I fell in love with the horror genre at a young age. One thing that grabbed my attention was The X-Files, with its diversity of stories and ways to scare me. From there I moved onto traditional slashers, and to this day I’m amazed by the passion and dedication of genre fans, and how much love and attention horror films now enjoy on DVD and Blu-ray. One such company is Arrow Video, of course, whose latest release, Der Todesking (The Death King), is yet another fantastic example of how challenging and different this genre can be.
I must admit that I was only vaguely familiar with Jörg Buttgereit’s movie before watching Arrow’s new Special Edition release, having read about it in various books. On paper, Der Todesking never sounded like my kind of film, and as such I never sought it out, but years later I’m more willing to try experimental entries of a genre that too often plays things safe today, with copycat releases or endless sequels. Thankfully, Buttgereit’s approach is entirely his own and he has no interest in delivering something familiar.
The key to appreciating Der Todesking is to go in expecting the unexpected. This isn’t a traditional horror. and doesn’t follow genre conventions or a standard approach to its storytelling. The focus is on death, whether it be suicide or murder, and the film uses the seven days of the week to present seven entirely different scenarios. We therefore form no bond with any central characters and there’s no overarching story. This isn’t about seeing if someone survives a zombie attack or escapes a madman with an axe. Der Todesking is a bleak and depressing examination of something we all experience in our lives, but seen through a dark and sinister filter.
Considering the methods of Buttgereit’s storytelling (which certainly won’t be for everyone), he manages to deliver an impactful sense of emotion despite the short stories he tells. The screenplay, co-written with Franz Rodenkirchen, offers something that’s hard to watch but difficult to look away from. Each scenario isn’t too far removed from a true representation of life—depression from work, relationship troubles, and mass murder at a gig, etc.—and they all make you think. In fact, for a movie made in 1990, some of its messages are still surprisingly relevant and a shocking reminder of how some things never change.
The big question is: what do you want to get out of Der Todesking? If you’re looking to be entertained and have a thrilling scare ride, this definitely isn’t for you. If you want something a little strange, that challenges your perception of horror and leaves you thinking, then Buttgereit’s work could be right up your alley. If you’ve already seen Nekromantik (1987) then you’ll know exactly what he’s capable of, and how dark and bizarre his approach to horror is.
The soundtrack also conveys the unsettled nature of the subject matter in such an amateur way that it adds to the confusion one feels throughout the seven stories. Der Todesking attacks all the senses, to the point where you reach the end and feel completely and utterly empty. There aren’t many other films that have left me feeling so depressed after them—Martyrs (2008) and Requiem for a Dream (2000), amongst them—and if Buttgereit intended to make people feel empty for days after then he undoubtedly succeeded. This isn’t about high-quality visuals or Oscar-winning performances, but the fragile nature of life.
As a piece of film history, especially in horror, then it’s hard to argue against the significance of Der Todesking. This is the kind of film that represents the best of creativity and artistic freedom, not simply focusing on entertaining an audience but making them feel uncomfortable, by pushing the boundaries of what audiences perceive horror to be. Arrow Video’s release has a high-definition transfer approved by the director, which makes the film look as good as possible, and is packed with special features allowing you to gain added insight into the filmmaking, the soundtrack, and why people still hold it in such high regard. It’s not a movie I’ll watch on a regular basis, but I’m glad I gave it a chance and saw what all the fuss was about. If you’re a fan of the macabre and like something a little different, it’s definitely worth your time. Just be ready for it to stay with you far beyond those end credits….
3-Disc Director-approved Limited Edition Contents:
- Director’s approved HD transfer from the original 16mm negative.
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentations.
- Original Stereo Audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray).
- Optional English subtitles.
- Limited edition packaging featuring new artwork by Gilles Vranckx.
- Limited edition certificate featuring original artwork.
- Replica “Brotherhood of the 7th Day” Chain Letter.
- Der Todesking Soundtrack CD.
- Limited Edition 60-page book.
Disc 1 [Blu-ray] & Disc 2 [DVD] – ‘Der Todesking’:
- Audio commentary by Jörg Buttgereit and co-writer Franz Rodenkirchen.
- From Bundy to Lautréamont – Jörg Buttgereit in conversation with journalist Graham Rae at the 2016 Manchester Festival of Fantastic Films. If you don’t know much about the director, this is a fascinating piece giving insight into his mindset, his approach to filmmaking, and what he wants to deliver to audiences. Rae is enthusiastic and engaging, getting the best out of Jörg and allowing him to talk about his journey through film and the impact his projects have had on audiences. You can tell he’s a man who wants to leave a lasting impression and enjoys making people uncomfortable, exploring areas many wouldn’t dare to step into. If watching the film leaves you confused then this conversation goes a long way to helping you understand the director’s style and thought process.
- The Making of Der Todesking – vintage production featurette. A short but sweet look at what it took to put such a strange and unusual film together. There’s a certain fluid nature behind its making, due to the combination of different ideas and simply going with what worked. You get the feeling that Buttgereit is a very interesting person to work with and there’s nobody quite like him. He’s clearly far more interested in presenting his original vision than looking for commercial success which is an admirable approach.
- Footage from the original 1990 Berlin premiere.
- Corpse Fucking Art – 1992 documentary bringing together the making of featurettes of Nekromantik,Der Todesking and Nekromantik 2. There’s no doubt that Buttgereit’s horror oeuvre has all been a bit ‘out there’ and has made a lot of people talk over the years. This documentary gives a peek behind the curtain of the madness and helps to bring all the imagery and thoughts together in a slightly more logical manner. It’s nice to see someone who feels they have the artistic freedom and expression to do things in their own way without any real restrictions or expectations.
- Der Gollob (1983, 25 mins) – short film by Jörg Buttgereit, newly transferred in HD and viewable with optional director’s audio commentary. Another slightly crazy low-budget piece of work that’s worth watching with the commentary just to see what was going through his mind at the time.
- Two short films by producer Manfred O. Jelinski: Die Reise ins Licht (1972, 27 mins) and Geliebter Wahnsinn (1973, 7 mins).
- Still Gallery Jörg Buttgereit.
- Trailer Gallery.
Disc 3 [CD] – ‘Der Todesking’ Soundtrack – Limited Edition Content:
- CD featuring the complete Der Todesking score.
- 60-PAGE BOOK – LIMITED EDITION EXCLUSIVE.
- Exclusive perfect-bound book featuring new writing on the film from Graham Rae and Kat Ellinger, all illustrated with new artwork and original archive stills.
Cast & Crew
director: Jörg Buttgereit.
writers: Jörg Buttgereit & Franz Rodenkirchen.
starring: Nicolas Petche, Hermann Kopp & Heinrich Ebber.