This week Guest Star Michelle Kisner writes about the challenging and transgressive German horror movie, Melancholie der Engel (2009). Keep up with her and all her film writing via Instagram at @robotcookie!
The 2009 German exploitation film Melancholie der Engel (The Angels’ Melancholia in English) has quite the reputation as does its mysterious director Marian Dora. Oftentimes, trangressive works do not live up to their legend, with stories passed around in cinema groups, or secondhand tales relayed by those who dared to watch them, perhaps bolstered by a clip or two floating around the ethers of the internet. After that comes the conversation about the artistic value of said work, with many proclaiming it to be disgusting garbage with zero redeeming values, others holding it up as a masterpiece. This process has been repeated many times over the years with films such as Salo (1975), Martyrs (2008), and A Serbian Film (2010). Melancholie der Engel straddles the line precariously between pure shock value and philosophy shifting between grotesqueries and the sublime at a moment’s notice.
Right away, the film starts out with hitting the viewer with a horrible scene: a heavily pregnant woman is beaten and the baby she gives birth to beheaded. Why this event is occurring is unknown to the viewer but it segues into the meeting of two men who appear to be old friends. They go out and have a night on the town with much drinking involved and whist they are partying they meet two young girls. These young women end up staying with the men the entire evening eventually passing out, where they are transported by car to an old farmhouse out in a secluded area. Thus begins a series of loosely connected vignettes wherein various hedonistic and depraved acts are performed. The film doesn’t have a strong story thread and plays out more akin to dream-like logic (or nightmare, if one prefers).
In the first two acts of the narrative, the gore and sex is much more low-key and Dora (who shot the film as well) is as enamored with close-ups of nature as he is with close-ups of vomit and semen. Many sequences linger on macro shots of insects such as spiders as well as tiny lizards and frogs. One of the aspects that the film is most infamous for is the depiction of live animals being killed–in particular the slaughtering of a pig and the killing of a cat. The pig is the real deal, and as gruesome as it is, this happens in slaughterhouses and on farms all over the world without much comment or fanfare. The destruction of the cat is fake, however, but it looks real enough that it definitely will turn off many viewers. Various other small creatures are killed such as snails and frogs and that alone will prompt many people to condemn the film. Dora seems to be obsessed with death and decay, with images of purification on display and loving tributes to maggots squirming on rotten carcasses. The theme of the film seems to be the indifference in which nature treats life and death with both happening in equal measure.
Melancholie der Engel was shot with MiniDV and this lends a home video aesthetic to the film (and as an aside seems to be stuck in standard definition), almost like it’s a VHS that was found hidden in a dusty attic. The cinematography is gorgeous with intricate set-designs and fantastic panning nature shots. This, of course, clashes greatly with the numerous scenes of atrocities which include mutilation, urination, defecation, masturbation, ejaculation, a stoma from a colostomy bag being violently fingered spilling feces everywhere, rape, self-harm, implied necrophilia and so on. The third act is where this film earns its nefarious reputation with it turning into an all-out Pain Olympics of epic scope. One can’t help but feel an aura of evil emanating from the characterizations which isn’t helped by the fact that they aren’t fleshed out very much and exist mostly as archetypes. One character has a fondness for quoting poetry and literary works which can come off as a little pretentious, especially combined with the camerawork.
Interestingly, while Dora takes great pains to set up a dark gothic solemn atmosphere with the first two acts of the narrative, the characters literally shit all over these aspirations in the third act when they participate in feces-covered orgies and debase themselves in various ways. It’s hard to tell if Dora is taking the premise of the film completely seriously or if perhaps he is echoing his character’s nihilism by having them defecate all over everything he establishes.
Composer Samuel Dalferth’s score for the film is quite effective with somber melodies and atmospheric ambient pieces weaving their way in and out of the sequences. One scene in particular, a montage that includes a woman being raped, a pig being slaughtered, and a nun masturbating, has a strong pipe organ arrangement over it that makes it feel like one is attending an extremely fucked up church service. Religion is something that Dora seems to have a disdain for as he never passes up a chance for some good old-fashioned blasphemy and also has the characters discuss their disbelief in detail a few times.
The main question on everyone’s lips after seeing Melancholie der Engel is, “Is this considered art?” For whatever reason, exploring atrocities has the effect of people immediately dismissing the piece of media as being shock value shlock or a desperate pathological need for attention from the artist. In some cases, that may be true, but in all cases these are as viable an entry into the canon of art as any other work. If pressed, I would place this film into the “anti-art” segment of cinema, because it is striving to find the allure of viscera and body fluids–the way light bounces off breasts slick with blood and semen, the arc of projectile vomit as it cuts through the air. In this same film though, Dora also takes the time to watch a spider slowly make its way up the arm of a character, its dainty legs delicately dancing as it climbs. If life is beauty so then is death, and both must be examined equally.
Michelle Kisner writes about film. Keep up with her on Instagram at @robotcookie