“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
We live in a sphere of opposites, a place where good and evil, light and dark, faith and reason, love and lust exist side by side in an uneasy truce. Inside this realm is the fragile sphere where the exquisite and the cursed collide. Based on a true story, Fatih Akin’s Competition Entry Der Goldene Handschuh (The Golden Glove) captures these collisions through the inherited trauma of a serial killer, Fritz Honka (Jonas Dessler) and the dark fissures of a post war German society, fraught with memories of growing up in the Third Reich. The memories of World War II, both first hand and inherited are subtly dissected and disembowelled in this gruesome social study.
Honka was a disfigured, deplorable, hunch back of Notre Dame figure, psychologically and physically scarred by the abuse and viciousness of his youth in the Russian concentration camps. He emerged from the bowels of post war society, the lowest social strata and became villainous during his scandalous trial in 1976. The film is a shadowy dive into the underbelly of the Capitalist Dream off Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, a heady medley of alcoholism, rape, misery and criminal activity. Set in Hamburg’s St. Pauli district, Akin tells the true story of serial killer Fritz Honka who lured his victims home from the bar Der Goldene Handschuh. Honka’s persistent erectile dysfunction and escalating alcoholism fuel his sadism towards the “old bags” whom he solicits at the bar, cementing the film with a Fassbinder inspired morally bankrupt centre.
The film’s screenplay is based on the novel of the same name by Heinz Strunk, and it opens in 1970 on the scene of his first murder. Honka has a pronounced squint and appears to have undergone a symbolic Kafkaesque metamorphosis into a venomous bug, whom can no longer attract the opposite sex. A nightmarish situation which is full of terror, horror and angst. He crawls around his apartment, scheming of how to dispose of the body. Later, we are given traces for his violent outbursts, on being serenaded by Honka, a prostitute in Der Goldene Handschuh who seeing his face for the first time, remarks with disgust, “I would not piss on that, even if it was on fire.”
This incessant rejection becomes his Oedipal fuel, and in a spur of motivation, Honka decides to saw the dead woman in the attic into pieces and wrap up the portions of meat, which he walls up behind a wooden trap door in his apartment. The stink of decay is palpable throughout the film, and the squalor and filth of his living conditions are symbolic of Honker’s mental collapse. He blames the smell constantly on the ‘auslanders’ or Greek immigrant family cooking downstairs.
Director of Photography Rainer Klausmann never fully escorts us into Honka’s sordid bedroom, we are spared the proximity of the gore, yet goaded in by the audible effects of each violent act. Thematically comparable to Lars Von Trier’s tension between chaos and control, Akin challenges the audience emotionally and psychologically depicting women undergoing extreme violence and duress. The misfortune and suffering of women in Von Trier’s films is not a source of sadistic pleasure for the filmmaker, (neither for Akin) rather, arguably, an exaggerated or heightened cinematic horror format which seeks to elevate this female misery as a result of controlling and violent men.
Despite the female suffering in this film, there is an undertone of male emasculation and defeat evident in all of the men presented in this film. We meet the retired military officer ‘SS Norbert’, with one functioning eyeball, a regular in the bar, who upon encountering a fresh-faced youth in the bathroom, decides to urinate on him, whilst instructing him to “look forward”. We meet the husband of a cleaner, who drinks all his money away and kisses Honker in a homo erotic, alcoholic haze. These powerless men, in this dystopian world, are warped addicts who have not dealt with childhood trauma and have never learnt to grieve. Akin focuses his camera on these depressive, frozen moments, offering “no past”, yet we feel that we are given an intimate glimpse into an underclass which we should view with the empathy that psychopathic Honker lacks and not merely with disgust.
Fatih Akin is now officially in horror. Horror defined by Stephen King as “The graphic portrayal of the unbelievable.” The violence of his latest film is set to a backdrop of German ‘Schlager’ melodies, infamous for their simple, happy-go-lucky and sentimental lyrics. Akin places the audience in a voyeuristic position to explore their relationship to the events depicted. Looking beyond the mere stylistic pornographic portrayal of violence, are moments of genuine ideological tragedy, as women dance, arm in arm with tears flowing down their faces as they combat the longing, the pain and the loneliness of their lives.
Women are not all portrayed as murdered, mutilated corpses, as one resilient lady exacts her revenge by smearing mustard into the genitals of Honker, who is passed out on the bed and wakes up howling in pain. This film is not only focused on mechanics of repression and male fantasies of sadism and exploitation, but also reveals independent actions taken by up women. We are shown Gerda Voss (Margarethe Tiesel), who endures physical and psychological abuse at the hands of Honker, yet who with help of a good Samaritan, is capable of leaving her psychopathic assailant.
Examining horror only through the lens of violence omits the repressed fears and sexual desires the ‘monster’ evokes inside of ourselves. The deformed, tragic image of Lynch’s ‘Elephant Man’, is conjured up, alongside the gruelling violence towards women. One of the morals of this graphically dark and violent tale is about how men also have severe feelings of powerlessness, men are victims too, of circumstance, of violence and live with feelings of low esteem. As Scilla Elworthy explains in her seminal text ‘Power and Sex’, “The problem remains of how to enable boys to become men without insisting on aggression as the defining characteristic of heroism and power.” I hope what Akin has captured in this ominous horror is actually seen and heard by men.
As Nietzsche declared, if you allow it, “the abyss will gaze back into you.”