In some ways, Der Nachtmahr (2015) is a completely unique film. It’s not every day you approach a picture that begins by warning cards about its intense usage of strobe lights and disorienting sound profiles. Its complete construction is transcendent, combining elements of an EDM music video with classic horror framing, tossing in components of family drama, teen coming-of-age spirit and a little science fiction. You’re never really sure what is going on, what’s real and what is illusion. Yet underneath all that originality exist many stylistic things that render familiar. Fans of David Lynch’s surrealist cinema or Cronenberg’s body horror will experience many moments during Der Nachtmahr where they might forget this picture comes from Akiz, the visual artist who counts Lynch, as well as the likes of Banksy and the Beastie Boys’ Ad Rock among his illustrious art patrons and personal influencers.
Der Nachtmahr’s most basic inspiration, however, comes from a famous piece of 18th-century art by Swedish painter Heinrich Füssli that shares the same name. The painting depicts a pale woman lying on a divan, head and arms hanging over the edge, as a smirking incubus rests on her back.
Though a bit hard to see in the darkly-lit scene, the image is somewhat recreated in the film at a turning point in the Der Nachtmahr narrative, when protagonist Tina (Carolyn Genzkow) sleeps with the manifested creature by her side.
Der Nachtmahr’s narrative twists and turns swoop in and out of the surreal and the conscious. When Tina first begins to see the hunchbacked little critter following her around, we’re left to assume she’s imagining things. As it becomes more real in presence, so does it on film, eventually revealing itself as a docile and awkwardly endearing little beast. Yet even after witness, Der Nachtmahr cleverly maintains the possibility that it doesn’t actually exist—until it’s finally seen by someone other than Tina. But even in that discovery there’s a sense of disbelief. Did those people really see it? Are they seeing the same thing we are? The film doesn’t answer but only grows more mysterious, akin to the nature of its obvious Lynchian (ala 1977’s Eraserhead) influence. Art is more interesting when its ambiguity is open to interpretation, and above all Akiz is an artist dedicated to that idea.
The creature itself is an original concept by Akiz, but shares similarity to many previous models. It shares the grotesque humanity of Belial from Basket Case (1982). It gets abducted by authorities and taken away for experimentation much like E.T.‘s (1982) titular alien, and even boasts the same physical sensory connection with its human counterpart. It has the hunchy, grey-skinned build of Gollum, but the endearing large eyes and spirit of Dobby or Kreacher from Harry Potter.
However, as noted by The Ink and Code in their article “A Strange and Familiar Dream,” “these comparisons shouldn’t be considered a criticism. Despite its CGI enhancements, the creature has a tactile quality those earlier practical creations possessed. It feels like part of the world instead of added in post-production.” But the creature is one component of the film’s complete picture.
The site continues that thought, saying, “You can sense the influences of other filmmakers, such as David Lynch, Roman Polanski, and even Harmony Korine in little flourishes throughout the film. And let’s not forget to include fellow German filmmaker Wim Wenders; the appearance of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon in a small role reminded me of some of the curious celebrity casting choices Wenders made.” Kim Gordon also contributed vocals to the film’s soundtrack.
They also note several Kubrickian influences in cinematography and framing, that raise curious questions about the film’s possible meaning. See our other article for an elaboration on that subject.
Der Nachtmahr is an experience suited for the open-minded, and the non-epileptic. It’s certainly an art piece that won’t speak too all audiences, but the source of many of its artistic flavors shine through evidently in ways that don’t detract, but inspire favor from fans of the sources. That combination of influences becomes uniquely Akiz, and as his filmmaking endeavors move forward, it will be interesting to see if his own artistic style emerges from within the influences of so many others or if his films become a rehashing of greater artistic originalities.