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The dregs of society wind up in Hamburg’s red light district and a sleazy bar known as The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh). This is the hunting ground of serial killer Fritz Honka, an unskilled laborer and bottom feeder whose murders are detailed, without too many scruples or explanations, in Fatih Akin’s determinedly seamy reconstruction. Watching old alcoholic prostitutes being lured to their deaths has the morbid fascination of all true-crime tales, but the unremitting bleakness of Akin’s vision, atmospherically visualized by production designer Tamo Kunz and a host of grungy actors, is likely to be too much for most viewers to take.
After its bow in Berlin competition (where Akin won the Golden Bear in 2004 with Head-On), the film will face the challenge of commercial audiences. It has been widely sold around the world on the strength of the director’s reputation, which is flying high after the success of his 2017 thriller In the Fade, which nabbed the best foreign-language film Golden Globe and awards for lead Diane Kruger. The Golden Glove is quite a different matter, and it remains to be seen how much gruesome slumming audiences are willing to pay to do.
On some level, Fritz’s story is compulsive viewing, only you wish you weren’t there. Located uncertainly between a seriously repulsive horror pic and Germanic black humor, this particular vision of hell owes a visible debt to Rainer W. Fassbinder. All that is missing is the camp note of a true Fassbinder film and compassion for suffering humanity. True, Akin’s prostitutes are pitiable and they seem to have had very few choices in their sad lives, but no redemption is possible, unless you count the Salvation Army lady who saves one of the women.
Though the killer is real, the film is based on a recent novel by Heinz Strunk and it opens in 1970 in the thick of the action. Honka has just murdered his first victim and lumbers around his attic hovel, thinking how to dispose of the body. It is night and his first attempt to drag a body bag down the rickety stairs wakes the building. The loud thumping sounds have an undeniably comic effect, as does the misshapen ogre’s face of Jonas Dassler (without the makeup, the strikingly handsome young actor from LOMO: The Language of Many Others). He has no choice but to saw the lady to pieces and wrap the result up like bloody pieces of meat. When it turns out to be too risky to dump the body parts in an empty lot, he hits on the idea of simply walling them up behind a wooden trap door in his apartment, where they stink to high heaven. He blames the smell on a Greek family cooking downstairs.
Much of the action takes place in the bar of choice for losers and boozers, including a one-eyed SS man (Dirk Bohling) hit by a bomb in the war and Fassbinder regular Hark Bohm, who pretends to disapprove of his companions’ obscene and sexist, but often outrageously funny, banter. Most of the barbs are directed at a sad collection of aged hookers slumped around the tables. Even they can’t stomach making nice to the ugly Fritz. But he knows how to win their favor with free drinks and the offer of more back in his apartment.
Then there are the two “normal” women he lusts after, who unwittingly assume the roles of angel and devil. The angel is Petra, a pouting blonde teen goddess who meets him while slumming in the red light district with a reckless schoolmate. The devil is an attractive office cleaning woman who, just when poor Fritz has gone sober and is cleaning up his life, entices him off the wagon and back to hell.
But they are secondary to the bleary-eyed ladies he persuades to come home with him: beautifully drawn characters, and not all of them die. The mousy Gerda Voss, touchingly portrayed by Margarethe Tiesel with sagging skin and hopeless eyes, actually moves in with him, accepting his humiliating sexual behavior (Fritz is impotent and resorts to using kitchen implements in bed) while she strings him along about introducing him to her daughter Rosi. The scene where she drinks with Fritz and his awful brother Siggi (Marc Hosemann) is a laugh.
There’s a moment — just one — in which a victim strikes back. She’s a massive woman with a haughty look and is very drunk. Fritz has just been beaten her in the face until she’s bloody. As he sleeps on the bed where he’s raped her, she goes to the fridge and calmly, without changing expression, scoops out a jar of what one presumes is mustard, then smears it on him where it hurts. When he stops screaming and lunges for her, she kicks him hard in the groin and calmly goes back to her bottle of gin.
It’s a scene that gets spontaneous applause because it offers a tiny reprieve from the unremitting portrait of depravity, misogyny and victimization. All this is heavily brought home by Rainer Klausmann’s gritty images and Kunz’s nauseating attic set plastered wall-to-wall with pictures torn from porn magazines — sets so extraordinarily detailed you can smell them. F.M. Einhelt’s selection of repetitious, scratchy German pop music adds the finishing touch to the atmosphere, so thick it sometimes feels like overkill.
Production company: Bombero International
Cast: Jonas Dassler, Margarethe Tiesel, Katja Studt, Martina Eitner-Acheampong, Hark Bohm, Jessica Kosmalia, Barbara Krabbe, Tilla Kratochwil, Uwe Rohde, Marc Hosemann
Director: Fatih Akin
Screenwriter: Fatih Akin, based on a novel by Heinz Strunk
Producers: Nurhan Sekerci-Porst, Fatih Akin, Herman Weigel
Director of photography: Rainer Klausmann
Production designer: Tamo Kunz
Costume designer: Katrin Aschendorf
Editors: Andrew Bird, Franziska Schmidt-Karner
Music: FM Einhelt
Casting director: Monique Akin
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: The Match Factory
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