While he's never really cared for this director's creative canon, Judge Bill Gibron couldn't help but be impressed by shockmeister Jorg Buttgereit's take on the tired serial-killer genre.
Today I am dirty…but tomorrow I'll just be dirt.
As he lies dying on the floor of his freshly painted apartment, Lothar Schramm reflects on his life as a reluctant serial killer. He has visions of his last victims—a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses he murdered while in mid-Jesus spiel. He remembers his youth, and days chasing his playmates at the beach. He is oddly fixated on his legs and, at times, we see his lower limb decked out in a prosthetic, perfectly healthy, wearing an ancient brace, and even spouting a bloody, festering stump. As the images become more fragmented, Schramm sees himself haunted by Cronenberg-esque sex demons—little blobs of body parts including a vagina with teeth. He performs acts of self-mutilation and recalls conversations he had with his next-door neighbor, a high-priced call girl. As the last bits of life begin leeching out of Schramm's shattered head, the pictures become more problematic. Some contradict one another, while others suggest a purely predatory reason for why murder became such a fascinating flaw in the man's messed-up psyche. As blood pools along the paint-spattered floorboards, we realize this will be the end of Schramm. But for those who thought they knew him—or worse, could rely on him—the horror is only just beginning.
Disturbingly disconnected, effective in its expressionistic style of storytelling, Jörg Buttgereit's terrific take on the serial-killer genre is unlike any supposed thriller you've ever experienced. Known for his geek-show classic Nekromantik and its even more scatological sequel, this exploration of evil via understatement is somewhat unusual for the mostly over-the-top German maverick. While it does still celebrate his love for the sick and perverted, the gratuitous gore and free flowing blood the director is known for is scaled back significantly here, with a more psychosexual approach being employed. Thanks to brave performances by Florian Koerner von Gustorf in the title role and Monika M., and Buttgereit's use of suggestion over specifics, it gives the otherwise overdone category a breath of baffling fresh air. There are many tantalizing secrets left unexplained in Schramm, images and ideas that are repeated and then altered to create a feeling of unsettled reality. We are never sure if the main character, a disheartened taxi driver with a seemingly decent spirit, is killing out of pain, murdering to make his implied (and obvious) inadequacies less severe, or merely imagining everything—the deaths, his own impenetrable flaws, the attention from his prostitute neighbor—as part of some deeper, sicker personal problem. The levels of uncertainty, mixed with Buttgereit's high-minded artistic ideals, make Schramm a dread-filled delusion into a lonely man's lost sense of self.
A first flash of a newspaper headline is our initial clue about the situation we are in. Someone called "The Lipstick Killer" has died in a freakish accident, and Schramm sets out to tell the story behind the sleazy tabloid death scene photo on the front page. The "accident" is replayed several times, with each instance altering a major fact or leaving out a crucial bit of explanatory information. Then Buttgereit proceeds to probe the mind of this main character, looking both at the past and the present, the situational and the circumstantial, to create a portrait of pain and perversion so palatable you can almost taste it. Florian Koerner von Gustorf, his face constantly awash in a stubbly five o'clock shadow and baldness emphasizing his massive forehead, is a real sad sack here, a man so desperate for some kind of physical release that he will nail his penis to a tabletop or fornicate with a plastic blow-up toy while he overhears the sex moans from the people next door. Buttgereit handles these scenes with just the right amount of nastiness and nuance. For a man previously known for showing simulated necrophilia in all its unpleasant, pus-laden glory, the fact that Schramm is not some sordid snuff film is indeed a major creative compliment. Instead of suggesting he's sold out, this movie argues for Buttgereit's ascent into the ranks of real filmmaking. Before, his efforts seemed like effects reels laced with lewd and lascivious acts and atrocities. Here, there's a real method to his miscreance.
Similarly, the murders manage to be horrifying without the director's typical histrionics. Since we know Schramm is cleaning up after a rather messy splatterfest, we await the killings with claret-flowing anticipation. Oddly enough, when they do come, the deaths happen mostly offscreen, the abundant arterial spray our only real clue of how horrible they really were. Far more troubling is the sexual overtones that Buttgereit plays with. There are clear indications that our villain violates the people he harms, languid shots of knives cleaving garments and bloody corpse tableaus suggesting the nauseating profiles usually associated with serial killers. If we are to believe the pros, Schramm himself is using homicide as a way of making up for overt inadequacies (small penis, lack of a social life, issues with his own sense of physicality, etc.) and the violation of his victims plays directly into this. But Buttgereit is also out to revamp some of the standards. His Schramm is a sensitive man, driven to acts by demons both unseen and—in one of the film's goofiest conceits—actually seen. Not everything works here on an individual level, but taken as a whole Schramm marks a major step forward in Buttgereit's often aggravating filmography. Maybe the days of bathing in catguts are finally behind the vomit-inducing visionary. While not a classic, Schramm is one of the overdone serial killer genre's finest, and freshest, additions.
Thanks to Ryco Distribution and Barrel Entertainment, Schramm arrives on DVD in a fine technically-proficient package. The 133:1 full-screen image takes Buttgereit's 16mm production designs and polishes them into a near-pristine, professional package. The colors are maintained throughout and the contrasts have a crispness derived without excessive edge enhancement. Equally evocative is the Dolby Digital Stereo mix, a combination of groaning synth grooves and menacing keyboard ambiance. Dialogue is easily distinguishable and the English subtitles make easy work of the German conversations.
But perhaps the most exciting part of this release is the wealth of bonus features offered. Not just content to provide the standard digital assortment of extras—trailers, galleries, etc.—this DVD goes out of its way to give us two commentaries (one from Buttgereit and co-screenwriter Franz Rodenkirchen, another featuring Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Monika M.), a 35-minute making-of featurette, two short films that Buttgereit made in his youth (Mein Popi and Captain Berlin), and a music video for von Gustorf's band Mutter. All of this added content is excellent. The commentaries are contrasts in approach. The actors drop anecdotes and dish some of the backstage dirt we've come to expect from such supplements. The filmmakers are far more serious, letting us in on the difficulties independent productions have in the German film industry. While the backstage footage is fun, there is a great deal of cutting up and silliness. Some may be put off by the crazy tone, hoping for a more hands-on approach to the title. The two shorts are interesting, especially the one focusing on Buttgereit's terminally-ill father. It's moving in ways that, perhaps, the director never intended. The other effort is pure amateur comic-book action. Overall the complementary material is marvelous, bringing to life the work ethic and the motives behind one of the genre's more idiosyncratic voices.
For those who've been put off by Buttgereit's movies before, Schramm may be a good place to get reacquainted with his canon. It is by far his most accessible and least noxious cinematic statement—even with all its avant-garde strangeness. The serial-killer movie may be one of the more hackneyed categories for outsider artists, but Buttgereit's slant definitely stands apart. This is one intriguing film, both aesthetically and psychologically. Fans of fear should definitely check it out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Barrel Entertainment
• Commentary by Director Jorg Buttgereit and Co-Screenwriter Franz Rodenkirchen
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