Der Todesking Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Following the almost instantaneous cult stardom afforded to him by his ode to the ‘loving dead,’ Nekromantik (1987), director Jörg Buttgereit made another bleak, but more ambitious zero budget exploration of human mortality called Der Todesking (aka: The Death King, 1989). For his second feature, Buttgereit did away with the already barebones narrative structure of Nekromantik, opting instead to focus on an anthology structure, which divided the already brief 76-minute film into seven separate parts. Each of these episodes is named for a different day of the week, is framed by images of a gradually rotting corpse or a little girl drawing her rendition of The Death King, and is devoted to a different perverted and/or abhorrent aspect of corporeal and spiritual death.
Monday – Things begin with the brutally sobering suicide of a lonely office worker. We aren’t given much information about who this guy is, but his actions – quitting his job, writing suicide notes (?), cleaning his apartment, shaving, and eating canned sardines – are enough to subtly humanize him. The imagery of him expiring in the bathtub simultaneously with his pet goldfish sets the stage for the film’s consistently eerie poignancy.
Tuesday – The most heavy-handed short of the bunch (which is really saying something) sees Buttgereit sarcastically addressing his critics and the critics of his German Underground contemporaries and inspirations. A young man enters a video store (one that just so happens to be littered with Nekromantik posters) and rents a particularly nasty (and fictional) Nazisploitation movie labeled Vera: Todesengel der Gestapo (the cover art utilizes the Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS  poster and the opening narration is from the English dub of Love Camp 7 ). He almost rents My Dinner with Andre (1981), but has second thoughts. His girlfriend arrives home to see him watching extreme and homoerotic slaughter (a man, played by Buttgereit himself, has his penis sliced off with garden sheers). She scolds him, he whips out a gun, and shoots her in the head, then he hangs a frame over her bloody brain-matter. One last twist – the whole thing turns out to be a movie within a movie.
Wednesday – The third part feels like the most logical extension of the Nekromantik series in its sense of melodramatic tragedy and obvious irony (though Buttgereit admits that he ‘stole’ the basic concept from Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 ). It’s a rainy day and a woman meets a distraught man sitting on a park bench. He explains that he has emotional issues and tells a long story about his abusive relationship with his wife. His anger is so great that it damages the film itself – the frames skip and the soundtrack is stretched. Without speaking a word, she listens until he confesses to his wife’s murder, then produces a gun from her purse. He grabs it from her and shoots himself.
Thursday – This section pauses the fictional horror for a moment of reflection on the more personal cost of real-life death. Buttgereit superimposes the names, ages, and occupations of suicide victims over footage of the bridge they jumped from when they died (though the film never implicitly says that they killed themselves). It sounds like an awkward and maybe even offensive inclusion, considering the exploitative style employed during the rest of the film, but it’s thoughtful, artistic, mesmerizing, and even moving.
Friday – Another particularly Nekromantik-esque entry follows another lonely individual; this time a woman who spies through her window on the happy couple next door. She finds a chain letter (remember those?), urging her to kill herself. She ignores it and wallows in her loneliness with a box of chocolates, before falling asleep and dreaming about the time she was a littler girl and walked in on her parents having noisy sex. Perhaps Buttgereit is showing us a psychological reason for her voyeurism. Maybe she’s not as lonely as we assume. It doesn’t really matter, though, because, when she wakes up, the young couple is dead, apparently taking the advice from the chain letter they also received.
Saturday – The most well-known of Der Todesking’s sections is the most unsettling in the current social climate. In it, Buttgereit spools mysterious film onto a reel. As it plays, we see a young woman reading from some kind of manifesto, attaching a makeshift steady-cam rig to her body, arming herself with a handgun, and recording herself murdering the audience of a rock concert. The murders are accompanied only by the sound of the projection reels turning. It seems that Buttgereit was ahead of his time with not only the found-footage element, but the sad fact that spree killings are part of our daily life. However, it’s less likely that Buttgereit was a secret Notradamus and more he likely that he was combining aspects of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).
Sunday – The film ends with the most to-the-point episode. A distraught man cries in anguish and slams his head against the wall beside his bed until he dies.
As far as I know, the only official DVD release of Der Todesking came from J & B (no relation to the liquor company) in Germany. This Cult Epics Blu-ray and its DVD counterpart (which I should have reviewed a month ago, I apologize) marks the film’s North American digital debut. Cult Epics had more to work with this time than they did with the 8mm Nekromantik footage, because Der Todesking was shot on a more HD friendly 16mm. The 1080p, 1.33:1 image – scanned from the negative and approved by the director, according to the box – looks exactly as we’d expect from the material and from Buttgereit as a filmmaker. The footage is purposefully dingy (though much more colorful than VHS versions) with the white levels blown out and the focus more standardized to be fixed in the middle ground. These ‘problems’ are all part of the director’s grotesque style, not digital artifacts. The consistent grain appears similar to other 16mm releases, though there is a fuzzy quality that may be a sign of damage to the material or attempts at digitally ‘correcting’ other issues (note that I’ve never seen a Cult Epics release that was particularly digitally cleansed). Print damage is prevalent, but rarely distracting.
While the video quality is as top notch as we can expect from the material, I’m a little disappointed with the audio. Der Todesking’s original mono has been replaced by 2.0 stereo & 5.1 remixes and all audio options (including the stereo English dub) are presented in compressed Dolby Digital sound. Considering that a lot of the film was shot without sound and that the obvious ADR and sound effects editing is part of the strange milieu that is a Jorg Buttgereit movie, the added oddity of an immersive and incredibly digital sounding track actually fits. There are few differences between the 2.0 and 5.1 mixes, aside from a bit more spread and LFE enhancement with the extra channels, so I suppose I’d recommend the 5.1 version on that fact alone. The mostly electronically produced, but quite sophisticated musical score – from Hermann Kopp, Daktari Lorenz, John Boy Walton, and The Angelus – benefits the most from a redub.
New introduction by Jorg Buttgereit that was recorded in 2015 (1:10, HD)
Commentary by Buttgereit and co-writer Franz Rodenkirchen – This English language commentary originally appeared on the German special edition DVD. It is quite informative and valuable, considering that almost all of the other supplements here were made almost 30 years ago.
The Making of Der Todesking (15:40, SD) – A rough, homemade, retrospective look at the production. It’s basically silent footage (from behind-the-scenes and the finished film) set to an interview with Buttgereit.
Corpse Fucking Art (58:10, HD) – A new HD version of the director’s documentary about the making of Nekromantik, Der Todesking, and Nekromantik 2. It’s a bit bizarre for a filmmaker to make his own career retrospective before his second two movies were even released – complete with a British narrator who discusses the ‘correct’ critical reading of each movie – but there’s also a lot of valuable information here. Most of the behind-the-scenes footage can be seen on the making-of featurettes included with the DVD and Blu-ray releases of each respective film.
Still photo gallery
Jorg Buttgereit trailer reel
Original motion picture soundtrack (28:30, audio only) – Unfortunately, the incredible musical score is only available for listening with the Blu-ray in the player. A CD or digital download code would be preferable in the future.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Full-sized versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.