The Sex Thief is an attention-grabbing title for a film. It’s called the more cumbersome Die Beischlafdiebin in the original German. Run that compound noun through Google Translate and you’ll find no mention of sex at all. No mention, either – unless AI is more advanced than any of us can imagine – of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a clear influence on a story about a person who is trying to make over another person for reasons to do with their own personal shortcomings.
It’s a Christian Petzold film and so there’s a mysterious female at the centre of it, a woman devastatingly attractive to men but who is trying to escape her situation (a Petzold constant) in a story that is so cool it takes on a mythical aspect, helped by the odd “does not quite add up” touch in a story that is otherwise strictly realistic.
She doesn’t steal sex, either, this central female, but rather money, after luring lone male travellers out of the bar of the holiday hotel where she picks them up (though they think they’re picking her up) and up to a waiting hotel room, where she relieves them of their cash having first drugged them. No actual sex occurs.
This is all something of a preamble, though, because when we meet Petra – a woman in her late 40s whose allure is just beginning to fade, and she knows it – she’s about to be rumbled by first a cop (Petzold regular Richy Müller) and then by a fellow thief (Wolfram Berger), who recognises a fellow spirit and makes her an offer she probably shouldn’t refuse – go with him to Bora Bora.
Instead Petra abandons Morocco, where she’s been working her scam for years, and heads back to her native Köln, only to find that the sister whose studies she’s been paying for with her thievery hasn’t made the best use of the money. Petzold, having already teased us with an oblique Psycho reference, and a plotline semi-lifted from To Catch a Thief, makes it three Hitchcocks in a row with a Vertigo-like remodelling of the younger sister by the older one, who sets out to refashion Franziska (Nele Mueller-Stöfen) in her own image, teaching her the advantages of deploying her feminine allure. It’s not quite James Stewart making over Kim Novak but the parallels – and jeopardy – are there, and both women are blonde to boot.
Stefan Will’s soundtrack adds to the overall Hitchcockian impression with regular irruptions of plangent ascending strings in the Bernard Herrmann style. And there’s even a visual reference to Saul Bass’s famous poster for Vertigo. All in all quite a feast for hungry Hitchcock fans.
At the centre of it all is Constanze Engelbrecht as the mysterious Petra, a woman who’s been playing a game so long she’s become really good at it but whose time is up. The grim irony here is that Engelbrecht, 48 when this was made, would be dead within two years of cancer. It’s a selfless performance, subsuming herself to the needs of the director, who likes his female central characters to be distant, mysterious, slightly disengaged, lost, perhaps mythical at some level. Engelbrecht manages all of these and brings a touch of desperation and hurt along as well.
It’s a thriller, obviously, like most of Petzold’s films, but it’s a thriller cool almost to the point of chilliness at times. This seeps out from the character of Petra to suffuse the whole movie. Even in moments of high drama – of which there are few – there’s not much actual high drama on the screen.
Add to this the settings for most of the action – anonymous spaces like hotel rooms and bars – and a TV movie budget and what you’ve got is an austere, almost ascetic drama that feels at times more like a template than a complete work in itself.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022