DIRECTED BY: Jörg Buttgereit
FEATURING: Due to the episodic nature of the film, too many to list
PLOT: The Death King is a seven-part film with no overarching plot—each of the episodes is a vignette involving suicide, murder, and sometimes both. The events may take place over the course of a week (Monday through Sunday), with some tied together by the letters sent through the post by Monday’s suicide victim.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Der Todesking‘s qualifications as a weird movie stem from its utter unclassifiability as any other kind of movie. It’s too grisly for the arthouse and too philosophical for the grindhouse. Its lack of a single narrative makes it awkwardly describable as a film essay. That in mind, it is tremendously well executed, with moments of despair, surrealism, and beauty.
COMMENTS: In the film’s introduction (included as a bonus feature), Jörg Buttgereit assures the audience, “Don’t get me wrong here: it’s a movie against suicide.” It says something of either the kind of person who would watch this movie or, more likely, the kind who would refuse to watch it but still condemn it, that this explanation is necessary. To be fair, Der Todesking is at times a difficult movie, but that is due to the unpleasant subject matter (suicide), not the director’s handling of it.
The suicide-centered set-pieces are framed by a time-lapse image of a decomposing corpse. Within this framing structure is another one: an over-the-shoulder view of a young girl writing in a journal, beginning with the title for a drawing (“der Todesking”, in cute, loopy cursive), and ending with her finishing a drawing of a skeleton with a crown. She explains to the camera, “This is the King of Death. He makes people want to die.” Now already at two levels of framedness, the seven (largely) separate suicide sketches are each further framed by the days of the week, sometimes overlapping with each other. Got that?
Even beyond the framing cantrip, the film’s style is a showcase for low budget inventiveness. The first episode has a montage scene accomplished by a (seemingly?) uncut shot of a camera rotating several times full circle around a small apartment room, showing a man going through mundane tasks shortly after resigning from a well-paying job. Background items reveal his character. His only companion seems to be a goldfish, who joins him in death once he’s downed dozens of pills while in the bathtub. Or is it his only companion? Before his resignation and suicide, he writes and sends off about half a dozen letters.
On Tuesday, one is received by a friend, informing him of the sender’s suicide. He carries this note to a video rental place where, almost choosing My Dinner with André, instead opts for Vera: the Death-Angel of the Gestapo. The clerk is surprised he’s only renting one movie: the fellow explains he only has time for one—he’s got a birthday party to go to. Or so he thought. Despite the letter, his rental needs watching; and it’s a real pity that his girlfriend interrupts his viewing…
Of the seven days, Thursday is perhaps the most haunting. Using camera shots reminiscent of Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, the bit is virtually silent: just various angles and journeys through, above, in, and around a large overpass. Title cards appear, indicating the name, age, and profession of random individuals. These are all recorded suicides from that location.
Buttgereit’s movie is fairly brief, but that is due to his efficiency as a director and storyteller. Some very bleak ideas are explored here, and despite the director’s reputation, the movie never falls into the realm of the tasteless.
NOTE ON THE LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY: So carefully was this little gem packaged that I was somewhat loath to break the seal and open it. The cover sleeve, unlike so many releases, was actually different from the box art. Within, not only was there a fully packed disc (trailers for the director’s oeuvre, a documentary, and a soundtrack-only option, as well as a film introduction and commentary) but also a graphic postcard; limited in quantity, like the disc. If you get your hands on on it, you’ll have one of only 3,000 copies.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The end result is oddly beautiful and perhaps Buttgereit’s finest achievement as a director…”–Nathaniel Thompson, Mondo Digital (Blu-ray)