Wednesday, February 11, 2015


Ulli Lommel, 1973
Starring: Kurt Raab, Jeff Roden, Margit Carstensen, Ingrid Caven

Just after the end of WWI, Fritz Haarmann takes advantage of the poverty and widespread crime in Germany. He is hired as an informant by the police, a position that allows him to rape and murder young boys. He then sells their possessions on the black market, along with their flesh, as meat is in high demand. But strife develops between he and his longtime partner, Hans, and a nosy neighbor, Frau Lindner, suspects that Franz is up to no good and takes her suspicions to the police, just as some of his corpses are found in the river.

Based closely on the life of German serial killer Fritz Haarmann, The Tenderness of the Wolves is the third film of director Ulli Lommel, a protégé of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who acted in this film and served as producer. Out of all the films made surrounding Fassbinder (but not directed by him), this is perhaps the most significant. Lommel got his start acting in German TV movies and then in Fassbinder’s films and oddly went on to quite a diverse career. He helmed Z-grade horror films like The Boogey Man and The Devonsville Terror, but also made sci-fi films like Haytabo, Brain Waves, Strangers in Paradise, the sadly unavailable Nazi satire Adolf und Marlene, important No Wave documentary Blank Generation, a crime film with Jack Palance, Cocaine Cowboys, and many more. The Tenderness of the Wolves was one of his earliest works, but remains one of his best.

Another of Fassbinder’s close associates, Kurt Raab – one of his regular actors and art director – played a major role in the film’s development. In addition to starring in the film as Haarmann, he wrote the script and served as set designer. In his script, Raab changed few of the key details of Haarmann’s life and crimes. Known by a number of colorful epithets, including the Butcher of Hanover, the Vampire of Hanover, or the Wolf Man, Haarmann was convicted of murdering 24 young men (though he likely killed more) between 1918 and 1924. His preferred method of killing was to bite through the throats of his victims, most of whom were homeless, jobless teenagers. The poverty and lawlessness of Weimar Germany provided a unique killing field for Haarmann. Despite his criminal record, extensive jail time, and known homosexuality, he was untouchable for a few years thanks to his role as a police informant. He sold his victims possessions or gave them away as gifts, and there is a long-standing rumor that he sold their flesh. Though this was never conclusively proven, it is known that he sold meat on the black market.

One key factual element that was changed is that while Haarmann murdered between 1918 and 1924, Fassbinder decided that a ‘20s setting would be too expensive. He was still relatively unknown in 1973 and his budgets were incredibly small by today’s standards, thus the time period was moved to the late ‘40s. Fassbinder explored this post-war period repeatedly through his career in films like The American Soldier, Lola, Veronika Voss, and others, and some of his themes are echoed here by Lommel and Raab. Haarmann is a figure of exploitation – emotional, sexual, and financial – and unabashedly drains those around him. In contrast with Fritz Lang’s M and its central killer, an obvious source of inspiration (and also based on Haarmann), Haarmann is not an outcast, he’s a central figure in the film’s urban world. Hans Beckert, Peter Lorre’s equally bald killer in M, on the other hand, is outside of the social network of Weimar Berlin, resting neither with the criminals, cops, or poor families.

Despite their shared serial killer theme and the presence of a soft-spoken, bald, wide-eyed murderer, the two films are remarkably different. While M is concerned with urban claustrophobia and a decaying social structure, The Tenderness of the Wolves is an exploration of the worst of capitalism and consumerism – also seen in ‘70s films like Pasolini’s Salo and Teorema. Lommel and Raab are not interested in providing a biography of Haarmann or in examining potential motivations for his actions; rather they follow several weeks of his murderous racketeering. Haarmann seems to annihilate his victims twice – in a parody of Nazi profiteering, he kills them, but he also sells their boots, clothing, and flesh, so that they are literally and figuratively dissolved into the post-war economy. He also fits within the larger framework of post-industrial human disposability, sweeping boys from the streets as effectively as war, urban pestilence, or factory working life.

Despite its flaws, there is something haunting about the film and Lommel infuses Haarmann with the sense that he is not an anomaly, a monster, or an evil genius, as many serial killer films choose to present murderers, but rather that he is just terrifyingly part of the norm, a manifestation of German post-war cultural anxiety that lingered throughout the ‘70s. There is a sense of timelessness about the proceedings, despite the fact that it is set in the immediate postwar years. This sense of liminal space that borders the historical and the imaged was a regular fixture of Fassbinder’s work, including his Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Bolwieser, and his masterpiece miniseries, Berlin Alexanderplatz, which The Tenderness of the Wolves remarkably resembles.

Fortunately, The Tenderness of the Wolves is available on DVD… though it is out of print and quite expensive. The film comes recommended and is a pensive, disturbing look at consumerism and greed. It’s worth seeing for Raab’s excellent performance alone, but the uniformly solid cast includes many of Fassbinder’s regulars, such as Margit Carstensen as the nosy neighbor, Ingrid Caven, Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, and a wonderfully sleazy-looking Fassbinder as one of Haarmann’s more questionable associates. This will definitely please anyone looking for a more unusual serial killer film that avoids what has become the post-Manhunter norm.

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