By now it is difficult to imagine a new serial killer film that is original and unique, which disregards the tropes and commonalities of the sub-genre–but that is exactly what Fatih Akin’s recent film The Golden Glove (2019) does. Often serial killers are portrayed as slaves to an uncontrollable urge that compels them to commit acts against their will, which they simultaneously feel great satisfaction and shame for afterwards. This is what occurs in Fritz Lang’s M (1931)–the film that is generally considered the first serial killer character study. Other times, these men are perceived to be brilliant masterminds who slice and dice their victims with cold hearted precision, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991). The Golden Glove tells a different kind of story, about a miserable man whose disgusting, murderous impulses occur when his unchecked sexual frustration is compounded by abject alcoholism.
The film follows around Fritz Honka, a real-life killer from Hamburg in the 1970s, in this case played by Jonas Dassler in heavy makeup and thick glasses. Honka is a simple man, who enjoys getting drunk at his local bar–the titular Golden Glove, or “goldene Handschuh” in German–and bringing women home for the night. His life vaguely resembles that of any pick-up artist, except in Honka’s case, he seems borderline mentally incompetent, and will hit on basically any woman, regardless of age, cleanliness, or traditional standard of attractiveness. The bar is located in Hamburg’s red-light district, and the women he encounters are old, poor and sometimes homeless, prematurely aged and soul-sucked by World War II and its aftermath. Honka’s cycle is repetitive, as the word “serial” would suggest, and the audience soon feels a sinking feeling each time a woman steps into his attic apartment, knowing that she will soon be a victim of his vile, booze-fuelled rage.
Although The Golden Glove is different from most previous serial killer films, the imagery in the film is not without precedent. Perhaps more than anything else, Akin’s subject matter, muted, dirty tones, and mise en scéne bring to mind the many lustmord (“sex murder”) paintings, drawings, and prints of the German Expressionist era. Two popular artists associated with the theme are Otto Dix and Georg Grosz, but a number of others from the 1910s to 1930s examined the subject like Rudolf Schlicter and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. The paintings can be shocking, even when viewed today, often done in primitive, messy styles, showing women’s bodies mangled and cut open. 19th century British killer Jack the Ripper is a leading motivator, although news reports of German killers at the time like Peter Kürten (the “vampire of Dusseldorf”) and Fritz Haarmann, who were active between 1913-1929, are also relevant. It is as though Akin is more influenced by German artists from a hundred years earlier, than any filmmaker having a go at the killer character study since then.
It makes complete sense that the picture is titled after Honka’s beloved, local dive bar. Alcohol is the main catalyst for the action in the film. Booze is constantly glamorized in the media, and is such a pervasive vice in our culture, that it is actually kind of refreshing to see a film showing the rot gut for what it can really be–a lubricant for acts of grotesque depravity. For viewers with alcoholic pasts (or presents), one of the most terrifying aspects of The Golden Glove is seeing the commonalities of a man like Fritz Honka in oneself. Any viewer who has woken up to a brutal hangover wondering what they did the previous night is susceptible to this. Of course, most of us don’t have human body parts wrapped in newspaper stuffed in our crawlspace… but the right combination of drunken anger and debauchery could lead to something like that.
Akin inextricably fuses the alcoholism with the sexual violence and murder, in one late scene linking the familiar jangling of empty bottles trembling against each other with brutal blows. Honka finishes off one of his victims with many broken bottles over the head. This is not a man who premeditates his crimes and pulls them off in dashing, cinematic form without breaking a sweat. Rather, we wonder if he would commit these crimes at all were it not for the booze. Does he even remember the acts, or does he not know that his blacked-out self commited such atrocities and hid the remains away like a guilty child? It is a wonder Honka is not found out sooner, seeing as how his violence is so sloppy and indiscreet. Perhaps it can be chalked up to the anonymity of urban life and the turned heads of a vice district.
There is a dark humor to The Golden Glove that is pitch black in the same way certain parts of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), for example, are funny. Perhaps this comes from the uncomfortability or disbelief that some of the extreme violence brings forth–a laughter that comes out in place of tears or nausea. There is also an occasional comic quality to the appearance of Fritz Honka, his victims, and the other surrounding alcoholics at der goldene Handschuh. The film is full of faces that are normally not seen in mainstream cinema. Unattractive people almost never feel movie lights on their faces, and even in this instance, the lead actor is an attractive man with a fake, crooked nose and makeup caked onto his visage. These faces have the ability to trigger laughter and levity, and also disgust and grotesquerie depending on the circumstances.
Paintings by Dix and Grosz are not the only works preceding The Golden Glove. Akin’s drinkers are a reminder of Toulouse-Lautrec’s haggard subjects, with faces discolored by show lights or dim bar lighting, or the alternating vermillion and chartreuse complexions of dried out, nauseated skin. The film also brings to mind Jeanne Mammen’s illustrations of Weimar era prostitutes and revelers, although Mammen’s subjects usually appear to be having fun, while The Golden Glove is full of misery.
A number of critics reacting to the film have fixated on the unpleasant, abhorrent nature of the work without taking into account that serial murder has been artistic subject matter for a very long time. Akin clearly has a vision informed by art history, and those before him who have depicted alcoholics, murderers, and victims. It’s not like the filmmaker is throwing some shit together because he thinks murder and rape are edgy or fun. Nor is he trying to exploit violence in order to create a sensational piece of work. The Golden Glove channels a long history of intense art that spans before the invention of cinema, and it commands respect.
It is worth noting the ways in which Akin’s film differs from the earlier lustmord paintings as well. When looking at paintings like Grosz’ “Murder on Acker Street” (1916) or Dix’ “Sexual Murder: Self-Portrait” (1920) or “Sexual Murder” (1922), it is clear that the artists are intentionally aligning themselves with the murdering men depicted. Grosz even appeared in a staged photograph where he plays Jack the Ripper, “Self-Portrait with Eva Peter in the Artist’s Studio” in 1918. Ambivalent at best, sadistic at worst, these artists implicated themselves in elaborate art-murder-fantasies as a way to shock and arouse perverse pleasure and disgust, simultaneously.
Fatih Akin takes a different approach in The Golden Glove. Viewers are not meant to sadistically identify with Fritz Honka, a man defined by his sweat-stained clothes, lazy eye, bad teeth, crooked nose and lack of any kind of positive life experience. Rather, The Golden Glove provides a masochistic journey for viewers who derive pleasure from the film. It is difficult to get through, potentially nausea inducing, and leaves you with a feeling of dehydrated, dirt-caked greasiness. Honka never appears to get any pleasure from his killings or the borderline-impotent sex that precedes them. The crimes are senseless, fuelled mainly by booze. There is no lauding of the killer as some kind of anti-hero. Getting through The Golden Glove is similar to surviving an assault in and of itself.
The Grosz and Dix paintings tend to just show the aftermath of the crime, or if the killers are seen in the process, there is a cartoonish nature to them. This leaves the audience to imagine what the actual attack must have been like. The Golden Glove shows the suddenness and bluntness of the attacks, removing any kind of post-murder reverie the killers or audience might be imagining. The paintings leave the prospect of some kind of justifiable frenzy of sexual brutality. They allow for the idea that these men very well may have murdered their victims with just their hard, erect penises alone. The Golden Glove shows that any such thing is pure mythology. We only see the sorrow and frustration that follow the crimes, which Honka would most likely wish to forget about. He doesn’t allow himself time to reflect on what he has done, going straight for the bottle to get plastered instead.
Looking at the full scope of Fatih Akin’s career, The Golden Glove seems like a strange addition. It is a brutal, true crime story about a loathsome fellow in post-war German history. His previous films tend to be about issues having to do withTurkish immigration and assimilation in Germany, like Head-On (2004), The Edge of Heaven (2007), and In the Fade (2017). Yet there are deeper similarities in these films about substance abuse and violence that meld into the wild force that is The Golden Glove. Far from being senseless or shocking, there is in fact a calculated brilliance to the film. The common thread of all the Akin films I have seen is the bleakness of reality that can sometimes overtake us. There are so many films and works of art, some of them great, that take on the fantasy of brutality and violence, but The Golden Glove is the odd one that attempts to ground these things in reality.