Slashers & Serial Killers in Review: SCHRAMM (1993)
[65 minutes. Unrated. Director: Jorg Buttgereit]
Sometimes – okay, a lot of the time – I question the logic that drives my physical-media collection. Why are some DVDs more disposable and trade-worthy than others? Why are others as immovable as Stonehenge? There are films that sit on my shelves, never leaving the shrink-wrap; and others that are so mood-specific, I only re-watch after a passage of years. Salo is a great film, no question about it, but two hours of feel-good vibes it most certainly ain’t.
The same applies to the work of director Jorg Buttgereit.
After a string of shorts, his career began proper with the worldwide-controversial Video Nasty Nekromantik, which took a semi-comedic approach to a young couple’s desire to bring a rotting corpse into the bedroom. While a fine showcase for Buttgereit’s low-budget ingenuity (including some sick – and sick-funny – practical gore effects), the film was little more than the sum of its shock value (and I liked its labored, cheap-looking sequel even less).
The director fared much better with two other efforts: 1990’s actively oppressive Der Todesking (English translation: The Death King), which follows a group of unfortunate souls who fall victim to a lethal chain letter over the course of a week. The film is devoid of hope, and its experimental nature (more anthology than conventional narrative) creates a detachment from the characters that is deliberately cold. One can imagine Buttgereit’s intent: “This is humanity with the forced pleasantries and rule of law removed – see it and weep.”
This set the stage for 1993’s punishing Schramm.
The theme of this Machine Mean series is “Slashers and Serial Killers,” representing tropes of cinematic horror that may not be as overdone as the variations on archetypal monsters (vampires, werewolves, zombies), but emphasizes two subgenres that have nonetheless reached a certain saturation point. To make something truly unique of either, you have to doctor the formula, because slit throats and variations on Hannibal Lecter (or John Doe…or Jigsaw) just don’t – ahem – “cut it” anymore.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer kept the inner workings of its titular monster (played brilliantly by Michael Rooker) under lock and key, opting instead for an ice-cold catalog of antisocial behavior with no justifications given, nor excuses made.
Schramm takes the opposite approach.
Before Pulp Fiction and Memento popularized the cinematic gimmick of telling a story out of sequence, Buttgereit’s film used this device in a way that complemented a subjective narrative spinning – quite literally – out of control.
The film opens with Lothar Schramm (Florian Koerner von Gustorf), an apartment-dwelling serial killer (whom the tabloids have dubbed “The Lipstick Killer”), slaughtering two Jehovah’s Witnesses, photographing the nude corpses in macabre tableaux, before ascending a ladder to paint over the blood-spattered walls. Losing his balance, he crashes to the floor, the transgressions of his life flashing before his eyes: his relationship with an unidentified sibling or friend; the specter of his mother; castration anxiety; victim violation; and his unrequited love for Marianne (Monika M), the beautiful prostitute who lives next door.
The Silence of the Lambs and Seven took an investigative approach to unraveling the psychoses of serial killers. The brilliant sequence in Seven where Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Mills (Brad Pitt), and killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) share a long car ride out to the middle of nowhere crackles with provocation and potential answers. But in the end, we’re viewing it as outsiders, processing as outsiders would.
Schramm is told from the perspective of our killer-in-residence; not only that, it’s being told in his last moments, via a concussed mind where fragments of thought no longer connect in a coherent fashion (if they ever did to begin with). The narrative logic and flow is more of a nightmare in a damaged brain than Nightmare in a Damaged Brain.
Clocking in just shy of feature length, the film nonetheless feels robust and queasily fulfilling, surveying the killer’s psychological landscape with great efficiency. There are many interesting elements to Schramm that stem from Lothar’s Unreliable Narrator status: we frequently see that his right leg is intact; other times, a dummy leg is in its place. We see footage of him running a marathon in slow motion, both legs intact, the soundtrack a pulsing beat of labored breathing; the film opens with blurred footage of this, which is later manipulated to trick the viewer into witnessing sped-up footage of Lothar preparing to sexually violate an unconscious victim. The juxtapositions of sound and image, and the manner in which both are used determine the context of a given scene, are exploited to unsettling, jarring effect by Buttgereit.
Lothar’s diseased, guilt-based sexuality is actualized via vivid symbolism and hallucinogenic imagery. With a paranoid mood comparable to Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy,” Lothar listens to Marianne making love to a john; during this, he pulls out an inflated female torso – just breasts and a vaginal slit – and fucks it in tandem with the climaxing groans (all while a portrait of his mother hangs over the bed, keeping watch). The intimation of guilt doesn’t get more explicit than a scene where he drives nails through his penis, in close-up. Extending this even further, he later encounters a disembodied vagina dentata, inching ever closer to his flaccid member.
Lothar’s courtship of Marianne is fraught with harbingers of doom. While walking home after a date, the camera holds on a man crouched on the sidewalk; we’re not sure what’s going on until he puts a gun to his head and blows his brains out, after which the film stock goes to black-and-white, and the camera – in its recurring motif – circles the fresh corpse in a tabloid 360. Soon after, Lothar, in a summation of his unrequited love, spares Marianne from death, only for her to suffer something potentially worse in the film’s final image (which I used to find superfluous; now I see it as a bit of tragic irony).
With Nekromantik and Der Todesking, Buttgereit teased the unpleasant edges of subjects many would prefer not to consider. Schramm, however, literally digs into the gray matter of the titular character (its subtitle is Into the Mind of a Serial Killer), but in such a way that finds an aesthetic beauty beneath all the horror. Not sure what I’m supposed to do with that sickening paradox, but it makes for a singular masterpiece regardless.
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) will invite you inside for a cognac after this review posts. In the meantime, you can find his other writing at Crash Palace Productions (crashpalaceproductions.com) and Loud Green Bird (loudgreenbird.com). He also co-hosts the weekly horror podcast, The Last Knock, with Billy Crash (aka William Prystauk).