DER TODESKING (JORG BUTTGEREIT, 1989)
"This is the King of Death. He makes people not want to live anymore."
Der Todesking was Buttgereit's second film, made shortly after his well-known Nekromantik. Buttgereit, to date, only has four feature films to his name; this one, the already mentioned Nekromantik, a sequel to Nekromantik, and the serial killer film Schramm. Due to the reputation he fell into because of the sensational theme of Nekromantik and it's sequel, Buttgereit is unfortunately often associated with plotless gore film and early 90s German splatter flicks. If the viewer expects something hilariously irreverent with Der Todesking, they will undoubtedly be let down.
The film is organized into days of the week, with a different suicide occurring on each day. On Monday, a man quits his job, writes some letters, feeds his fish, and then overdoses on pills in his bathtub. On Tuesday a man hangs himself while watching a splatter video. On Wednesday a woman walks to a park bench in the rain, listens to a man talk about problems with his wife, and then points a gun at him. The man then takes the gun from her, cocks it, and shoots himself in the head. On Thursday, a bridge is shown while names and ages of many people are listed. On Friday a lonely woman gets a letter in the mail demanding her to take her life after she spies on one of her neighbors. She throws the letter away and eats chocolate, eventually falling asleep. She gazes longingly out her window one more time, and the audience is show the couple she was spying on from her window earlier, dead in their bed. On Saturday, a woman reads somewhat of a manifesto on random mass killings as a form of suicide, then video tapes herself going to a concert and randomly shooting individuals until she herself is shot, and killed. And on Sunday, a man screams and bangs his head against a wall until he slumps to the floor, dead.
In between each days a body in a dark room decomposes. A girl sketches the death king in her sketchbook. But what does it add up to? All in all it adds up to a harrowing image of the self-destructiveness of humanity. The film has no central characters, each day of the week is disconnected from the former, except for the act of self destruction. What makes the film work is the way that Buttgereit handles the materials, and the subtle touches that he throws in at the most unexpected moment.
On Monday, the day that launches the film, Buttgereit uses very fluid, creative camera movements to emphasize the small space and banality of the man who is about to take his life. On Tuesday Buttgereit repeatedly plays with the viewers perceptions, but having a movie, within a movie, within the movie, to further show the sense of disconnect apparent in these sad and lonely individuals. Within one of the films- within-a-film Buttgereit has a character frame the blood splatter that's on the wall, creating a sort of message on violence as art, and calling out the audience members who were expecting mindless gore. On Wednesday Buttgereit actually distorts the image itself, having it sort of loop and skip in the way old video tapes tend to do, to echo the collapsing mental state of the man in utter desperation.
The film isn't perfect, in itself, as many of the episodes are significantly powerful, with others not bring much to the table. There is also a hauntingly simple score that helps with the atmosphere and nihilistic mood of the entire film. An important central point to the film is encoded within a letter than the spinster of the Friday episode gets. Starting with a quote form Lautreamont - "We lose our life with joy," the letter is a sort of suicide manifesto, and is aptly nihilistic. But despite some of it's flaws - aside from the aforementioned weaker episodes, there are some noticeable low-budget limitations, like evidence of the camera (the tracks in the bridge episode, some shadows in the Monday episode)-- the film is more than worthy of attention and very successful testament to the thoughts and ideas behind suicide.