Thursday, April 3, 2014

Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (1973)

... aka: Tenderness of the Wolves
... aka: Tenderness of Wolves, The

Directed by:
Ulli Lommel

Prior to his final arrest in 1924, Fritz Haarmann already had a long criminal record; having been arrested for crimes as far ranging as child molestation to burglary to physically assaulting his own father. In and out of prison and mental institutions for a number of years (at one point he'd escaped indefinite internment in an asylum and fled to Switzerland; returning to his German homeland under an alias), Haarmann's longest stint behind bars happened between 1914 and 1918. During that time, World War I had come and gone. Upon release, Haarmann found that getting away with criminal activity in a now-bankrupt Germany was easier than ever before. Starting in 1918, he began luring young men (aged anywhere from 22 to just 10 years old) back to his apartment, where he'd have sex (or rape), torture and murder them; usually by biting through their necks. Bodies were them dismembered and disposed of in the Leine River. Haarmann, along with his lover / accomplice Hans Grans (who really didn't get his hands dirty but had no issue reaping the rewards), would then either keep or sell the clothing and belongings of the victims on the black market. Because Haarmann was a well-known trader in contraband meat, one wouldn't have to take too many guesses to know where the "pork" he was peddling came from, either.

Fritz Haarmann

After about six years of this (during which time Haarmann worked as a police informant!), bones kept washing up on the river bank. The river was dragged and a horrifying discovery was made: over 500 human bones belonging to at least 22 different victims were found. Because of his past criminal record, Haarmann was a chief suspect. Police raided his home, found the belongings of numerous missing men and the rest is history. Though he himself claimed to have killed "somewhere between 50 and 70" young men (usually lured away from the central railway station in Hanover), Haarmann was suspected in the murders of 27 but was convicted for just 24. He was executed by guillotine in 1925 at the age of 45 and his head was kept in a jar so scientists could study his brain and, to this day, is kept at the Göttingen Medical School.

Despite being one of history's most notorious serial killers, having earned such nicknames as "The Butcher of Hanover," "The Vampire of Hanover" and "The Wolf Man" by the press of his day, strangely enough there have only been three major films directly based upon his crimes. The first was Fritz Lang's masterpiece M (1931), a landmark in adult filmmaking that's still widely-viewed and respected to this day and boasts a brilliant central performance by Peter Lorre. Much later there was the seldom-watched 1995 film Der Totmacher ("The Deathmaker") starring Götz George, which I have on my ever-growing list of movies I want to see before I croak. Smack in the middle is Tenderness of the Wolves, directed by Ulli Lommel, who if nothing else has had an interesting career. 

Heavily involved in the respected New German Cinema movement of the 60s and 70s, Lommel eventually married DuPont heiress Suzanna Love and moved to the United States, where the two would collaborate on many projects. The most watched of these is probably The Boogeyman (1980); an interesting, colorful film about a vengeful spirit trapped inside of a mirror that's often falsely labeled as a slasher flick. After Love and Lommel parted ways, the director found it increasingly more difficult to find funding for his films. That is, until he discovered digital video in the mid 2000s. Since then, he's cranked out a startling number of absolutely terrible genre films, often based on real life serial killers (perhaps trying to cash in on this past glory). Whatever reputation he'd cultivated early on now gone, no list of "Worst Directors of All Time" is complete without mention of Mr. Lommel. However, despite his much-deserved bad reputation as of late, don't let that keep you from watching this one. It's actually very good.

Head clean shaven to instantly recall Lorre's interpretation of the character (not to mention Nosferatu) and equipped with a boyish and disarming, yet creepy, smile, Kurt Raab gives a memorable performance as the predatory, pathetic, lonely serial killer. As the film opens, police invade Haarmann's apartment and catch him bed with an underage boy. He's brought in to the police station where his extensive record ("...prostitution, theft, receipt of stolen goods, seduction of minors, panhandling, vagrancy, assault, fraud, forgery...") is read. Figuring he wouldn't be doing them any good in prison, the police chief instead enlists his aid as as an informant. Given a badge, Haarmann then hits the local train station and keeps an eye out for any young men who strike his fancy. Many destitute, broken runaways filter through the area, Haarmann lays out two options for them: either he'll take them to the police station, or he'll help them out by giving them money and helping them find a job... if they'll come back to his apartment with him. Many young boys enter his apartment, but few leave, and the next morning - after lots of chopping and sawing sounds that annoy his neighbors - Haarmann emerges with a pot full of fresh meat; some of which he sells to restaurant owner Louise (Brigitte Mira).

Haarmann is deeply in love with Hans (Jeff Roden); a bisexual hustler and con artist who really doesn't care much about him and is just in it for the money. Hans would rather be dancing and partying with prostitutes than dealing with his disturbed lover, but he's not above helping to cover up the crimes when it suits his needs. The two do various scams to make money, including dressing up as priests to get clothing donations, which they then turn around and sell, and dealing in cigarettes and booze on the black market. Many people surrounding Haarmann know good and well that something's not right about him, and make casual asides about his "young boys," but no one seems to want to step forward. Others, including his prostitute friend Dora (Ingrid Caven), see dead bodies in his apartment, but turn a blind eye. Even Hanover's lead detective Kommissar Braun (Wolfgang Schenck), the man who's been employing Haarmann as a informant, has been receiving packages of meat and other goods from the killer, and is reluctant to really investigate matters. A confession from Haarmann's nosy downstairs neighbor, spinster Frau Linder (Margit Carstensen), who's been hearing the banging and chopping late into the night plus sees him hauling off large wrapped packages to the river for disposal, and pressure from the government finally results in a sting operation to entrap the killer.

Written by its star and produced by leading German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who also plays a small role), this is very well-made and acted, sticks rather closely to the known facts and is unflinching yet non-exploitative in its depiction of the horrific crimes; showing us just enough of the horrific deeds and never wallowing in them for sensationalism. It's also rather frank and matter-of-fact in its portrayal of homosexuality, which probably isn't how this same material would had been handled if it were filmed in - say - the UK or the United States, at this same time. Concentration on the depressed, impoverished setting - making one aware of just how something this horrible could continue on for as long as it did - is perhaps the film's strongest attribute of all. Post-war Germany is shown to be a place filled with people who are weak, hungry and extremely desperate; weak and hungry enough for adults to casually indulge in criminal activity and for the young to easily fall into a psycho's trap; desperate enough for otherwise normal people to ignore horrific things going on all around them. The depths people will sink to for money, food, clothing, small joys most of us take for granted or just to get their basic needs met greatly enhances the mood of this bleak, lurid film.

Though it was not distributed in the U.S. during the video era (not surprising since it earned it an X certificate numerous places), Anchor Bay finally issued a DVD in 1999. The audience appeal for something like this is certainly limited; not only because of the gay content but also because it is as far from "feel good movie" as one can get, even within the genre. Not even the presence of dark humor lightens things up much... and the film is honestly all the better for that. Murder, poverty and the fallout of war are all painted with the the same ugly, damning brush.

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