In this sophisticated historical-theoretical analysis of Ulli Lommel's criminally underappreciated serial killer drama, Jay McRoy paves the way for future studies of Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe. Investigating the film from the standpoint of expressionist aesthetics, queer theory and das neue Kino, McRoy reveals the extent to which the director shapes his social critique around Germany's "cultural anxiety over the lingering impact of the Third Reich's collapse, and of Nazism's brutal, genocidal legacy."
In the company of wolves
Perhaps one of the most visually and emotionally compelling products of das neue Kino, the "New German Cinema," Ulli Lommel's Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe (Tenderness of the Wolves, 1973) is a truly remarkable film that deserves far greater critical attention than it has thus far garnered. Based loosely on the murders committed by the notorious German serial killer Fritz Haarmann—a pedophile and cannibal known colloquially as "the Werewolf of Hanover"—Lommel's initial foray into feature film direction posits a queer subjectivity against a poverty—stricken and seemingly undisciplined social body that, motivated by self-interest and a will to binary categorisation, ultimately harbours the seeds of fascism. In particular, Lommel's direction reveals this crucial ontological and political struggle.
By temporally displacing the film's action through an anachronistic conflation of cinematic and historical motifs, Lommel mobilises the aesthetic conventions of both German expressionism and das neue Kino of the 1970s without reducing his film to a mere study of social determinism or to a clever postmodern exercise in style and form. In the process, by repeatedly positioning Haarmann as perhaps the narrative's most sympathetic character, Lommel advances a complex, if ultimately tragic, meditation on alterity. Indeed, his film literally becomes a "monstrous" body— a designation that is by no means derogatory. By executing a series of narrative displacements both within and against the diegesis, Lommel prohibits a final disavowal of the film's "queer"ness, revealing, in the process, a mode of filmmaking that fosters alternative economies of identity and desire.
Viewers searching for a "true-crime" account of Fritz Haarmann's reign of terror will most likely come away from this film disappointed, although a consideration of the social milieu from which such a figure may arise is never far from the surface; indeed, Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe consistently engages issues of nationality, sexuality and gender. However, as is the case in many films inspired by the lives and deeds of "real-life" serial killers, only carefully selected biographical details of the historical "Werewolf of Hanover" inform the character of Haarmann, portrayed, in an eerily unsettling and understated performance, by Kurt Raab, who also served as the film's writer and production designer. As with many serial killer-inspired films, from Psycho (1960) to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) to J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep, 1994), any pretense to biographical accuracy soon gives way to larger artistic and ideological concerns.
The return of the repressed:
Germany's unbewältige Vergangenheit
Lommel and Raab relocate Haarmann's killing spree from the dire economic depression following the end of World War I to the similarly difficult years following the end of World War II and the collapse of the National Socialist party. Such temporal revision and/or extrapolation inflects the audience's experience of the film in several ways. First, it distances Lommel's Haarmann from the confines of historical specificity without permanently rupturing the wider cultural and thematic linkages between the original "Werewolf of Hanover" and the figure depicted on screen. In short, the film draws upon the historical Haarmann's infamy while freeing Lommel and Raab to articulate their own narrative vision, a liberation that, as I will explicate more thoroughly in the paragraphs to follow, allows Lommel's Haarmann to function metaphorically.
Additionally, this temporal displacement frustrates audience attempts at fixing the film's events within a stable historical moment, a maneuver made even more disconcerting by the text's schizophrenic visual style, which conflates motifs from German expressionist masterpieces like Fritz Lang's M (1931) and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) with the intentionally melodramatic tone of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's darkest portraits of urban despair and spiritual isolation.
Dressing his characters and sets with costumes and props acquired from a local theater in an attempt to lower production costs, Lommel effectively creates a semiotic bridge that spans multiple decades, lending an illusion of timelessness to the proceedings. Haarmann's ubiquitous trench coat and fedora clearly reference Lang's child-murderer in M, much as his shaved head, pale countenance and insatiable desire to rip open the throats of his victims with his teeth call to mind Murnau's vampire. Likewise, the white 1970s polyester sports jacket worn by Haarmann's emotionally manipulative lover, Hans Grans (Jeff Roden), guarantees that contemporary audiences remain directly implicated in the events transpiring on screen.
At the very least, audiences familiar with the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who appears in Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe as a lascivious streetwise crook) will recognize the prolific director's influence on Lommel's cinematic vision. Indeed, Lommel's debt to Fassbinder is perhaps most obvious in the various and, at times, melodramatic depictions of Haarmann's emotional exploitation.
Like Fassbinder's Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975), in which the audience witnesses the pathetic downward spiral of a lottery winner turned suicide, Lommel's complex exploration of life as a struggle against and amidst scheming, oppressive forces presents an ideal arena for biting satire and insightful social critique.
But just what kind of society does Lommel's film depict? What larger socio-cultural critique does Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe ultimately put forth?
Rendered in sickly hues of yellow, orange, brown and blue, the social realm depicted in Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe is economically and spiritually impoverished. Meat and cigarettes circulate on the black market, and suspicion and treachery lurk beneath the surface of nearly every shady transaction. With its corrupt police force seeking to control—or at least convey the illusion of control over—transient-filled railway stations (Haarmann's favourite hunting ground for the young boys that sate his blood-lust), Lommel's cityscape resembles nothing less than a cross between the Interzone of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959) and the malfunctioning, dystopian police state of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).
Like the "military ports" described in Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish, the grim streets of Lommel's Hanover, rife with the "circulation of men and goods...embarking and disembarking," are "place[s] of desertion, smuggling, contagion...a crossroads for dangerous mixtures, a meeting-place for forbidden circulation." They are also, as Foucault suggests about his own ports of entry, avenues that define the very parameters and content of a "disciplined" and "ordered" social body, even as their various diffuse circulations, marked by the "uncontrolled disappearances" of individuals, threaten the society's "health" and "docility." Goods and services may circulate through non-traditional channels in Lommel's Hanover, but these flows are contained and conditioned by familiar repressive state and cultural apparatuses; when Haarmann's actions imperil the stability of the operant models of disciplinary power, traditional representations of "law and order" (eg, the police and the military) impose and enforce familiar socio-cultural boundaries.
The Hanover streets depicted in Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe also provide Lommel with an ideal space for his exploration of what film theorists Thomas Elsaesser and David A. Cook describe as Germany's reluctance to "come to terms with the nightmare of its own recent history, its unbewältige Vergangenheit ('unassimilated past')." This cultural anxiety over the lingering impact of the Third Reich's collapse, and of Nazism's brutal, genocidal legacy, shapes Lommel's social critique. By offering audiences a glimpse into the political and psychological mechanisms at work within a community that would, for the most part, rather ignore Haarmann's suspicious activities than acknowledge them, Lommel interrogates German culpability in, and remorse over, "Nazi rule."  As the film's plot unfolds, the audience learns of the various motivations behind what amounts to a collective form of willful misrecognition permeating multiple occupations and social classes.
Corrupt police and government officials view the discovery of human remains with indifference ("a couple of dead people, more or less..."), all but ignore the accusations and suppositions advanced by Haarmann's self-righteous downstairs neighbour Frau Linder (Margit Carstensen) and, to maintain a semblance of order while lining their own pockets, rely heavily upon Haarmann's willingness to inform on his peers. Likewise, although their facial expressions occasionally betray fleeting suspicion, neighbours and restaurant-owners delight in the remarkable quality of Haarmann's mystery meat, a delicacy upon which they feast to the accompaniment of German folk songs and American popular music. Such scenes, resonating with a dramatic tension far more sinister and surreal than even the graphic depiction of Haarmann's crimes, further locate Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe as a film that acknowledges that the seeds of fascism still permeate the social fabric of a nation "[r]obbed of their past by the infamy of Nazism and of their future by American cultural imperialism."
Fittingly, in a film about an emerging national identity struggling to come to terms with its unbewältige Vergangenheit, it is neither physical evidence nor eye-witness speculation that precipitate Haarmann's downfall, but rather social fears over the return of a repressed Nazi past. In the crucial scene that provides the final shift in the narrative's trajectory, initiating a chain of events that lead to Haarmann's arrest in the film's climactic moments, a government official informs the Hanover police that:
In our military district and in the surrounding areas, the worst rumors are spreading. The confidence in the German police system has been shaken, gentlemen. Various parts of the military government are starting to believe that the German police are working hand in hand with shady elements from the Nazi period. It is about time for you to present results. Day after day discoveries are being made. Body parts of at least twenty-two people between the ages of thirteen and twenty. Time is running out.
The use of the word "shady" is instructive, as it suggests that the repressive ideologies that inform(ed) "the Nazi period" remain, at the very least, as "repressed" components of the cultural imaginary. They may have been relegated to silence, darkness and shadow through an unarticulated social consensus, but they are still there if one knows where to look. Ironically, in an attempt to sever associations with their Nazi past, the police-led mob that "traps" and captures Haarmann ultimately recreate the Nazi legacy by expelling that which is most abject in an effort to strengthen the integrity of the social body and its easily coded parts. Using a young man as bait, the hunt for Haarmann is mobilised not so much in response to Haarmann's murders as to his conspicuous difference, his failure to remain a "docile body" easily categorised within binary (eg, male-female, straight-gay) models of identity.
The queerness of wolves
From the film's expressionistic opening credit sequence, in which the camera follows Haarmann's shadow as it angles out from the lower right half of the screen and moves slowly across a brick wall, the audience's gaze is aligned with Haarmann's point of view. As a result, Lommel initiates a process of identification that, along with the audiences' sympathy towards Haarmann, develops throughout the remainder of the film— even as the text's mise-en-scène adopts a primarily third-person perspective or, in some cases, reflects the POV of one of Haarmann's young victims.
Both a product of, and an alternative to, the culture from which he originates, the Fritz Haarmann of Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe is at once feral and tame, predatory and gentle, a hunter and the hunted. He kills and devours within a culture of consumption, but he does so with a desperation and a palpable, if ultimately proprietary, affection or "tenderness" for his victims that separates him from the film's other dubious characters, most of whom view one another as disposable objects of little value.
As Haarmann remarks while ruminating on the numerous bodies the authorities will never find: "Rather, they [his victims] were the most beautiful ones I owned" (emphasis added). Ultimately, Lommel's film advances the notion that, in a culture that views people as little more than meat, virtually any perspective that embraces life—even if such a valuation occurs during the taking of it—is preferable to a political and/or social economy informed by a disciplinary force that perpetuates binary models of sexual and gendered identity.
At the very least, Haarmann values the boys he kills for something beyond their immediate utility, seeing them both as possessions ("they...I owned") and as possessing something "beautiful." Thus, far from resembling the all-too-prevalent horror film stereotype of the homosexual as depraved, rapacious and violent, Lommel's Haarmann anticipates the "sexually and psychologically alienated" protagonists that populate such Dennis Cooper novels as Frisk (1991) and My Loose Thread (2002).
Specifically, Haarmann's outsider status locates him as an individual that "has no interest in collective identity whatsoever." Possessed by a sexuality that is "individually and uniquely obsessive and dark," Haarmann's queerness both meets and exceeds traditional notions of homosexuality; existing within a matrix of equally dysfunctional hetero- and homosocial realms, he occupies a seemingly irreconcilable subject position. Eluding "either-or" logics of sexual identity, he emerges amidst a nexus of cultural codes that, in their very plurality, render his identity multiple and irreducible. Consequently, Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe clearly gestures towards an understanding of freedom as an escape from the "confines of collective identity." As Kim Nicolini writes of Cooper's queers, "[i]t is only when succumbing to the politicized communities' definitions of sexuality, gay or otherwise, that we mask our natural [sic] 'freakishness' and pretend to be 'normal'."
Furthermore, Lommel's Haarmann is a liminal figure that confounds the notion of identity as something fixed or "natural." He is a body in continual flux, donning, throughout the film, the mantle of a police officer, a priest, an amateur butcher, a woman, a transvestite, a "model citizen" and a killer. He is, in a sense, the ultimate impersonator— a figure in continual drag, the embodiment of embodiment. As such, one may further extend the previous paragraph's formulation of "the body as meat," since Haarmann's variability promotes identity as a construction that, like meat, can be dressed, prepared and served in any number of ways.
He is a perpetually parodic figure, subversive in the sense Judith Butler discusses in her groundbreaking 1990 study, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. By imitating not only gender roles, but traditionally normalising and conventionally "transgressive" forces as well, Haarmann continually reveals the "imitative structure" and "contingency" of all subject positions, while exposing to ridicule those assemblages (eg, religions, the police, etc) that commonly adopt intransigent postures.
In numerous scenes, for instance, Lommel directly links Haarmann with darkly satirical representations of religious and legal piety. A large wooden cross (perhaps the film's most conspicuous prop) adorns the wall at the head of Haarmann's dinner table, the site of several unnerving sermons and a few equally unsettling communions. Likewise, in some of the film's more overtly sardonic moments, Haarmann impersonates a minister and a charitable civil servant in order to achieve ultimately ignoble ends. Donations of clothing for the poor are later exchanged for contraband on the black market; homeless young men, lured by promises of a better life, willingly enter Haarmann's lair, only to face almost certain death.
In the end, even language as a stable meaning system crumbles in Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe, figuratively and literally becoming just another component of the decaying urban landscape against and within which the film's action transpires. Two brief but crucial scenes in particular stand out as emblematic of this semiotic collapse. The first is a long shot, reminiscent of the opening shot of M, in which a group of children play amidst the vandal-defaced ruins of an old concrete building. Standing out from the rest of the graffiti are the words "AM I" and "GO HOME" in large black letters, the original logic of the message obliterated by a strategically placed hole in the wall that effectively obscures the text's initial meaning. And yet, like some surrealist exercise or Burroughs-esque "cut up," these fragments of language, freed from their original context, take on a multiplicity of potential connotations, especially given the film's theme of the politics of identity (What "AM I"? How does one become?) within an ultimately oppressive environment ("GO HOME").
The second crucial scene, appropriately enough, occurs at the very end of the film, as Haarmann, in an extreme high-angle long shot, is led off in chains by the forces of "law and order" mobilised to diminish any perceived return of a repressed fascist past. Had Lommel elected merely to follow this image with a final fade to black, one could understand Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe as ideologically recuperative in its expulsion of the "monster" and return to an oppressive status quo. However, by concluding with the caption "Fritz Haarmann Executed in Spring 1925," Lommel conflates the "historical" and "fictional" Haarmann, calling attention not only to the film as a creative artifact designed to be consistently and purposefully anachronistic, but, by extension, to the character of Haarmann as both a fiction and a metaphor for alternative economies of identity and desire.
In the film's final moments, as the audience learns the fate of the historical Fritz Haarmann, Lommel's direction disallows for the illusion of narrative and ideological containment by frustrating conventional notions of narrative closure and thwarting, through the character of the fictional Haarmann, the reification of traditional cultural codes. In Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe , queerness—in both the form of narrative displacement and the notion of irreducible identity—survives, even if Fritz Haarmann ultimately does not.
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