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German Angst: Who’s afraid of the Germans?

INTERVIEW. Cult filmmaker Jörg Buttgereit hasn't made a foray into horror for over 20 years. Now he's back along with Michal Kosakowski and Andreas Marschall for the very German horror anthology "German Angst", playing in small Berlin cinemas now.

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Left to right: Jörg Buttgereit, Andreas Marschall, Michal Kosakowski. Photo by Yazid Benfeghoul

It’s been 23 years since West German director Jörg Buttgereit assumed the role of the horror auteur behind films like Nekromantik (1 and 2), Schramm and Der Todesking. Despite censorship here in Germany, his films became international cult sensations, straddling the fence between arthouse and horror and being too much of both to fit into either category comfortably. After all these years, it’s clear Buttgereit isn’t interested in making people comfortable. Along with Michal Kosakowski (Zero Killed) and Andreas Marschall (Masks), he’s released the three-part episodic horror film German Angst. The episodes “Final Girl”, “Make a Wish” and “Alraune” could easily stand alone, but strung together as a day-long trip through Berlin, it’s a sadistically satisfying journey of fear. Through unforgiving imagery and narrative, the three directors manage to explore their individual takes on fear provocatively, and in Kosakowski’s case controversially, and for those that can stomach the onslaught, the takeaway is one of the best executed German horror films in recent memory. German Angst is playing in select small cinemas now and sees a DVD release on May 15.

What was the idea behind German Angst?

Andreas Marschall: I had the idea when I was travelling with my last film, Masks. In Q&As there were a lot of questions about why there is no German [horror] anthology, because they now exist in England and America, for example [America’s 2011] The Theater Bizarre.

How did Jörg get involved?

AM: People were asking me what Jörg Buttgereit was doing because Jörg hadn’t done a film for 23 years and I’ve known him for a very long time – I did the artwork for Nekromantik 1 and 2. So I called him up and asked him what he thought about doing an episodic movie and because I didn’t get much money in the 1980s [others laugh], he couldn’t say no.

Why no film for 25 years, Jörg?

Jörg Buttgereit: I had all the kinds of trouble I could have with my movies. I’ve done all the stuff, I’ve made my point, I got my old films back from the censors, I got nominated for a prize which I didn’t win in the end, but I made all this stuff. I went on to a different planet: documentaries, theatre, radio, plays, comics, all this kind of stuff. So why go back to do a horror movie?

So what do you all mean by the title German Angst?

Michal Kosakowski: German Angst is normally a political term. To talk about people who are against nuclear energy and stuff like this. But we meant it in a completely different way; this is the German version of real fear, panic and horror. It’s a very German film and we wanted it to be very German, not a copy of American genre horror movies.

AM: This word “Angst” has a lot of different layers to it. In Michal’s case it’s a political Angst, in my case with “Alraune” it’s more a sexual Angst and with Jörg it is a social-based fear. So we’ve got three very different layers of fear/Angst.

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So it starts off with “Final Girl” – inverting the horror trope of leaving only one girl standing to face the monster at the end.

JB: The idea was to make a statement. Everything that would normally be shown in a horror movie is already over in “Final Girl”. This is maybe just the last five minutes of a horror film. And I was more interested in what was going on in this girl’s head. The basic idea was to do a horror film upside down. But it’s funny the way it connects exactly to the stuff I did before. We read a review yesterday where it says “Final Girl” is a typical Buttgereit movie. It would also be very difficult to end German Angst with my episode not just because it’s so slow but also Andreas delivers something where you feel you have seen a movie, a horror movie. I also heard that mine is pretty much ‘Berliner Schule‘ – Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss movies, Yella.

What do you feel is typical?

JB: This underground film spirit, I always felt like I was doing underground films rather than horror films and that’s why I’m really trying to do a different kind of horror movie.

The film is pretty isolating. The girl has a guinea pig and then her own narration tells us that it doesn’t really love her.

JB: It’s terrible. I had a guinea pig and I was shocked when I found out. I thought: well, if this isn’t a metaphor for child abuse I don’t know.

Even though she’s had terrible experiences, much of what she does is totally relatable, or at least banal – eating cereal, listening to the radio, petting her guinea pig, going to the bathroom…

JB: My episode is very much based in reality, all the episodes are, but in my case it’s something that can really happen to you, something really terrible happens to you and you can’t cope with this experience – you have to shut yourself off. That’s the stuff she’s doing, she has the guinea pig – that’s nice, there is this guy next door but she doesn’t really want to think about it, she just goes on…

There’s a radio report in the middle of the episode about an atrocity in a Muslim household.

JB: Which is something that happened.

On the one hand, you’ve got this “typical” German household, and on the radio it’s happening in a Muslim household.

JB: It’s not just a bad horror movie, like an anti-Islamic horror movie gone wild, and that’s German Angst as well at the moment, the fear of Islam, of your neighbor cutting off his wife’s head in the name of Allah.

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“Final Girl” is in German, the other two films are basically in English. Why?

MK: Mine is mixed; there are four languages actually. The idea was to add this English character just to show that right extremism is a global problem, it is not just in Germany. It is everywhere.

Michal, your film “Make a Wish” is clearly the most political, and national identity plays a big part. The lead character and his girlfriend are both German with Polish backgrounds. Why?

MK: I’m from Poland and I have many stories from my grandparents from the Second World War. Usually if you show movies about neo-Nazis now they are about Islamic topics, but I wanted to put weight on the Polish and German relationship. Knowing all the stories from my grandparents that I build on in the flashback sequence, having that in my mind, I wanted to create these two characters that are of Polish origin but obviously grew up in Germany – but still, the neo-Nazis think that they don’t belong to Germany.

When the head neo-Nazi and the boyfriend switch bodies, the protagonist becomes as brutal as the neo-Nazis.

MK: It’s a kind of experience this character lives through from the perspective of the person who wishes it – the girlfriend. In the sense of the protagonist, he gets the chance to have power and I think everybody who suddenly has the possibility of having power against someone else will use it.

Towards the end, the head neo-Nazi talks about being born into the role of the guilty German. What was meant by his speech?

MK: He’s summarising his role, that on the one side he is actually the bad guy who does all the violence but he grew up under these conditions and he just points out that he’s actually the victim. But of course it is totally crazy to think that way. So for me it’s a justification for the position where they all are.

He’s rationalising to himself and his friends.

MK: Yes, he has to, because as a normal, reasonable person you never would do this kind of stuff to somebody. But in the group where he has to prove himself as the leader, he has to do his job. Of course as a rational thinking person, you understand your situation. That this is not normal, and that you carry your own guilt, was the main idea of the speech: to just really clearly show who is who. To make the positions clear – ‘I’m the perpetrator, but at the same time I grew up under all these circumstances which led to my actions I’m doing now.’

JB: It’s almost a Bertolt Brecht moment.

MK: This is the problem: when somebody says that the story is racist maybe because of the speech, if you don’t think twice about what he says then there is no justification of the violence, it’s the opposite. He says a clear sentence, “I am the one who has to drag a marble slab of guilt.” So he understands his situation but still, what the fuck, he still has to do it.

Are Germans going to be your best audience?

MK: I think the UK is my audience more than Germany because the British people love WWII documentaries.

JB: When we put it out in Britain, we should put swastikas all over the cover. Maybe Adolf Hitler over Berlin and then “German Angst”. Doesn’t have anything to do with the movie but it sells better.

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And Andreas, your film was kind of the most classical horror movie. What was the source of “Alraune”?

AM: It comes from the experience you have from the typical Berlin party culture. In “Alraune” there are typical things where you go to a place and you meet a wonderful girl there and everything is completely glamorous and it’s absolutely thrilling and you go there again and it’s all changed. It sort of sucks, if you’re still looking to have that sensation again.

The setting is international Berlin, but it’s a horror film about the occult and mystical drugs. Was this juxtaposition intentional?

AM: It’s a metaphorical image for something like the situation that you are in in modern times. You’ve got the complete fulfillment of your wishes around you. Like with the smartphone, with the internet, with the total flood of images and translations, when your wishes are fulfilled the moment they emerge: is this a good thing or is this destroying your soul? And I think in the story it definitely destroys his ability to have a relationship with a real person.

Does this wish fulfillment become addictive?

AM: So he goes out and meets this girl and it’s absolutely not a love scene when he meets her. It’s just sort of a male fantasy. This normally doesn’t happen. But this thing you want to happen when you go to a party and lose control, this is what makes it addictive, because it’s not a typical boy-meets-girl situation in a discotheque. It’s too easy.

JB: That’s the poor heterosexual version, because gay men have it much easier.

And so it’s about sexual fear and this fear of fulfillment?

AM: Maybe it’s more that fulfillment really gets real. There’s a quote by [German philosopher] Peter Sloterdijk: “Modern times will be considered the era where wishes scare us by getting real.” I think this is pretty much the story, the wishes.

Where does the title come from?

AM: The Alraune is a book from the 1910s and a real existing myth, the myth of the mandragora [mandrake, human-shaped] plant. Hanns Heinz Ewers wrote a book about this plant and it was filmed twice, once in the 1920s and in once in the 1950s; but my version doesn’t refer to the movies, just more to the feeling. And to the original myth of this sexual plant.

Have you tried it?

AM: [Laughs] No. It comes from the dark ages, they thought it was growing under the gallows, fertilised by the sperm of men.

JB:  I want to see this scene. With the sperm dropping down and then the plant is coming… that’s German Angst!