The 13th Floor

CINEMA IN EXTREMIS: Art Imitates Life (and Death) in Marian Dora’s CANNIBAL [NSFW]

You’ve probably heard fans of extreme or outsider cinema describing their favorite films as “an acquired taste” — much like a gourmand might share their fondness for escargot, or a connoisseur of modern art may find enlightenment in the scribbles and splatters of abstract painter Cy Twombly. But when it comes to highly controversial German filmmaker Marian Dora, the very mention of “taste” can carry an entirely different meaning.

We’ve reviewed the cases of many real-life cannibals on these pages — including the macabre crimes of Issei Sagawa and Leonarda Cianciulli, or the infamous escapades of human-eaters Ed Gein and the Sawney Bean Clan — and we’ve even shared some of our favorite cannibal-themed horror movies, many of which play the subject for macabre humor.

But there’s one real-life cannibal crime so gruesome, so perverse and intimately grotesque, that very few filmmakers have found the fortitude to adapt it into a feature film: the case of Armin Mewes of Rotenburg, Germany.

Nicknamed Der Metzgermeister (“The Master Butcher”) by the German media during and after his murder trial, Mewes achieved international infamy for the 2001 murder of Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes. As the details of the case emerged, it was hard to decide which aspect was more bizarre: the fact that Mewes killed and ate Brandes, or that Brandes was said to be a willing participant, who wanted to be killed and eaten as part of a sexualized ritual.

Mewes found Brandes after posting on Cannibal Café, a blog devoted specifically to people with cannibal fetishes — that is, people who fantasize about eating other people, or being literally devoured during sex. Though a few others tentatively responded to the ad, Brandes was the only one to accept and follow through.

According to evidence provided to the courts, Brandes was never forced to do anything against his wishes, and this factor originally led to Mewes receiving a shorter sentence for manslaughter; however, a retrial resulted in a murder conviction, for which he was sentenced to life in prison.

The aforementioned evidence came in the form of a videotape police found in at the crime scene — because, it turns out, Mewes had set up a camera to record the entire incident. The tape itself was never made public after Mewes’ trial, and for very good reason: according to the testimonies of police and jurors who viewed it, the tape contains some of the most horrific footage ever recorded.

Since it’s unlikely this footage will ever be released, filmmaker Marian Dora decided to provide audiences with the next best thing, as it were: a grim, gritty re-enactment of the events leading up to the horrific ritual, followed by a detailed and extremely graphic dramatization of the murder itself, which transpired at Mewes’ house in March 2001.

That recreation — infused with a touch of surreal artistic license — would become the notorious and widely banned 2006 film CANNIBAL.

Previous filmmakers had attempted to translate aspects of Mewes’ crime to film — most notably BUTTERFLY: A GRIMM LOVE STORY (a.k.a. GRIMM LOVE), which garnered several awards despite being briefly prohibited from release in Germany (ironically, due to protest from Mewes that his personal rights had been violated).

But Dora’s film approached the subject without the slicker production values of the former, and adopted a much darker, murkier, almost documentary-style approach, which makes the macabre subject matter all the more uncomfortable to behold.

While Dora does not assign names to the murderer and his willing victim — they are instead called “The Man” (Carsten Frank) and “The Flesh” (Victor Brandl) — he adheres closely to the grisly details of Mewes’ crime. However, much of the “foreplay” between the two, which transpires with no dialogue whatsoever (this is probably for the best, as the version I saw was rather crudely dubbed into English), is artistic license on Dora’s part.

When the men do get down to discussing and enacting their desires, Dora explores the concept of “two becoming one” — in a physical, sexual and even spiritual sense. This could be seen as a metaphor for human relationships in general, in that we all live off each other in some form or another.

During prolonged and sometimes explicit sex sequences, Dora’s camera examines the exchange of power between the two. In Dora’s vision, “The Flesh” seems to be the one in control (at one point, he taunts The Man as being “too weak” to follow through on his promise) and his own perverse desires create the setting, circumstances and process of his own sexualized death ritual, and his eventual killer is merely catering to those desires… which may have been his intent all along.

These concepts, which play out at a very leisurely pace, are laying the psychosexual groundwork for the film’s final act — during which Dora “rewards” the audience’s patience with one of the most horrific and gruesome sequences ever committed to film, mostly representing a detailed re-enactment of Mewes’ own video footage, which as I mentioned earlier has never been viewed outside of the police investigation and subsequent trial.

[WARNING: These details about the film are not only spoilers, but are also really gross.]

Among the acts shown in unflinching detail is the severing of the victim’s penis (which doesn’t happen as cleanly as either man had hoped). The member is subsequently cooked and partially eaten… though, as it turns out, The Man’s cooking skills are just as lacking as his surgical technique, and they decide not to finish this “appetizer.”

Rapidly losing consciousness due to a combination of blood loss and the booze and painkillers he’s been fed by The Man, The Flesh is eventually made as comfortable as possible in a bathtub, where he eventually dies (for me, this was one of the most uncomfortable scenes to watch, as it pulls absolutely no punches). At this point, The Man becomes the power-holder, embarking on a drawn-out cannibalistic ceremony that begins with the methodical and hideously realistic dissection of the victim’s corpse.

The butchery which follows is depicted much like the work of an inexperienced but dedicated slaughterhouse worker, slicing at a carcass that could just as easily be that of a pig or cow, but with a morbidly loving and intimate touch that forces the viewer to remember this “Flesh” was once a human being.

In addition to butchering, preserving and cooking his victim’s body parts, he also buries some in his garden, feeding one kind of life with the dead fragments of another — much in the same way The Man gains what he perceives as sexual power and lifeforce from a brutal, primitive rite of consumption.

I don’t really have to explain why CANNIBAL is not going to be most horror fans’ cup of tea… hell, I can’t really say I “liked” it, if it’s even possible to use that word in reference to this kind of film — which is not only gruesome, but occasionally a bit amateurish and languidly paced. But I believe I do understand Dora’s perspective, and I can appreciate the way he merges art with pure exploitation in ways I’ve seldom witnessed onscreen. CANNIBAL is confrontational in every possible way, to be sure… but confronting things we don’t want to think about is just one of an artist’s many obligations.

This is Marian Dora’s first full-length feature, but he’s been very busy in the decade since its release, and I’ll be exploring more of his films in this column soon… so consider this your first warning.

 

x