Should a serial killer movie sympathise with its killer? The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh) comes perilously close to going all-in with real-life killer Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler), who killed four women in Hamburg between 1970 and 1974 and then hid their body parts in his attic.
Grim, seedy, sleazy, disgusting, vile, the negative adjectives have piled up in discussions about this undoubtedly brilliantly made movie. I’d go for “pitiless” or “cosmically ironic”. More verbosely, it’s a cool exercise in the manipulation of the human tendency to imprint (like a duckling for the first “mamma” object it sees on hatching) suggesting the omnivorous writer/director Fatih Akin has been watching Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, Lady Vengeance).
The critic Roger Ebert once described movies an “empathy machine”. Akin essentially takes that machine and sees how much he can dick about with it, pointing it this way and that in an attempt to flick the audience’s switches first one way and then another.
This bizarre exercise starts in the first scene. A lockshot of a grimy room where a woman lies dead on a bed. A man jumps on top of her, ties her legs together and attempts to pull a big plastic bag over her head and upper torso. Wrapping up a dead body is really difficult. Long minutes later he’s humping the body down the stairs – bang, bang, bang it goes on each step. A kid from the floor below pokes her head out to see what the noise is. The man shoos her back in. Deterred, he lugs the body back up the stairs, unwraps and undresses it, every action a struggle, pulls out a wood saw and, the camera decorously and significantly obscuring the vicitm’s head, proceeds to saw it off.
Whose side are we on? It’s his, isn’t it? Already.
From here Akin piles on several bestiaries of unpleasantness. Rarely in a film can there have been so much downright ugliness, nastiness, seediness, grimness. Everything is grotesque. From the locals at the Golden Glove pub (they have names like Anus and SS Norbert) where withdrawn and hideous Fritz hangs out, to the women Fritz picks up – the one with underwear the colour of tea whose false teeth shatter into bits when Fritz punches her, or the one who, over pre-coital drinks, talks about the amount of blood in her shit. It’s like I’m having my period out of the wrong hole, she says, TMI-style.
There is so much of this sort of thing – he fucks one of his women with a Bockwurst – that the suspicion starts to form that what we’re watching is a comedy, of a very black sort. The fact that Akin’s soundtrack is a wall-to-wall assemblage of sentimental German Schlager hits from the era suggests irony. But usually with irony there’s a wink somewhere. That’s absent in The Golden Glove.
Early on, Akin also introduces Petra (Greta Sophie Schmidt), a bright, pretty blonde clearly marked out as “the next victim”, and, tweaking the genre conventions like crazy, teases us by not using her as we expect.
Fritz, meanwhile, gets two chances at redemption. One is a lunge at domestic bliss with one pick-up who can clean and cook and doesn’t mind the smell (the smell!) in Fritz’s bedsit, caused, says Fritz, by the Greeks downstairs and their incessant cooking.
In the other, Fritz quits the booze – the film also acts as an essay on the terrible effects of alcohol, particularly when drunk on an industrial scale – gets a job and appears to be heading towards some version of conventional normality.
From actual photos over the end credits we can see that Akin and production designer Tamo Kunz have got all of it right – Fritz’s filthy bedsit decorated with porn pictures ripped from magazines, the ruined faces of the women he preyed on, Fritz’s twisted fizzog, and so on.
Fritz, in the shape of actor Jonas Dassler – a good looking man under the make-up – is if anything even uglier than the real Fritz. The actors who play his victims also deserve medals for their portrayals of women so unattractive that Fritz has to wank himself hard in order to be able to have sex with them. The denizens of the “Schuh”, as they call it, are similarly a grim-looking collection of weirdos and desperadoes. Brilliant casting, brilliant playing.
Human ingenuity is usually what’s on offer in the serial killer movie. A bright lone investigator cracking the case, or a police force getting there through dogged detective work. There is none of that here. Instead fate, the cosmos, bad luck, sheer chance, call it what you will, is the decisive element that brings Fritz’s career to a halt, and even there Akin plays with us.
He’s off his usual beat – most of Akin’s films (like Head On or In the Fade) have dealt with the uneasy relations of the offspring of Gastarbeiter Turks and the indigenous Germans – but some things remain true to Akin’s output, most obviously the way every character, no matter how briefly they’re on screen, is fully written, believeable, exquisitely detailed. The guy who gives Fritz his nightwatchman job – on screen for a minute or so and entirely a real person.
The Golden Glove is not The Silence of the Lambs. It’s not the sort of film you recommend to people and is not for normal audiences. Certainly not a date movie. But in presenting the grim, bleak vision it also asks questions about movies like The Silence of the Lambs, movies that serve up murder as entertainment. So, yes, understandably a lot of people hated it.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021