In the previous entries of “Dead Air,” I focused on Fabio Frizzi’s score for Lucio Fulci’s 1981 surrealist absurd masterpiece THE BEYOND; before that, I started this column with an account of Tobe Hooper and Wayne Bell’s excellent score for Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). For this, the third entry, I want to focus on a less popular film, Gerald Kargl’s notorious serial killer film ANGST, with a soundtrack by electronic music pioneer Klaus Schulze.
“The fear in her eyes and the knife in the chest. That’s my last memory of my mother. That’s why I had to go to prison for four years, even though she survived.”
Immediately ANGST sets its strange tone, mainly because of Academy-Award winner Zbigniew Rybczynski’s inventive camera work. The camera swoops in, hovers over a prison, and we meet K., The Psychopath, played by Erwin Leder (DAS BOOT, UNDERWORLD) as he leaves the prison. Most of the story is told to us in a monologue from him, the killer, where he confesses immediately to attempting to murder his mother, but failing to do so, then eventually succeeding in killing someone else. He is set free from prison and tells us directly his determination to kill again. He immediately sets out to do so.
Klaus Schulze played drums on the first Tangerine Dream record “Electronic Meditations” (1970); he left, then played keyboards and drums with Ash Ra Temple for their eponymous 1971 album, and then again left after one record. His first solo record, “Irrlicht” (1972), was composed of creepy organ drones and minimal drums, and is now considered a milestone in electronic music; quickly thereafter he began doing soundtrack work, first for the pornographic film BODY LOVE (1977) and then for ANGST (1984), where he would say in an interview “the film was cut to the music.” In film score production this practice is extremely rare—typically artists play to the film, locking in on precise edits and changes. Schulze, on the other hand, gave the director Kargl long tracks that evolve slowly, with repeating arpeggios and drum machines—really providing more of a palette of sounds for Kargl to edit the film around. Because of that, this tense relationship between rhythm and pulse emerges.
ANGST was inspired not by a literary source but from a true crime story, that of the murders of Werner Kniesek. Kniesek gained notoriety in Austria for a cruel triple murder he committed in 1973 immediately after his release from prison for another murder. It shocked the country not only for its brutality but for the hours of torture he inflicted upon the family, his total lack of remorse, and confession that he would do it again.
“Prisons exist so one can better oneself. But that urge to torture a human, that’s one thing I never could get rid of.”
ANGST is predominantly conveyed through a series of overdubbed monologues; there is very little conversation, and these monologues provide insight into The Psychopath’s upbringing and previous crimes, and others on his motivations and frustrations. Leder’s performance is incredibly menacing and horrifyingly banal. As a killer his character is bumbling in the way he is improvising—this is not some calculating Hannibal Lector, or suave Patrick Bateman. Yet that is what makes the performance so chilling—his entire indifference to the situation. It contains many echoes of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), another film that has a garland of cruel home invasions. ANGST has one singular home invasion that sets it all in motion, but both movies share a voice-over narration that provides the viewer with some sense of this killer’s world. ANGST also belongs alongside other European horror films, such as fellow Austrian Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997) and the more recent ILS (2006), in that it involves the home besieged.
In Schuzle’s score he sets the tempo, using drum machines and sequenced synths, and then the visuals follow. Although they feel forged hand in hand. The first time Schulze’s score gets used is in the scene when The Psychopath attempts to strangle his taxi driver but she realizes he is acting strange, so she stops the car and The Psychopath flees into the woods. The synths generate this urgency as he flees; visually the tension is enhanced by the actor wearing a Steadicam as he runs away, so his face is in focus as the world blurs around him—and that adds a certain metaphorical focus. It’s an excellent combination of choices that we will see over and over again, between acting, the camera, and the audio design. This conflagration works to reveal the narrowing obsessive state of this particular killer, especially in the end sequence, with sweeping crane shots as the panicked Psychopath executes his final act.
ANGST uses the true crime accounts of Kniesek’s crimes for much of the action and narration, and in that regard it owes something to the True Crime genre for sure. However, the monologue is full of references from other serial killers, such as Peter Kurten and Ed Gein. This monologue has occasional bleed through to the action; for example, Kurten confessed he consumed the blood of a victim and vomited, which occurs in the film. Director Kargl had clearly done his research and was thinking of these details—how extreme evil can appear anywhere, even in a benign Austrian town.
“I can’t feel sorry for the victims. I need to keep on killing.”
Sadly, Kargl would not go on to direct another film. ANGST arrived with an X-rating and loads of controversy, available only on VHS in France in the 1980s and given a XXX rating in the United States. It was dropped by its potential distributor—despite little nudity, but mostly because of the violence. It was mainly dubbed and shared for years until a German DVD was released in 2006 and a more recent, better quality, DVD in 2014 with an introduction by Gaspar Noe (LOVE, IRREVERSIBLE), long an evangelizer for the film, and an interview with cinematographer Rybczynski conducted by Jörg Buttgeriet (NEKROMANTIK). Kargl was a visionary who made a film unlike anything before it, and the movie influenced many people. It would’ve been great to see what he would have done later on.
On the other hand, Schulze’s score was so evocative that the track “Freeze,” used during the long shots of The Psychopath’s break in to the family home, was used in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER (1986) and in Sophia Coppola’s THE BLING RING (2013). Schulze still composes and releases music, and his influence over electronic music, or ambient music, is profound. Tangerine Dream would go on to score scores of films, including many for Michael Mann. ANGST is a soundtrack that is incredibly listenable, and downright enjoyable; it can be tense and dancey at the same time.
In ANGST, there’s this minor detail that was incredibly disturbing. The film never quite announces its sense of time; much like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, it could be in the present or somewhat in the future. After The Psychopath is released from prison and before he gets into the taxi, he enters a gas station restaurant. Inside, there’s a man who reading a newspaper that simply states on the front page “WAR.” And then, at the end after The Psychopath has murdered the family and piled their bodies in the trunk of the Mercedes, we see the same man at the gas station watching The Psychopath from behind a newspaper that now says “PAX” or “Peace.” Obviously, it could be of some other war, non-historical, something outside the frame of ANGST, or more relating the state of the Psychopath’s mind. The entire monologue throughout the film is about committing murder, about a lust for death. This is a subtle approach to reinforce that now, for the moment, the killer is at rest.