The Tenderness of the Wolves (1973)
Classy exploitation. Does such a thing even exist? Some films initially met with either derision, shock, or disgust somehow transcended their genre trappings years later and moved into the pantheon of classic cinema. Work like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween are looked upon as groundbreaking. Coffy and Foxy Brown may have appeared to be merely entries in the burgeoning blaxploitation movement, but now these pictures are looked upon as empowering portraits of a strong, sexually liberated woman who rails against racial injustice and misogyny. I wouldn’t call I Spit on your Grave or Thriller: A Cruel Picture high art, but they struck a chord and, sleazy though they may be, their influence is undeniable. Frank Henenlotter has steadfastly refused to be called a horror director, bringing his highly original and wildly unorthodox vision to Brain Damage and Frankenhooker. That’s not to say all exploitation flicks are shining examples of what film is capable of.
Throughout each of the various genres (biker films, nudies, giallo/slasher, women in prison, spaghetti westerns, cannibals, zombie, those silly cautionary pictures from the 30’s), there’s the good, the bad, and the ugly (if you’ll forgive the pun). While some filmmakers approach this outrageous material with a certain level of subtlety and/or craftsmanship, like Larry Cohen or William Lustig; other directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Juan Piquer Simon, or Michael Winner, who’s always been difficult for me because I can’t deny that he had talent, but he also happened to be a garbage person, dove in with complete abandon. For 1973’s The Tenderness of the Wolves, German director Ulli Lommel approached potentially grisly material with a surprising level of restraint and seriousness. The high level of gore that would become synonymous with serial killer/horror cinema is absent here; with Lommel and writer/star Kurt Raab going for a gloomy, character-driven narrative.
The character of real-life serial killer/probable cannibal Fritz Haarmann, aka “The Butcher of Hanover,” would represent a tremendous challenge for any performer. His crimes: the murder of at least 24 young men and boys (ages 10-20) along with a multitude of other offenses make for a difficult path to portraying such a monster. Raab, an openly gay actor whose most lasting cinematic collaborations were with the prolific and highly-skilled Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun), possibly saw the role as a challenge worth taking, and committed himself one hundred percent, writing the screenplay as well as acting as the production designer. What a time to have been a part of Fassbinder’s repertory company! Lommel was also among the frequent contributor and appeared in Fox and his Friends and Beware of a Holy Whore (a title which I indirectly caused a video store clerk to blush at). It would be quite disturbing to ponder whether Raab saw any aspects of his own life in the Haarmann, but it’s very possible the murderer’s abusive upbringing, compounded with mental health issues and a confused sexual identity, may have contributed to the actor's fascination with the vampiric Haarmann.
Fassbinder was famously too busy to direct Wolves himself, which is amusing considering his Takashi Miike-level output; leading the way for actor-turned director Lommel to step in for what would be his second feature. Ulli Lommel is probably best known for The Boogeyman (1980), a surprise box office success which allowed him to work steadily for the rest of his career, although the latter half consisted of a slew of straight-to-video serial killer films and personal documentaries, some of which involved his time with Andy Warhol.
Art horror is not exactly a commercially viable subgenre. In fact, those two words practically form an oxymoron. While horror films tend to have a built-in audience but no guarantee of financial gain, art films have a more uphill battle; already suffering from a lack of advertising funds and the stigma of being what Eric Cartman once described as “Those black-and-white hippie movies about gay cowboys eating pudding.” Putting the two together, art horror is more interested in creating an atmosphere and focuses on the psychological aspects of horrific people or events rather than thrills and chills. Tenderness of the Wolves has some impressive company, which includes, among others: The Wicker Man (the 1973 version), Don’t Look Now, Black Swan, Under the Skin, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Witch. While there’s copious full-frontal nudity by the young men in the film, Lommel’s camera tends to keep its distance, preferring a voyeuristic divide which comes off as matter-of-fact rather than leering.
While the details of Haarmann’s real-life exploits are far more complex and gruesome, Raab’s script is surprisingly faithful to many specific details of the last years of his life, likely 1918 to 1924, although due to budgetary restraints, the film appears to be set sometime in the 1940’s. Certain events, particularly his work as an informant for the police, seem to have been condensed for time. Much of his behavior stemmed from undiagnosed schizophrenia, then known as dementia praecox, but it’s important to note that his own impoverished and desperate lifestyle may have been influenced by the situation in a post-World War I Germany. The depiction of grey buildings and petty criminals attempting to sell black market meat add to the gloomy atmosphere in a war-torn Hanover, where Haarmann committed most of his murders.
The film begins with a woman lying in bed, whose curiosity is aroused when she overhears her neighbor, Herr Haarmann (Raab), making his way up the stairs. She knocks on the thin walls and inquires of the unseen man whether he’ll have more of his delicious “meat.” A stunning dolly shot follows, which references Fritz Lang’s similarly inspired M (1931), tracking the shadow of a man slowly walking along the streets of Hanover in the dead of night. While the police and military officials shrug off the discovery of skulls in and around the Leine River (assuming it’s a prank by medical students or the result of grave robbing), the film cuts abruptly to a sleeping Haarmann, who has a young, naked boy draped around his body. In a stately dolly which shows off Haarmann’s colorless attic apartment, Kommissar Braun (Wolfgang Schenck, World on a Wire) enters, gun drawn. Haarmann quickly kicks a pile of bones under a sheet before he’s brought to the station. Homosexuality was illegal back then, but although he’s a career criminal, with his file listing seventeen separate offenses, Braun promises to free Haarmann if he becomes an informant for the police. Braun simply sees Haarmann as a petty thief rather than a depraved psychopath, and his response to Haarmann’s initial reluctance is to simply smack the hell out of him. Haarmann’s acceptance of his role as a spy has an unexpected, yet tragic consequence. It brings him legitimacy, which allows him to more easily catch his prey.
We witness firsthand the predatory aspects of his personality as he observes a young man sitting at the train station. He puts on a show of identifying himself as an inspector and checking various citizen’s IDs before taking the boy home. Raab is hypnotic as he wines and dines the adolescent, leading him into the bedroom and seducing the doomed young man. The film has a certain macabre humor as the next scene immediately shows Haarmann carrying a large pot of “meat” to a pub and selling it for 100 marks. Although an oddball with a bald head and pasty complexion, his small circle of friends adore his wonderful cooking, particularly his skill with meat, and accept his predilection for young boys. A young woman named Dora (Ingrid Caven, Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria) even has a fondness for Fritz, who indulges her by draping his arm around her, much to the amusement of his boisterous, bisexual criminal partner and paramour Hans Grans (Jeff Roden). Grans, nearly always clad in an immaculate white suit despite being dirty to the nth degree, is both Haarmann’s blessing and curse.
A devil with the ladies, he nonetheless maintains a sexual relationship with Fritz, despite identifying as straight. Some attention is paid to their tempestuous relationship, though I’d have liked to have seen it explored much further. The pertinent question of why Fritz, a textbook sociopath, would long for a companion remains frustratingly vague, and the issue is compounded farther by Hans’ constant belligerence and swindling of Haarmann. The real Haarmann would often kick Grans out for any number of indiscretions, but later ask him to return, proving his own infatuation and loneliness despite the destructive nature of their relationship. Roden is all swagger and sleaze, but doesn’t cut a particularly distinctive figure, so the fact that he was spared while, in Haarmann’s words, “50 or 70” were not, raises some questions.
The movie has an episodic feel as Fritz moves from one victim to another. Fassbinder (credited as Franz Walsch), along with regular editor Thea Eymesz ,cut the film with a no-nonsense simplicity. Things simply happen and Haarmann continues to live his evil life. Fassbinder supposedly disliked the final product, but changed his tune upon seeing that the film was relatively well-received. If you’re a fan of Fassbinder films, the ensemble of familiar faces is a great deal of fun, with frequent actors like Brigitte Mira (unforgettable in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) as Louise, the owner of the bar Fritz sells his ill-gotten meat to; and nosy neighbor Frau Lindner, played by Margit Carstensen, who played the title role in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and also appeared in Andrzej Zulawski’s jaw-dropping Possession (1981).
We get a chance to see Fritz and Hans’ various grifts, including going to door to door dressed as a reverend to solicit old clothes, then selling them to a renegade legionnaire (El Hedi ben Salem, Ali in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul) for rations and cigarettes. Fritz even flashes a badge and “confiscates” stolen meat when a thug tries to sell it at the bar.
While Hans takes advantage of Haarmann at every turn, he also has no problem turning a blind eye to Fritz’s extracurricular activities. It does get a bit odd at times since both Dora and Hans see the bodies of naked young men in Fritz’s apartment but take his word that they’re just tired. One young man clearly has a bloody gash on his neck, but it’s ignored. Lying at every turn, he reassures everyone that the boys are sent off with money and the possibility of a job; often the way he entices young men to come back to his apartment in the first place. He even sends Kommissar Braun meat, which he happily accepts. Various grieving mothers arrive at the station to report their sons missing, but the police are depicted here as partially turning a blind eye and ignoring the warning signs pointing toward Haarmann.
This being an art horror picture, I was surprised at the relative lack of gore in the film. I’m a lover of film, period, but I do enjoy the sick kick one gets from a well-executed decapitation or machete through the chest. Though extremely light on bloodshed despite the ridiculous number of opportunities; midway through the film, we finally see the way in which Fritz murders the boys he lures back to his attic apartment. He begins kissing a young, blond man, then immediately strangles him. Caught unawares, the man struggles, but is immobilized as Fritz takes a big, bloody bite out of his neck. The bite comes slightly to the side of the neck, which may be a budgetary decision, since in actuality, the real Haarmann would bite out the victim’s Adam’s apple and drink the blood. The mental picture of an Adam’s apple being ripped out is a distinctly nasty way to go.
His life begins to fall apart and unbeknownst to him, the walls have begun to close in. He apparently murders a very young boy who yells at him from an apartment, then gifts the boy’s hat to some random children playing at a train yard. Winning a prize at a county fair for an extremely young child, he later tracks down the boy’s sister and says simply: “I took your brother to the county fair.” Hans continues to spend Fritz’s money Hans has to essentially be an indentured servant to a sleazy hustler named Wittowski, played by a cameoing Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Frau Lindner has been following him and observed his late-night dumping at the river, which she reports to the cops, and to which they’re unimpressed.
Haarmann slips further and further into crisis mode while his friends and criminal counterparts become more and more suspicious. He even takes part in a set-up to get some of his friends arrested on black market charges, a feat he also performed in real life, often having to pretend to be arrested as well to keep the deception from being discovered. Slowly, the police, with the help of some underworld types and various neighbors, decide to “honeypot” Fritz and it does indeed work. A young man in a plaid suit is picked up by Haarmann and taken back to his apartment, where a large cross looms ironically over the dinner table. He strikes at the man’s neck, sinking his teeth in, but this moment feels off as the undercover agent yells out, despite all of his other victims being unable to do so. The police bust in and corner Fritz, blood dribbling down his face in a shot meant to resemble Murnau’s Nosferatu. Realizing he’s been set up, he’s actually able to break through the officers to attack the man one more time. In a slowly rising crane shot, Fritz is led down a dark street to a waiting police car and we learn he was subsequently executed by beheading on April 15, 1925.
Lommel’s decision to play the film straight gives it an elegant, if somewhat dry, even clinical quality. Each cast member acquits themself admirably, with Raab giving a seductive, yet vulnerable portrayal of a genuine psychotic. The cinematography by Jurgen Jurges is gorgeously fluid and the old master would lend his considerable talent to other dark tales like Christiane F. and Funny Games. The score is credited to Johann Sebastian Bach, which gives the film a gleefully malevolent sense of class despite the creepiness of the proceedings.
I admit that I expected a real bloodbath with this film, but was surprised by Lommel’s moderate approach. In an age when rating systems are becoming obsolete thanks to the release of films and TV shows online, one tends to expect a great deal of blood and guts. Here, Fassbinder, Lommel, and co. wished to explore the twisted humanity of someone who could barely even be regarded as human by society’s standards. The film may not be particularly exciting, but it’s compelling nonetheless.