Schramm AKA Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (22nd August 2019).
The Film

Schramm (Jorg Buttgereit, 1993)

Synopsis: In his lonely flat, Lothar Schramm (Florian Koerner von Gustorf) falls from a stepladder whilst painting the walls. The blow to Schramm’s head causes his death. As Schramm lies dying, he hears knocking on the door of his flat. This causes him to remember…

Schramm recalls answering the door to a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He disarms them by inviting them in for a coffee and then, whilst listening patiently to their lecture, offering them a glass of brandy – which they politely accept – before murdering them cruelly and posing their naked bodies in sexual positions, taking photographs with a Polaroid camera.

Schramm recollects overhearing his call girl neighbour Marianne (Monika M) being approached in the hallway of the building by two elderly men, who ask her to attend an ‘event’ in a large house on the outskirts of the city. When Marianne tells Schramm of this invite, she is both curious and reticent. Schramm offers to drive her to the house, in an effort to ensure her safety. After she leaves the house, Marianne promises to buy Schramm a meal to thank him for his help.

Before his appointment with Marianne, Schramm channels his sexual frustration by exercising and hammering a nail into his foreskin(!) When Marianne arrives, they go to a restaurant together. Marianne tells Schramm of the bizarre demands placed on her by the elderly men in the country house: she is wary but willing to pander to their kinks in exchange for what seems to be easy money. Schramm enjoys the company but when Marianne takes the cash out of her purse to pay the bill, Schramm experiences a vision of a sleazy older man stuffing the same banknotes into Marianne’s brassiere.

Schramm and Marianne return to the building in which they live, and Schramm offers his neighbour a nightcap. She accepts, but Schramm drugs her drink and, whilst Marianne is unconscious, he strips her and takes Polaroid photographs of her, masturbating in the process.

This leads into the present, with Schramm dying after falling from his stepladder – leaving Marianne vulnerable to the sinister machinations of the cabal of wealthy men at the country house she has been asked to ‘service’.

Critique: Jorg Buttgereit’s career as a feature filmmaker was established with the openly combative Nekromantik in 1987. Nekromantik made an impact both within West Germany – where the picture’s deliberate excesses challenged the strict codes of censorship that existed within West Germany at the time – and abroad, facing censorship and outright bans in a number of countries including Britain. (Perhaps one of the strangest televisual moments of the 1990s was Buttgereit’s bizarrely dubbed appearance on Channel 4’s long-running late-night show Eurotrash, at a time when none of Buttgereit’s films were available legally in the UK.) After his second feature, Der Todesking (1990), Buttgereit returned to the territory explored in Nekromantik, making a direct sequel to his debut picture in 1991. In Germany (and, for that matter, elsewhere) Nekromantik 2 proved no less controversial than its predecessor, being seized by police in Munich following its first public screenings. The film, and by extension Buttgereit himself, was charged with glorifying violence. (Arrow’s Blu-ray releases of Der Todesking and Nekromantik 2 have been reviewed by us here and here.)

Reflecting on the censorious climate within West Germany during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Buttgereit has said that he felt it essential that he was seen as an ‘artist’ first and foremost, rather than a horror/exploitation filmmaker, as this was ‘a way to survive and [….] get away with the stuff that I do’ (Buttgereit, quoted in Edwards, 2017: 131-2). To this end, Buttgereit’s films feature a very selfconsciously ‘arthouse’ approach to narrative pace: Roland Halle suggests that the films of Buttgereit ‘do not proceed at the same pace as those of’ his many contemporaries in the landscape of horror and exploitation filmmaking; Buttgereit’s pictures ‘have a slowness that concentrates on establishing atmosphere and mood’ (Halle, 2003: 293). However, the films have ‘a profound ability to disturb’ that is achieved ‘precisely […] through these idiosyncratic techniques’ (ibid.). Buttgereit’s films are also often highly self-reflexive, featuring moments which are deeply metafictional: his second feature, Der Todesking, featured an almost Brechtian use of footage of a decaying corpse throughout the picture which begs to be compared to the images of decay in Peter Greenaway’s A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). Buttgereit described Der Todesking as not ‘really a horror film. It’s more of an art film. I’m still not sure if it’s successful’ (Buttgereit, quoted in Szpunar, 2002: 23).

Schramm was inspired by Buttgereit’s fascination with serial killers like Ted Bundy and Carl Panzram; a quote from Panzram (‘Today I am dirty, but tomorrow I will be just dirt’), presented on a title card, opens the film. Buttgereit has said that the film was based on a fairly simple premise: ‘What I was trying to explore in Schramm was how you could live with the fact that you had killed somebody’ (Buttgereit, quoted in Edwards, op cit.: 132). Buttgereit had grown ‘frustrated’ with Hollywood’s serial killer films – including pictures such as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – which he claimed ‘were always mystifying the killers, making these big monsters out of them’ (Buttgereit, quoted in ibid.). By contrast, Buttgereit wanted to ‘explore something more down-to-earth’ and examine ‘the psychology of these killers and notions of guilt’ (Buttgereit, quoted in ibid.). The scene in which Schramm strips the two murdered Jehovah’s Witnesses and places their bodies in sexual positions, capturing these with a Polaroid camera, certainly seems very much inspired by the tableaux of murdered women that opens another American serial killer film, John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). Schramm also contains the strong influence of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976): like Travis Bickle, Lothar Schramm is a taxi driver who falls in love with a prostitute and embarks on a self-initiated quest to ‘save’ her. There are also some interesting parallels with Danny Lee’s then-recent Dr Lamb (1993), in the sense that like the serial killer in Danny Lee’s film, Schramm drives a taxi and takes photographs of his victims; one might wonder whether Buttgereit might have seen Dr Lamb before making Schramm.

Schramm, Buttgereit’s third feature, has a compact running time of slightly over one hour, in comparison with Nekromantik 2, Buttgereit’s previous picture. The subject matter is still salacious and challenging, on the cusp of exploitation, though with this picture Buttgereit also clearly had an eye on the arthouse market. Bartlomiej Paszylk has suggested that Schramm ‘is [Buttgereit’s] most successful fusion of shocking antics and art movie ambitions’ (Paszylk, 2009: 194). The film sees the enigmatic Monika M, who had starred in Nekromantik 2, in a key role, though the lead in the picture is Florian Koerner von Gustorf. Now a successful producer, von Gustorf attacks his role, which requires him to be placed in any number of humiliating and potentially degrading scenarios, with incredible bravery, his performance placing emphasis on the quiet disintegration of Schramm’s connection to the outside world. Throughout the film, Schramm’s desperate attempts to both cling to and battle against his corporeality are shown in a variety of situations, from masturbating fairly graphically with a blow-up female torso (an expression of his sexual frustration, enacted as he listens to neighbour Marianne in coitus with her clients next door) to hammering nails through his foreskin (which is shown in vivid close-up). For much of the film’s running time, Schramm is shown seated in his underwear, his middle-aged paunch all too apparent. In one scene, Schramm desperately tries to exercise whilst the camera rotates 180 degrees over his head with Schramm’s body as the pivot. It’s certainly not a role for an actor invested in his own vanity, and von Gustorf’s unashamed approach to his performance is highly commendable.

The film’s structure is non-linear and told largely via an extended analepsis from the point-of-view of Schramm as he lies dying; in this sense, Buttgereit’s approach to telling this narrative is perhaps comparable to Ambrose Bierce’s classic 1890 short story ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’. As the picture opens, Schramm is already dying, having fallen from a stepladder whilst painting the walls of his flat white in an attempt to conceal the bloodstains from his murder of two Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s a humiliating death, this paunchy middle-aged man being dressed only in his boxer shorts. The rest of the picture is told in flashback, showing Schramm’s murder of the pair of visitors, whose bodies he strips nude and photographs in sexual poses – both as a mockery of their status as Jehovah’s Witnesses and as an expression of Schramm’s own sexual frustration – before revealing his burgeoning friendship with his neighbour, the call girl Marianne, who Schramm escorts to her ‘gigs’ before giving in to his base desires by slipping her a Mickey and, whilst she is unconscious, photographing her naked. Interspersed into this are brief flashbacks, presented via 8mm ‘home movies’, to what is presumably Schramm’s seemingly happy childhood; there is tense juxtaposition between Schramm’s past, and the potential represented by youth, and his grim existence and lonely death in the present.

Also appearing infrequently are ethereal fantasy scenes which show Schramm dancing slowly with Marianne, both dressed formally and lit with blue chiaroscuro lighting – shorn of the trappings of poverty and degradation that characterise their real lives. This juxtaposition of wealth and poverty is consolidated when Schramm drives Marianne to the country house, for her ‘appointment’ with the rich, elderly men who have booked her services. Upon her exit, in a car journey broken up by Godard-esque jump cuts, Marianne tells Schramm of her experiences in a room whose trapping spoke of wealth and privilege. Marianne was asked to dress like a boy in Lederhosen and make an appearance in a room in which five elderly men were seated. Marianne was asked to serve the men. ‘It was like an entry exam’, she tells Schramm, ‘I’ve done things a lot worse for a fraction of what they paid me’. The experience, Marianne says, was strange and kinky but not dangerous. However, the final scene of the film, which takes place after Schramm’s death, shows Marianne knocking on Schramm’s door and getting no reply before heading to the country house alone. Then Marianne is shown bound to a chair, wearing the Lederhosen, as the camera dollies quickly into her terrified face. The suggestion, of course, is that deviance cuts across the social divide and exists just as much (if not more so) amongst the wealthy as among the poor. Where Schramm would, had he survived, inevitably been punished, these wealthy deviants will no doubt get away with their presumed semi-ritualistic murder of Marianne (and, we might imagine, countless others like her).

Flashbacks to moments showing Schramm competing in a marathon, and then showing him with a leg brace, suggest a possible motive for his crimes: a former marathon runner, Schramm seems to have been tipped into nihilism by the crippling of his right leg. However, all of this is rendered ambiguously, Buttgereit refusing to ‘fix’ these elements for the audience in a clearly-defined manner. In another fantasy scene, Schramm awakens in his bed and pulls back the covers to reveal his right leg missing, a bloody stump in its place. The imagery is deliberately Freudian, being suggestive of castration and sexual impotence, and links to some other overtly Freudian imagery within Schramm. Some of this other imagery appears in a fantasy scene, which initially seems to be ‘real’ (in a diegetic sense, of course) in which Schramm visits a dentist; the dentist pulls out one of Schramm’s teeth before proceeding to remove the patient’s eyeball. Again, the imagery suggests castration and sexual repression or frustration. As the film nears its conclusion, its most overly Freudian image comes into play. The morning after Schramm has drugged and photographed Marianne, he awakens and sees something moving under his bedcovers. He pulls back the sheets and sees a strange, mutated version of the inflatable sex toy with which he was masturbating earlier – only this time it is alive and has teeth. It’s a vagina dentata comparable in its appearance to Rick Baker’s icky special effects work on David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1982), and the scene is of course another of the film’s brief fantasy sequences, designed to underscore Schramm’s feelings of frustration and disempowerment.



Video

Schramm is presented here in 1080p using the AVC codec and fills approximately 18Gb on the Blu-ray disc. The presentation is in the film’s original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and the film is uncut, with a running time of 65:35 mins.

Photographed in colour and on 16mm stock, Arrow’s presentation of Schramm is billed as a ‘HD transfer overseen by the filmmakers’. Certainly, the film looks about on a par with Arrow’s previous releases of Buttgereit’s 16mm films, including Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2 and Der Todesking.

In terms of the film’s aesthetic, there is a mixture of documentary-like photography with moments that are much more abstract and poetic, which complements the juxtaposition within the narrative of ‘reality’ and ‘fantasy’ – these two worlds often overlapping and dovetailing ambiguously. The murder of the two Jehovah’s Witnesses captures this within a single scene – a transition from an almost documentary-like naturalism to an extremely subjective form, in which the actual murder is captured through slow-motion and interspersed with close-ups of Schramm’s animalistic facial expressions. The camera is either constantly in motion (for example, the dolly in to Schramm’s face in the opening sequence) or disquietingly still.

Arrow’s HD presentation of Schramm is very good. Fine detail is present in the film’s closeups and contrast levels are nicely-balanced, with richly-defined midtones and evenly-balanced highlights. The drop-off into the toe is slightly sharp at times but is certainly not problematic. The visual structure is very filmlike, the level of grain reflecting the film’s 16mm origins. Colours are naturalistic and consistent. Damage is limited to some intermittent and noticeable white scratches and blemishes, suggesting debris and scratching on the negative. Finally, the encode to disc presents no problems.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Audio is presented via a LPCM 2.0 stereo track, in German, with optional English subtitles. The track is limited by the production circumstances of the sound mix itself, which is sometimes a little ‘flat’; but nevertheless the audio track on this disc is clear and without distortion. The English subtitles are accurate, error-free and easy to read.

Extras

The disc includes:
- Audio commentary with Jorg Buttgereit and Franz Rodenkirchen. Buttgereit and Rodenkirchen speak in English and discuss Schramm’s position within their careers. Buttgereit opens by stating that ‘this film is very hard to understand’ and the pair spend some time attempting to clarify elements of the structure of Schramm. There’s some particularly excellent insight into the technical aspects of the shoot.

- Audio commentary with Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Monika M. The two actors speak in English and talk about their roles in Schramm. This track is much more unfocused than the track with Buttgereit and Rodenkirchen, but von Gustorf and Monika M are warm commentators and offer some amusing reflections on their roles in the picture.

- ‘The Making of Schramm’ (35:28). This archival documentary about the making of Schramm, in German with optional English subtitles, was made at the time of the film’s production and shot on videotape. It benefits from some great behind the scenes footage, particularly of some of the film’s special effects scenes, showing how these were achieved. This material is interspersed with interviews with Buttgereit, von Gustorf, Rodenkirchen and Monika M.

- Schramm Q&A’ (28:40). This on-stage interview with Buttgereit, Monika M, producer and cinematographer Manfred Jelinski and critic David Kerekes was recorded in 1994; it accompanied a screening of Schramm at Midnight Media’s Schlachtfest, which took place at The Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. The group field questions from the audience, and offer some interesting reflections on their collaboration. The Q&A was recorded on videotape, and the nature of the recording’s audio can sometimes require a little extra perseverance in order to understand what is being said.

- ‘Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt: Scenes from the Afterlife of Lothar Schramm’ (8:10). Produced by Arrow Films, this stop motion animated short film was completed in 2019 by Robert Morgan. It is intended to be a sequel of sorts to Schramm and sees Schramm ‘awakening’ after his death and undergoing an out-of-body experience. Schramm sees his own body on the floor of his flat and, pursued by the vagina dentata that haunts him in the original film, flees outside (where the short transitions from high contrast monochrome to colour). There, he experiences various situations that encourage him to reflect on his past crimes and misdeeds.

- ‘Making “Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt”’ (1:59). Stills and behind the scenes footage, accompanied by the score from Schramm, show the preparation and production of ‘Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt’.

- ‘“Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt” Premiere’ (5:22). Buttgereit and Arrow’s Ewan Cant deliver a to-camera introduction to ‘Tomorrow I Will Be Dirt’, Buttgereit describing the short as ‘so wet and juicy’. Some footage from the first screening of the short is interspersed throughout their comments.

- ‘Take My Body: The Journey of a Blow-Up Doll’ (6:40). Critic Kier-La Janisse talks about the blow-up torso used in the film; it’s an object that Janisse has a close relationship with, as she managed to come into possession of the original prop through her correspondences, and eventual meetings, with Buttgereit himself.

- ‘Buttgereit: Into the Mind of a Cult Filmmaker’ (40:45). Buttgereit is interviewed in front of an audience by Arrow’s Ewan Cant at Brussel’s Offscreen Film Festival in 2019. It’s an extensive interview which reflects on Buttgereit’s career as a filmmaker, from his short films to his features. Buttgereit talks about shooting on 16mm for blow-up to 35mm, and he also reflects on censorship of his films and the changing attitudes towards them.

- Jorg Buttgereit Short Films: ‘Mein Papi’ (1981-95) (7:33); ‘Jesus – Der Film’ (1986) (2:42).

- Manfred Jelinski Short Films: ‘Orpheus in der Oberwelt’ (1970) (31:41); ‘Ein ju’ze Film ube’ Hambu’g’ (1990) (6:35).

- Image Galleries: Stills (39 images); Behind the Scenes (64 images); Artwork & Miscellaneous (11 images).

- Jorg Buttgereit Trailer Gallery: Nekromantik (2:03); Der Todesking (2:26); Nekromantik 2 (1:12); Schramm (1:27).

Arrow’s Limited Edition Blu-ray release also includes a 60 page book, 5 postcards and the film’s soundtrack on CD.

Overall

Following Nekromantik, Buttgereit’s films increasingly began to adopt narrative strategies and filmmaking techniques from the world of ‘art’ cinema – from Godard-esque jump cuts to non-linear storytelling. These techniques can be seen as much in Schramm as in Der Todesking. Sometimes Buttgereit’s use of these methods seems subtly ironic – as in the rightfully famous scene in Nekromantik 2 in which Monika and Mark visit a cinema and watch a parodic art film, ‘Mon dejeuner avec Vera’, which is clearly intended to poke gentle fun specifically at Louis Malle’s 1981 film My Dinner with Andre and, more broadly, the obscurity of ‘art’ cinema in general. However, Buttgereit’s adoption of arthouse conventions – whether ironic or otherwise – can potentially alienate some viewers. Certainly, though Schramm has long been a favourite of Buttgereit’s most ardent fans, it’s easy to see the ambiguities of this specific film acting as a barrier for viewers expecting a more ‘straightforward’ exploitation picture. Equally, Schramm has a near-singled minded focus on Freudian imagery which suggests castration or emasculation: the leg brace, the nightmare involving the severed limb, the vagina dentata Schramm discovers under his bedclothes in a fantasy sequence towards the end of the picture.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presentation of Schramm is excellent and is on a par with Arrow’s previous HD releases of Nekromantik, Nekromantik 2 and Der Todesking. The HD presentation would seem to be very true to the 16mm source material and eclipses the film’s DVD presentations in terms of detail, specifically. The main feature is supported by some excellent contextual material. Some of this has been seen before, but the material that is exclusive to this release – including the new animated sequel, the short films and the new interviews/comments with Buttgereit (and Kier-La Janisse) – is excellent. For Buttgereit fans, this is an essential purchase.

References:
Blake, Linnie, 2008: The Wounds of Nations: Horror Cinema, Historical Trauma and National Identity. Manchester University Press

Edwards, Matthew, 2017: Twisted Visions: Interviews with Cult Horror Filmmakers. London: McFarland & Co

Halle, Randall, 2003: ‘Unification Horror: Queer Desire and Uncanny Visions’. In: Halle, Randall & McCarthy, Margaret (eds), 2003: Light Motives: German Popular Film in Perspective. Wayne State University Press: 281-303

Kluge, Alexander, 2012: ‘Ein subversive Romantiker’. Schulte, Christian (ed), 2012: Die Schrift an der Wander – Alexander Kluge: Rohstoffe und Materialien. Vienna University Press: 389-414

Lugt, Kris Vander, 2013: ‘From Siodmak to Schlingensief: The Return of History as Horror’. In: Fisher, Jaimey (ed), 2013: Generic Histories of German Cinema: Genre and Its Deviations. New York: Camden House: 157-72

Paszylk, Bartlomiej, 2009: The Pleasure and Pain of Cult Horror Films: An Historical Survey. London: McFarland & Company

Szpunar, John, 2002: ‘Seven Drunken Nights: Down in the Dirt at the Cine Muerte Film Festival’. In: Kerekes, David (ed), 2002: Headpress 23: Funhouse. Manchester: Headpress/Critical Vision: 4-24


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