Rammstein are, no matter how you measure it, a remarkable band. An unholy live spectacle, pure artists in an ever-encroaching commercial world, completely committed to their culture (name one other non-English-speaking band that sings in their native tongue who could sell out the 02 in London and Madison Square Garden in New York) and, let’s not forget, dryly funny, their black mordant wit running through everything they do.
Little wonder then that when it comes to making videos their approach is one that could best be described as inimitable. Much like their combustible live show, it’s best to leave preconceived notions at the door. That their bleak video vignettes can be both ghoulish and the stuff of nightmares is a probable given, that their performances are so charismatic, engaging and clever is not. The whole world knows how their Pussy video parodied the 70s Swedish Erotica porn film series and that the band may or may not have contributed to the final ‘money shot’, but who knew that the enigmatic bank heist in the *Ich Will *video is a snipe at society’s obsession with fame and the culture of violence? The band’s latest triple DVD collection, Videos 1995-2012, an underwhelming title for such a treasure trove of acute ideas and cleverly realised conceits, is 25 unblinking clips that embrace everything from cannibalism, fat suits and mountain climbers to surfers, self-flagellation and the conspiracy theory that the US faked the moon landing. To say it’s dizzying is to understate it somewhat.
“I first saw Rammstein supporting Clawfinger,” says director Jonas Åkerlund. The one-time member of black metal band Bathory is now a world-renowned video director who has worked with everyone from Rihanna and Lady Gaga to Metallica and U2. He directed Rammstein’s infamous Pussy video as well as Ich Tu Dir Weh, Mein Land and the very naked and very wet Mann Gegen Mann.
“I remember seeing them at a club in Stockholm, where they had way too much pyro, and everyone – drunk or not – was immediately looking for the exits!” Says, Jonas, “I’ll be honest, until you get to know them, they’re a hard band to figure out, because they are just so different. First and foremost, they are great artists with real integrity. It’s not about the business side, it’s about being 100 per cent true to the vision and to the work.”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by fellow directors Jörn Heitmann and Zoran Bihac, who, between them, have made a dozen videos for the band.
“They are special, Rammstein,” says Jörn, “A lot of bands have a lead singer and everyone else shuts up, but they all have an opinion. Till [Lindemann, vocalist] is actually introverted and doesn’t consider himself the leader at all. Everybody is Rammstein with them; as there’s six of them, then there’s usually one guy who’s not happy with the concept or something, but if it’s only one then they will agree to make the video, they will convince them, they’re really like a family.”
“I remember when we did the *Rosenrot *video,” says Zoran of the clip that casts Rammstein as an unlikely band of priests preaching in the Bavarian countryside. Rammstein being Rammstein, Till’s character is quickly seduced by a young girl who then persuades the lusty priest to murder both her parents. Funny and violent, the grubby highlight of the video is the scene where the band strip naked to the waist and flagellate themselves with lengths of knotted rope until their backs are bloody and raw.
“They didn’t like that song so much; they didn’t know what to do with it as they thought it was a bit boring,” says Zoran, “so I came up with the idea of the priests travelling from place to place and the relationship between Till and the girl. I also wanted to find something to keep up the rhythm, and I thought of whipping, so I had them flagellate themselves. It worked well with the rhythm and the band liked the idea too. We were going to get a special effects guy to show the whip wounds and the band took me aside and said, ‘Come on, we’ll drink vodka and do it ourselves.’ The blood that you see, the wounds, it’s real stuff, they all went off to this tent that we had for the shoot, drunk a litre of vodka and then they just kept on rocking and went for it and that was it. That’s what they did, even thinking about it now, it’s incredible.”
“That is one of the great things about Rammstein,” says Jonas Åkerlund on the band’s willingness to open themselves up to new ideas and push the artistic envelope. “You can do things with them that you could just not do with another group. Look at the Mann Gegen Mann video, that writhing mass of oiled-up men, the band are totally naked. They think so differently – there’s a whole different set of influences at work; and these are more to do with art or literature or history, plus of course what’s inside them as people. I love U2, they are clients of mine, but I can’t imagine what they would have said about my treatment for Mann Gegen Mann!”
“If you do a video for Rammstein, if you get the chance, then it will be something special”, says Jörn Heitmann. “One of my favourites is Ohne Diche, the story of the climbers who carry their dying friend to the top of the mountain. It’s a love song actually, but I took the idea that as a band you have to make it together, like climbers tied together on the face of the mountain.
So I thought about what you never do; if someone is hurt badly, then you bring them down the mountain, you never take them up there, unless it’s their final wish…”
There’s a moment at the heart of Ohne Diche when the song stops entirely and the band, ruddy, sunburnt and broken, are sitting silently in a windswept tent on a rocky pass. Till’s foot is riven with frostbite, the look he and the band share is almost profound; he should go back down the mountain, but all he wants is to reach the summit before he dies.
“That’s it,” says Jonas. “They have to endanger themselves to get him up there so he can fulfil his dream, and this is what bands do in a way, they carry each other along. It took a long time to convince them it would work, but then when I finally showed them the edit it was really special because there was silence, not one word, and then Till stood up and embraced me, and said, ‘This is it, man, do not change anything.’”
“As with Mann Gegen Mann, I delivered a very short treatment for Pussy. I said simply, ‘Let’s do a porno,’” says Jonas Åkerlund of the infamous video that transferred the band onto the set of a 70s porn film.
“The original idea was to make use of vintage Swedish Erotica images from the 60s and 70s, and then cut in footage of the band. But it soon became clear that there would be issues with the various clearances required. It ended up being so well put together, that we did think about telling people that all the action was handled by the band, but we used actors as well. It was all shot in one day in a brothel in Berlin, one of those with differently themed rooms. I didn’t think those places existed anymore, but there’s actually quite a lot of them in Berlin, which was lucky.”
You can trace Rammstein’s visual journey from the ridiculous to the sublime in two videos made only a year apart and for the same album, 2004’s Reise Reise. Mein Teil is the dark heart of the band and arguably their most affecting and arresting video – ugly scenes that encompass violence, the Japanese tradition of Butho (a mix of theatre and dance meant to convey the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; complete annihilation), fellatio and death – while Keine Lust is laugh out loud funny, the band performing in gargantuan fat suits.
Guitarist Richard Z Kruspe recalls the premise for the Keine Lust video as: “We’re full-up! Fame, success, money. We don’t want to do anything anymore! We just want to make music. So, we meet up again for one more performance. The fact that we are fat is just symbolic for excess. It’s really just about returning to the beginning.”
“I was with them backstage,” says Jörn Heitmann,
“It was Christoph [Schneider – drummer] who came up with the idea. He said, ‘Here it is: we want to be fat!’ and that was it and then they had to go onstage. So I did the old fat mafia guys, but I dressed them all in black, and then I think it was Till who asked if we could do it all in white and that was even better. We had 18 make-up artists on set, but it looked great. We were all laughing so much and the band were so thin at the time, too – they’d just finished touring and they always lose weight after a long tour.”
“We’ve always been a band with a sense of humour,” says bassist Oliver ‘Ollie’ Riedel. “We don’t really know how people see us, but we don’t take it that seriously…”
“There are people who think we’re incredibly funny and there are people who think we’re incredibly serious,” says guitarist Paul Landers, “and you can sort of pick your position on the spectrum. So we’re not intending to go out and explain what we mean because people will simply make up their own minds. The way I see it, we’re more or less like a mirror – whatever perceptions people have tend to reflect back on them.”
The flip side to the jocular Keine Lust was the lead single from Reise Reise. Even for an album with a concept loosely based around the crash of Japan Airlines Flight 123 in the mountain ranges of Mount Fuji in 1985, *Mein Teil *was very dark stuff indeed – it was inspired by the true story of Armin Meiwes and Bernd Jürgen Armando Brandes. The men, who met online, cut off and cooked Bernd’s penis and ate it and then Armin killed Bernd, with Bernd’s consent, and ate him. The cover of the band’s single was a simple illustration of a knife and fork.
“We had to show that by not showing it,” says Zoran Bihac. “We wanted to give a sense of it, the feeling of it, but it really needed to go to the bone, it had to be so dark. So I asked each of the band how would they express the feeling of the song without telling the story, but I wanted to keep their thoughts secret, so no one else in the band knew what the others had come up with. Richard ended up fighting himself, while Till wanted to eat an angel, he’s eating an angel while the angel is eating him, and of course when you do Rammstein stuff it has to be real – the girl really gave him a blowjob! We had a closed set for that, that’s why it’s so intense. Till was expressing everything with his body.
“The compromise we reached with Zoran was that each bandmember could bring their own ‘toys’ to the shoot,” says Till. “And they were free to play with those ‘toys’, to explore their own ideas, and that worked out well… everybody did it their way…”
“I felt like I was fighting with myself at the time, so our then manager suggested that maybe I should do something along those lines,” says Richard. “That’s how the idea got started. I put an advertisement on the website and we got about 3,000 emails from people who felt they’d make good doppelgangers, but the problem was that none of them knew how to wrestle, but there was this one guy who was a German wrestling champion, so we did this whole wax thing with his hair so he looked the part, and he was such an amazing guy… he was able to teach me some things about wrestling, to lead me in a way, and I have to say that I never truly realised how hard the sport is…”
“We also wanted to convey pain in slow motion through the actions of one person,” says Zoran. “So I showed them Butho and they loved it, but they were also afraid of it. It was the most brutal shoot I’ve ever had. I lost five kilos because I was so nervous and it was so intimate – they really showed their inner self and you don’t often expect artists to give you everything, I’m still so thankful to them. That’s the one thing that sets Rammstein apart: they do everything 200 per cent and I think that’s why they are what they are. There are no compromises and if they trust you then they will always say, ‘Come on, let’s go for it, let’s get this done’ and they do.”
Rammstein’s documentary and live film, Rammstein In Amerika is released today. Click below to find out what our man made of it.