JB : It really depends on how you look at it. There was a certain freedom in the sixties or the seventies. The New Hollywood was really amazing. I just finished my stage play about the « Exorcist » (« Possessed ») and I know exactly that a film like this one could not be made today. And I think the French New wave had an artistic approach that would be impossible today for bigger markets. And you had underground cinemas as well, with John Waters for instance... And the sixties had this golden age in Japan for monster movies... So I would say it was a glorious time.
In fact, one of my inspirations were the old films by John Waters. They were like... from a different universe ! They were really something, in terms of how to make movies and not care about the rest of the world, that influenced me, that gave me the idea I could do this as well.
In the eighties it took so much effort to make a film, and today it’s so much easier, so there should be more freedom. On the other hand if you look at the Hollywood films, they are more expansive than ever, even if they have all the digital abilities. But they don't take risks anymore at all, unlike they used to in the seventies. I couldn't imagine a film like « Taxi Driver » being made today by a big studio [laughs].
R : Speaking of Hollywood, have you ever wished to direct a Hollywood film, something more « mainstream » ?
JB : I don’t think I could do it… I mean, look at my films ! [laughs] I really enjoy superhero films, like « Spiderman » or « The Avengers », but I don’t think I could do that. In these big budget films, the director is only a small wheel in the big machine, so he doesn’t really get a lot of decisive, creative power. I imagine it would be a very frustrating experience.
R : Some scenes in your films are inspired by the silent era. Even if music plays on the sound track, they already work very well on their own. Do you have a special love for the silent era ? Do you have references in silent films ?
JB : One of my references would be the German heritage like the old « Nosferatu » in the 20s. It's interesting because I made a stage play about Nosferatu, 3 years ago, called « Nosferatu Lives » ("Nosferatu Lebt !"). I really did recreate the old film for the stage. I took many of the optical references from the « Cabinet of Dr Caligari », mixed with the plot of « Nosferatu » and I adjusted it into a silent stage play. The actors where only moving their lips, then everything went black on stage and you could see the title card appear, for the audience to read it. It was a very strange experience. But it went on very well.
R : It's interesting, because « Caligari » is a very expressionist film, shot entirely in studio, whereas « Nosferatu » uses a lot of natural sets.
JB : Yes, « Nosferatu » is very naturalistic. But if you talk or read about it, you always get the impression that it's an expressionist film. But in fact it's pretty much a naturalistic film. But for the stage it doesn't work, so I made a real expressionist piece of work. And the audience came to me after the show and said : « this is perfect, even better than the original ! » [laughs]
« WHEN WE HAD THE CAMERA ON THE CEILING,
WE COULDN'T EVEN LOOK THROUGH IT TO CHECK THE PICTURE.
SO WE DIDN'T REALLY KNOW WHAT WE WERE DOING, AND WE WERE
LUCKY THAT EVERYTHING WAS EVEN IN FOCUS ! »
R : After more than 20 years, what do you think of your four feature films, now that they have become cult ? Are you proud to have directed them ? Which one is your favorite, and why ?
JB : That's very hard to say, because I've never been able to watch my films in terms of how they work, because I kwow too much about them. But « Schramm » is the film that is the closest to my original plans. With the first « Nekromantik » instead, I wasn't sure of what I was doing, and I was surprised about what had come out in the end. You must keep in mind that when I made those films, I didn't have a control-screen to see what I was shooting, like we have today. And very often, when we had the camera on the ceiling for instance, we couldn't even look through it to check the picture. So we didn't really know what we were doing, and we were lucky that everything was even in focus ! [laughs]. So, having that in mind, I almost feel like I'm not responsible for these films. At all. Because they were not planed in the way I plan things today. When I make a stage play today, I can ask exactly for what I want, in terms of lights and acting.
* * *
III. CONTEMPORARY CINEMA
R : Do you watch a lot of contemporary films ? Among them, do you watch a lot of horror films ?
JB : I also work as a film critic so I watch films and I write about films. But not so much about horror films. I have seen so many of them, they don’t affect me anymore. So I get bored very easily [laughs]. Even if I can appreciate a TV series like « The Waking Dead », I still kind of step out of it in the third season because it’s the same all the time.
« THE FRENCH FILMS I'VE SEEN SOME YEARS AGO
GAVE ME A NEW INTEREST IN HORROR FILMS. »
R : In France, the horror film genre seems rather discreet. However, in the 2000s, some French horror films dealt with numerous taboos like incest, pornography, ultra-violence ; they were labelled « New French extremity », including films directed by Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, and titles like « Irreversible », « High Tension », « Martyrs », « Frontiers », « Rape Me », « In My Skin »... Have you seen any of them ?
JB : The French films I’ve seen some years ago gave me a new interest in horror films. I really like the films by Gaspar Noé. I met him in Helsinki, where he screened his short film « Carne » (1991), together with my films. I saw « Enter the Void », and I really liked the way he portrayed Tokyo. The city at night looks exactly like that, if you have jet-lag and everything. And I was shocked by « Irreversible » of course.
I also liked « Inside » with Beatrice Dalle (photo) as well as « High Tension » ; I really liked « Martyrs » because of the plot and the philosophical level but I didn’t really liked watching it… As for « Frontiers », I thought it was OK because of the « feminist » approach.
R : In the last 10-15 years, the horror genre has become more and more extreme, violent, gory, realistic, and sadistic. What do you think in particular of the « Torture porn » genre (« Hostel », « Saw », etc.) ?
JB : I never really liked the « Saw » films. I really can’t say why but they don’t work for me. I only saw the first « Hostel » and I liked it because, if I remember correctly, the first half is made like a teen movie. Then it gets really gruesome. It was one of the first films where you could see that the Americans were afraid of Eastern Europe, so I liked that ! [laughs]
« I THINK THAT WE DON'T NEED HORROR FILMS ANYMORE. »
R : Aren’t the real horror films today those produced by ISIS and posted on Youtube ? Or even all the smart phone videos capturing gory accidents, posted through the web ? What do you think of these images, more and more frequent, that we can find very easily today, more than 20 years ago ? These images are striking us « by surprise », even if we don’t ask for them sometimes… In terms of film making today, could any director deal with this level of violence, and its banalization ? Can you shock people anymore on a cinema screen ?
JB : That might be one of the reasons why I am not so much interested in horror films anymore. The real world delivers enough horror and horror films are not really scary anymore. Doing horror on stage is different because it’s a different platform where you can discuss this kind of thing. So, yes, I am a bit afraid that the horror genre has lost the bite, has lost the ability to deal with this kind of images, because reality is so much more shocking. The possibility today that you can watch every plane crash on Youtube or on your smartphone, is so overwhelming that you are not looking for these images anymore. When I was young I wanted to see those films, because I was looking for violent images. Today, I am trying to avoid these images [laughs] because they are everywhere and I don’t want to be affected by them. I don’t think that there is more violence today than in the old days, but the fact that this violence is visible on the internet, all the time, gives you the feeling that there is more violence. That’s a really strange concept. In a way, I think that we don't need horror films anymore, because with all the threats, the violence, we are fed up with it. [laughs]
R : On november 13th (Friday...), a mass murder attack was perpetrated in Paris. After this shocking event, retrospectively, one thing stroke us : the worst attack, against the Bataclan theater, reminded us of the saturday episode in « Der Todesking », in which a woman kills randomly during a rock concert. Have you noticed the resemblance ? [see our post "Contre-champ #2"]
JB : Not really, because this episode was made 25 years ago. The world was a different place back then. The idea behind it, and because the film was about suicide, was that this girl is killing herself, but only in this way of taking a lot of people with her. It’s a totally different approach from the ISIS killers, right ?
In fact, the Saturday episode of « Der Todesking » was based on the American case of Charles Whitman : a guy who climbed on top of a tower, with a shotgun, shooting students in a university [The University of Texas massacre, 1966]. When you climb on top of a tower, shooting people, you can be sure that you won’t get away alive, because you’re trapped. This guy had a kind of suicide mission and that was the psychological idea we borrowed. Of course, the ISIS terrorist threat was totally unknown 25 years ago. But it’s interesting that you see a resemblance.
* * *
IV. COMING UP NEXT
R : Are you working on a new project ?
JB : I am working on a talk-show series for the stage, about trash culture. And I am working on a new comic book for Captain Berlin, called « Captain Berlin and North Korea ».
R : Danke schön Jörg !
Aurelio & Jean-Paul
Credits : Jörg Buttgereit films & archives © Jörg Buttgereit / "A l'intérieur" © La Fabrique de Films / ISIS killer & victim © Iraqi News - oct. 4th 2014