Issei Sagawa, in your face: CANIBA (2017)

In 1987, Japanese student Issei Sagawa murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then mutilated, cannibalised, and performed necrophilia on her corpse over a period of two days.

Sagawa was declared insane in France and returned to Japan, where he could not be tried for murder as no evidence had been sent by the French. A free man, he became something of a celebrity, making torture porn movies, selling paintings (many of them nudes), writing books and manga showing his crime, and even becoming a food critic. The fascination so many people feel with the life and crimes of Issei Sagawa is shown by the number of documentaries made about him:

  • Cannibal Superstar (Viasat Explore, Sweden, 1986, 47 minutes)
  • Excuse Me for Living (Channel 4, UK, 1993, 60 minutes)
  • The Cannibal That Walked Free (Channel 5, UK, 2007, 46 minutes)
  • Interview with a Cannibal (Vice, US, 2011, 34 minutes)

And, most recently, this one: Canniba, made by two artists/anthropologists, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Unlike the more standard documentaries which deal in psychoanalytic speculations and dramatic narration, this one is an extreme close-up of the cannibal himself, in his declining years. The only characters shown are Sagawa himself, his brother Jun and a young woman carer, who is inappropriately dressed in a maid’s uniform and happily tells him zombie stories as she prepares him for bed. Sagawa was hospitalized in 2013 from a cerebral infarction, which permanently damaged his nervous system, and due to this and severe diabetes is largely unresponsive through most of the filming, becoming animated only when discussing his murder of Renée. Jun sums his brother up:

“Cannibalism is really very much nourished by fetishistic desire. The desire to lick the lips of your lover, and things like that, are based on primal urges. Cannibalism is just an extension of that. Both extremes exist within him. Cannibalism is a totally different world for him.”

The film seems to ask us to consider our own fetishes (you don’t have any? That would make you unique) and asks whether we are repulsed by Sagawa’s acts, or by the abjection in ourselves which he forces us to confront.

The first thirty minutes are a gruelling close-up of the two men – Issei and Jun and their desultory interactions, with the camera so close you can see every pore, except when it (blessedly) goes out of focus. Issei is largely catatonic, staring sightlessly as we, in turn, stare in extreme close-up at his face, which looks almost like a death mask. The only signs of animation are when he is offered chocolate, of which he seems inordinately fond, perhaps as a substitute for the human flesh he so craved. Probably not great for his diabetes, but we’re not really hoping for a happy ending to this story.

Unable to see a future, Issei dwells on the past. He remembers his mother telling him in graphic detail about falling down some stairs in a department store and miscarrying.

From this glimpse of the behavioural background to his subsequent actions, we are suddenly catapulted to a clip of a much younger Issei in a porn film, biting a woman’s buttocks, as he did to the dead victim, then being urinated on and finally masturbated by her.

The horror of his ruined visage is contrasted to the prudish pixilation of the debauchery.

If we haven’t walked out by now, as many of the audience did at the early screenings in the Toronto and Venice film festivals, we are then treated to his commentary, now quite animated, on his manga – a comic-book format showing his murder, rape and cannibalisation of the young woman. His brother tut-tuts throughout, saying he doesn’t want to see such things, while Issei explains what he did, and what it meant to him.

“For a hideous person like me, she was out of reach.”

A bullet in the back of her neck was the only way he could think of to bring her into his reach.

“Finally the thing I was craving to eat was right in front of me! The stench doesn’t matter. I started with the richest part of her right buttock.”

The murder and cannibalism turned a shy, diminutive man-child into a fierce Samurai, in his own mind.

He describes the eating the flesh (the harvesting of which is shown in detail in the manga) as “an historical moment!” For that brief time, the woman was entirely his, and what Derrida called carnivorous virility gave him an absurd sense of masculine power as he “dominated” the woman’s corpse for his sexual and gastronomic pleasure.

There’s heaps more, but you’ll have to watch the film or get the manga – my blog has its limits.

The film then disconcertingly lurches into home movies of the two men when they were cute little boys.

We are not given a commentary, but we know from other accounts that their uncle would dress up as a cannibal and capture them for his cooking pot. The psychoanalysts would eat that up, but we should consider that many of us are chased by various demented relatives in our childhood games without going on to become monsters in their likeness.

Issei’s brother Jun, now his carer, appears as the sane one in the family, but we are quickly disabused of that as we see his own self-abuse – he likes to wrap his arms in barbed wire, and cut his arms with knives. Everyone needs a hobby I guess. Issei is not impressed – compared to shooting a woman from behind and then having sex with the body and eating parts of it, a bit of cutting would seem fairly tame to him.

Finally we meet the carer, a young, attractive women dressed as a maid. This is actually Satomi Yôko, an actress playing a maid playing a carer, a further jolt to our fragile sense of reality. She giggles over Issei, telling him, as he stares into her breasts (a particular fetish of his):

She asks him if he wants to cosplay a zombie, and tells him a convoluted story about a zombie woman who eats the old man who keeps her in chains, a reversal of his history, and another fetish of Issei’s, who early in the film says “I want to be eaten by Renée.” She tells him:

“For the zombie to survive, I have to keep eating live humans… I’m alive, but I can’t be with normal humans.”

It’s a perfect summation for the fate of Issei Sagawa.

The only soundtrack is at the very end, The Stranglers’ 1981 song “La Folie” (“madness”) which concerned Sagawa’s crime.

It’s in French, but the partial translation is:

He was once a student
Who strongly wanted, like in literature,
His girlfriend, she was so sweet
That he could almost eat her
Rejecting all vices
Warding off all evils
Destroying all beauty

The film managed 53% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, while the New York Times called the movie “an exercise in intellectualized scab-picking.” IndieWire summed up:

“Caniba” ranks among the most unpleasant movies ever made, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it.

There is another review of an earlier Sagawa documentary, The Cannibal That Walked Free on my blog. The film Caniba is available, if you are so inclined, from https://grasshopperfilm.com/film/caniba/

Issei Sagawa: THE CANNIBAL THAT WALKED FREE (Toby Dye, 2007)

The Cannibal that Walked Free (AKA Cannibal Superstar) is a British documentary produced by Visual Voodoo for Channel Five which explores the case of Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. It uses dialogues with police and psychiatrists and, most intriguingly, extensive interviews with the cannibal himself.

Sagawa murdered a young Dutch woman, Renée Hartevelt, a fellow student at the Paris Sorbonne, then mutilated, cannibalised, and performed necrophilia on her corpse over two days.

The mellow voice of the narrator, Struan Rodger (Chariots of Fire), announces:

“This man murdered and ate a woman in Paris… he has never stood trial. Today he walks the Tokyo streets a free man, a free man with an ongoing appetite for human flesh.”

Around midnight on June 13 1981, 32 year old the Japanese exchange student, Issei Sagawa, emerged from his apartment at 10 Rue Erlanger in the 16th arrondissement of Paris with two large suitcases, hailed a taxi and travelled the short distance to the Bois de Boulogne. His hopes that the park would be empty at night were in vain, and several witnesses saw this 4’9” (145cm) smartly dressed Asian man trying to drag two large suitcases to the lake. Worn out (and probably full of meat), Sagawa fell asleep on a bench and woke to find an old man opening one of the cases. When the old man began to scream, Sagawa walked calmly away.

The police found that someone had removed flesh from parts of the body. During the autopsy, they discovered there had been post mortem sexual intercourse – necrophilia.

Within four days, the police tracked Sagawa through the taxi driver, and he confessed immediately. In his refrigerator, they found a large quantity of human flesh.

On the table was a plate with pieces of cooked human flesh, condiments and mustard.

The case was reported globally with the press expressing horror and disbelief. Patrick Duval, Author Le Japonais Cannibal interviewed Sagawa for several hours.

Sagawa said that the feelings began when he was very young: “I was very weak, very ugly, like a small monkey.” He described as an important memory from his childhood a game in which his uncle would play a ravenous cannibal, out to gobble up Issei and his brother.

As he grew up, he felt unable to attract the kind of women that he desired:

“Object of my desire is definitely the white girl, beautiful blonde hair, blue eyes.”

Jean-Pierre Van Geirt – a journalist from Paris Match, said “Sagawa was deeply in love with Renée, and his love was so mad that he thought the most he could love her was to eat her.”

Sagawa had invited the young student to his apartment to discuss literature. He said he asked Renée to read a German language poem he had chosen, a poem about cannibalism, and that she was unaware that he was standing behind her, holding a rifle. He shot her in the back of the neck.

“I had decided before that the first bite would be the buttocks. I was able to cut through the skin, I’m a fool so I didn’t have a clue about human body structure. I thought that red flesh would appear straight away but it wasn’t like that, and this layer that was like sweet corn just carried on for ages, however deep I cut through. I couldn’t reach with my knife so I ripped out the flesh with my fingers and put it in my mouth. After I had sex with her, I tried to kiss her I said out loud I love you, in French. And I felt a huge shiver.

He had a tape recording of the murder and a camera with which had recorded the stages of what he did to Renée after her death; police found both in his apartment after his arrest. He had also saved a good deal of her flesh in his fridge, before packing up her remains in two suitcases.

Just 34 months after his confession, Sagawa would be a free man.  Found to be insane and unfit to stand trial in France, his father employed an influential French lawyer who argued successfully that it was unfair for the French taxpayer to pay for indefinite confinement in a mental hospital, and that he should be sent back to Japan to be cured. Accordingly, less than three years after his confession, Sagawa was put on a plane and sent back to Japan. The only condition was that he could never come back to France. He spent 18 months in a Japanese mental hospital but then checked himself out, and has been free ever since.

The interviewers tracked down his psychiatric report: it said

“He was hung up by his height, not self-assured, over-sensitive and most of all emotionally cold and self-satisfied when he talked about the murder. Someone who is capable of feeling guilty wouldn’t commit such an act. You have to be completely devoid of some human emotions. Among which is the sharing of the universal taboo of cannibalism.”

The interviewer visited Sagawa’s Tokyo apartment where he lives under a false name and found him enjoying Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – the second movement, popularised in the film Clockwork Orange. He claims that he wept for the victim’s family and for his family, who were devastated – his father lost his high-powered job, his mother attempted suicide.

Despite his alleged distress, in the mid-1980s he wrote a book “In the Fog”, against the express wishes of both his and Renée’s family. It is the story of his crime, written from his perspective. It sold out. He wrote a further 19 books about his crime, became a columnist in magazines, joined a symposium at a Japanese university and appeared in two stage shows, finally appearing in torture porn, including recreations of his crime, using tall, Western actresses.

Under his false name, he told the interviewer, he meets up with Western sex workers.

“My final desire is just the same – when I see all the beautiful girls’ legs, I want to eat. So I’m not cured at all.
But now, I’m not interested in at all the white women. I hate them. I found that Japanese women are the most beautiful in the world.”

Sagawa now feels the urge to cannibalise young Japanese women.

At the programme’s request, Sagawa agreed to attend his first psychiatric assessment in over ten years. In the documentary, he tells the Criminal Psychiatrist, Dr Susumu Oda:

“My libido and appetite are connected. This is very important. For instance, you see the beautiful girls on the train in summer, and you see their legs, don’t you. I think they look delicious.”

He says that he masturbates to make his feelings disappear.

Oda reported:

“A child suckles on his mother’s breast. A child survives eating breasts. So it is not that strange that a child would want to eat something he loves.”

Sagawa was small, weak and spoiled, so he never learnt to suppress those desires.

“Deep down, he doesn’t regret what he has done. He has a tendency to slowly turn the other person into an object. I think this is very dangerous.”  

The doctor’s conclusion:

Freud maintained that there are two “pregenital” forms of sexual organisation in very young children not yet predominantly motivated by their genital zones. The first of these he called “oral-sadistic” or “cannibalistic”, in which sexual activity is not separated from ingestion (the second was “sadistic-anal”), and he suggested that these were “harking back to early animal forms of life”. In this “cannibalistic” stage, “the object that we long for and prize is assimilated by eating and is in that way annihilated as such.” It is not surprising, therefore, that Sagawa wanted to eat his ideal woman, and he made a particular point of eating her breasts.

“Too Much Blood”, a song on the Rolling Stones‘ 1983 album Undercover, is about Sagawa and violence in the media. His crime also inspired the Stranglers‘ 1981 song “La Folie”. The Noise Black Metal band Gnaw Their Tongues released an EP titled Issei Sagawa in 2006.

The documentary is available in full on Youtube at the time of writing. The link is at the top of this blog.

“…we are all potential cannibals”: SERIAL KILLERS: THE REAL LIFE HANNIBAL LECTERS (Sean Buckley, 2001)

This is an American documentary about serial killers, but specialising in those who ate parts of some of their victims. I guess that makes it inevitable that they will throw the name Hannibal Lecter in there, even though the similarities are not immediately apparent.

There are a lot of documentaries about cannibals, some mostly interested in sensationalism, and others seeking some sort of journalistic accuracy. This is one of the better ones, with a good selection of experts commenting on the various cases.

Cannibals, and particularly cannibal serial killers, are a real problem for the media. The difficulty comes from the scepticism that journalists need to cultivate in interpreting a world of stories that are stranger than fiction, or sometimes are fiction disguised as fact, or just fiction that people want to believe. Cannibal books and films fall into the horror genre and are usually lumped together with vampires, zombies, ghouls and other strange monsters out of their creators’ nightmares. So cannibals are a problem.

Cannibals are real. Many cannibals have had their activities thoroughly documented, some are even willing to be interviewed. Jeffrey Dahmer gave a range of interviews in which he spoke openly of the way he lured young men and boys to his apartment in Milwaukee and drugged them, then drilled holes into their heads and injected acid, hoping to create compliant zombie lovers, or else strangled and ate them. Dahmer was killed by a fellow prisoner after serving only a tiny fraction of his sentence of 937 years imprisonment.

But others are still alive – Armin Meiwes is in prison in Germany for eating a willing victim whom he met on the Internet and has willingly given interviews revealing his deepest passions, and he even gets out on day release from time to time. Another documentary reviewed on this site a couple of years ago compared him to, yep, Hannibal Lecter.

Issei Sagawa was arrested in Paris for killing a Sorbonne classmate whose body he lusted after and then eating parts of her, but was not sent to prison as he was declared insane. When the asylum sent him back to Japan, he was released (the French didn’t send any evidence with him), and lives in Tokyo where he has made porn movies, written for cooking magazines, and yes, done interviews for unnerved journalists. There are at least three documentaries on him, which we will get to – eventually.

Documentaries like this one love to compare real-life cannibals, or the much wider field of serial killers, with the fictional character, Hannibal Lecter, “Hannibal the Cannibal”. The problem here is that the serial killers in this doco (or any that weren’t) are not very much like Hannibal. Actual modern cannibals are usually categorised as banal, normal-looking folks who under the polite surface are depraved psychopaths, while Hannibal is civilised, educated, rational, brilliant and independently wealthy. He is a highly respected psychiatrist (until his arrest) and remains a likeable protagonist to many readers and viewers, despite his penchant for murder and guiltless consumption of human flesh. He even introduces his own ethical guidelines: he prefers to eat rude people: the “free range rude” to quote another Hannibal epigram.

Much of the commentary in this documentary is by Jack Levin, a Criminologist with a rather distracting moustache, or perhaps a pet mouse that lives on his upper lip. He sums up the modern cannibal serial killer:

 “Many Americans when they think of a serial killer will think of a glassy-eyed lunatic, a monster, someone who acts that way, someone who looks that way. And yet the typical serial killer is extraordinarily ordinary. He’s a white, middle-aged man who has an insatiable appetite for power, control and dominance.”

The standard serial killer appears very ordinary indeed. According to the doco, 90% of serial killers are white males. Many serial killers, we are told, experienced a difficult childhood, abused emotionally, physically or sexually. Hannibal of course saw his sister eaten, and probably innocently joined in the meal, so I guess you might call that a difficult childhood. But of course many people have difficult childhoods (less difficult than Hannibal’s, one hopes) without becoming cannibals or serial killers. Many of these so-called “real life Hannibal Lecters” featured in this program were not even cannibals, such as John Wayne Gacy, who murdered at least 33 young men and boys, but did not eat them, and was not even vaguely similar to Hannibal in appearance, MO, or dining habits. Same with Ted Bundy, who also gets a segment. These killers killed because they enjoyed it – as an act of dominance. Serial killers, Levin tells us, get “high” on sadism and torture. Hannibal, on the other hand, just killed his victims the way a farmer might choose a chicken for dinner – slaughter the tastiest, fattest one, or else the one who has been annoying him.

 “There is much discussion as to whether cannibalism is an inherent characteristic in all human beings, our animal impulses, or whether cannibalism stems only from the minds of mad beasts such as some of the most prolific serial killers.” Richard Morgan, narrator.

Eventually, we get to the cannibals. First up is Andrei Chikatilo, the Russian cannibal who sexually assaulted, murdered, and mutilated at least fifty-two women and children between 1978 and 1990. Chikatilo, we are told, liked to cook and eat the nipples and testicles of his victims, but would never admit to eating the uterus – far too abject for his psychosis. Sigmund Freud and Julia Kristeva would find that fascinating.

 We look in some detail at Albert Fish, the “Gray Man” who tortured and killed probably fifteen children around the US at the beginning of the twentieth century. He mostly specialised in the children of the poor and people of colour, but was eventually caught because he ate a little white girl, causing the police to take the cases seriously at last.

A large section of the documentary is dedicated to Jeffrey Dahmer, perhaps the most famous of the modern real-life cannibals. Dahmer was not a sadist, disliking violence and suffering, so he did not really fit the description used in the doco, and was certainly no Hannibal.

The other experts wax lyrical about cannibals, such as author and psychiatrist Harold Schechter, who speculates that

Anthropological evidence seems to suggest that cannibalism was a kind of activity that our pre-human ancestors indulged in with a certain regularity, so I think there is probably some sort of innate impulse towards that kind of activity… serial killers act out very archaic, primitive impulses that clearly still exist on some very very deep level.”

Well, that’s definitely not Hannibal, the Renaissance man, who carefully considers each action and dispassionately stays several steps ahead of his pursuers. Jack Levin again:

“Any serial killer who cannibalises victims has broken one of the most pervasive and profound taboos in all of society. Psychologically, this means the killer has achieved the opposite of what he had hoped… in terms of ego, in terms of self-image, he has got to feel worse about himself.”

That certainly is not Hannibal!

But there are some interesting observations in this documentary if we set aside the obvious problems with the comparisons with Hannibal. Zombie flesh-eaters were first popularised in Night of the Living Dead which came out in 1968, what the documentary calls “the most murderous decade” – the 1960s, followed a few years later by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. People flocked to the cinema to see people being eaten because two Kennedys and MLK were assassinated and the brutal, unending Vietnam war was filling the television screens? Maybe so.

Levin tells us

Most people don’t see the difference between Hannibal Lecter and Jeffrey Dahmer. To the average person, there is no difference between fact and fantasy.

 Col. Robert K. Ressler, who founded the FBI Behavioural Sciences Unit (which makes him a real life Jack Crawford) points out that there are no serial killer psychiatrists, nor do serial killers normally become well integrated into the upper levels of society like Hannibal. So he’s not helping the Hannibal comparison at all. Nor is Levin, who points out that Dahmer was remorseful at his trial, and went out of his way to avoid inflicting pain, unlike most serial killers to whom the killing is a “footnote” to the main text – the torture of the victim. So Dahmer does not fit into the model of serial killer presented here, and he has nothing in common with Hannibal Lecter.

But author Richard Lourie, who wrote a book about Chikatilo, points out that we, the audience, really want to see the serial killer as a Nietzschean Übermensch (superman) – a brilliant criminal genius. He also tells us that Hannibal seems asexual, above the primal drives that motivate people like Chikatilo and Dahmer. Not entirely true of course, if you have read the end of the book Hannibal or read any of the Fannibals’ fan fiction which speculates on some juicy homoerotic episodes between him and Will.

But there is a point to all these rather painfully stretched comparisons between real serial killers and the fictional Hannibal Lecter. Hannibal, Leatherface, the Zombies, are all the inchoate faces of our nightmares, and horror stories are our way of understanding the terrors that fill the news sites. Hannibal is not typical of the real-life serial killer or cannibal, but remember that the apparently kindly old woman who wanted to eat Hansel and Gretel was hardly typical of the horrors of Europe at the time of famine and plague when the Grimms were writing their stories. Each is a facet of horror.

Schechter talks about the simplistic view that cannibalism is in itself “evil”. Which is actually worse, he asks, to torture and kill a person or to eat their flesh when they are dead, an act which can certainly do them no more harm? Indeed.

Levin sums up:

It could be argued that cannibalism as this ultimate form of aggression lurks within every one of us…. We have an aggressive part of ourselves, it’s part of basic human nature, and to that extent we are all potential cannibals.

A kind face, a deceptive smile, a gingerbread house or psychiatrist’s couch can sometimes be more terrifying than the sordid crime scenes left by Chikatilo, Dahmer and Fish. The seeming normality of Albert Fish, Andrei Chikatilo, Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter conceals something that we hide deep within our shadow selves.

The full documentary is available (at the time of writing) on YouTube.

50 ways to eat your lover: GRIMM LOVE (Martin Weisz, 2006)

You may remember Armin Meiwes (pronounced like the Sinatra song “I did it Meiwes”). Meiwes was a German computer technician who was into “vorephilia” (sexual attraction to eating, or being eaten by, another human). He advertised in 2001 on a fetish website called The Cannibal Café for “a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. The only reply that seemed sincere was from a man named Jürgen Brandes, who was not really well-built or 18-30, but hey, eaters can’t be choosers.

The real Brandes and Meiwes

The Meiwes case was covered in somewhat sensational terms (they kept comparing him to Hannibal Lecter, which was patently absurd) in this copycat killers documentary. It was also retold in a more light-hearted way in the first episode of the Australian television show Rake.

This film is not a documentary but a fictional retelling of Meiwes’ story, with the names changed, to protect whom – the non-existent?  

The movie seems to need a narrator, so it makes up a fictional PhD student, Katie Armstrong (Keri Russell, who was also a student in Felicity, but a Russian spy in The Americans).

Katie is an American studying criminal psychology, who finds herself inexplicably drawn to an uncanny murder case for her thesis. Why would someone study cannibalism for a PhD thesis (I ask myself that every time I apply for an extension to my submission date). Well, Katie feels that she is “searching for something to fill that dark hole inside of her”. Same – but I use chips (“fries” for my American readers). She wants (and dreams of) “someone who can see inside of you”. Yes, cannibals can surely do that.

Anyway, Katie chooses to research the notorious German cannibal Oliver Hartwin (based on Meiwes) and his dead lover Simon Grombeck (based on Brandes), who had volunteered to let Oliver murder and eat him, an obsession that haunted him his whole life.

“Oliver Hartwin wanted to eat someone. Simon Grombeck wanted to be eaten. They were a perfect match.”

Katie becomes obsessed with the case. Sitting in the lecture theatre, the professor announces that “many cannibals have been diagnosed with schizophrenia” – but the sanity defence is too glib for her. “Why them and not us?” she wonders to her friends.

“It’s natural to wonder what separates us from them. What matters is what makes us the same.”

She studies the men’s childhoods: Simon was smitten by guilt about his mother’s suicide after she was told he was “playing doctor” with another boy. Oliver was left with an overbearing mother when the father moved out, then bullied at school and finding solace in an imaginary friend ‘Franky’. Katie goes to find Oliver’s house in Rotenburg, which is not far from where the Brothers Grimm wrote those tales that filled our childhood nightmares with monsters and cannibals. She finds and breaks in to Oliver’s house, taking endless photos, but each click is interspersed with flashbacks of Oliver with his mother and with Franky; Simon with his boyfriend and computer full of images of death, and requests to male prostitutes to “bite my thing! Bite it off!” (spoiler: it can’t be done). Are these actual flashbacks or Katie’s fantasies and rationalisations? It doesn’t really matter, because the sequence of email exchanges and the steps leading up to the slaughter are all well documented in the case of Meiwes and reproduced here.

Katie wants to understand Oliver.

“Was he so afraid to be alone? Was it his need to feel whole that drove him? Or was it just his desire for flesh, to devour something dear.”

Oliver makes a figure of a man out of something – maybe pork? He cuts off the penis and eats it voraciously, and feeds the rest to his work colleagues.

When one asks for the recipe, he smiles and says “It’s a family secret”. I was immediately reminded of Hannibal Lecter replying to the same request: “If I tell you, I’m afraid you won’t even try it”.

We see Oliver and Simon meet on the website “Cannibal Cantina”. Simon is searching for someone to butcher him.  Oliver is looking for instructions on how to butcher a human, such as:

“a cage to prevent the human animal from too much movement, which only serves to lessen the quality of the meat… For best results prior to slaughter, the animal should be stunned senseless.”

We see them at a table, Simon refusing food, but drinking water to flush his system, and swallowing pills to achieve the stun.

He drinks cough medicine (BREToN, which according to Google is Tulobuterol Hydrochloride and is for “asthma exacerbation”, although the website does rather hilariously say:

Breton Syrup may also be used for purposes not listed here”

Two bottles of that, a fistful of sleeping tablets washed down with a bottle of schnapps, and Simon is good to go. But can Oliver do it?

Well, of course he can, as Katie finds out when she contacts a cannibal website and requests a copy of Oliver’s video, which she thought was only in the hands of the police. We see the slaughter, we see Katie weeping and whimpering as she watches.

She’s been studying this case for her PhD, which takes three years (plus extensions). What did she expect?

The assumption behind movies like this is that cannibalism is disgusting, monstrous behaviour, and so we need to find explanations. But when Oliver as a child watches a woman slicing up a pig, do we ask about her pathologies?

No, we assume she is doing something normal, and Oliver has been warped into doing the same to a human. Look up slaughterhouses on Youtube and you’ll see the same thing happening, and it happens some 70 billion times a year. Just – to other animals.

But what is so sacred about humans that the deliberate killing of a pig, who wanted to live, is just ‘butchering’, while assisting Simon to fulfil his fondest wishes – to commit suicide and be eaten – is monstrous? Is it just a throwback to the old belief about being “made in the image of God”? Feel free to let me know.

When Meiwes (Oliver) started to run out of meat, he couldn’t bring himself to shop at the supermarket, so he advertised for another willing victim. But this one called the cops.

The film was supposed to be released in Germany under the name Rohtenburg, a pun on Rotenburg, where Meiwes lived, and roh, meaning “raw”. However, it was banned by a German court in March 2006 for infringing the personal rights of Armin Meiwes. It was released throughout the rest of the world, but not in Germany until three years later.

The film achieved only 37% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is very slow moving, the sombre music gets a bit annoying (the Craig Armstrong piece from Romeo and Juliet is beautiful, but Romeo and Juliet is not really a cannibal story – Titus Andronicus might have worked better), and the fact that everyone in Germany speaks to everyone else in perfect English but with German accents (including train announcements) gets irritating. Why can’t audiences read subtitles?

Trigger warning, the real Meiwes: This website claims it has actual leaked stills from Meiwes’ video. If you don’t like pictures of chopped up humans, maybe skip the link. They look fake to me, but this Reddit reader swears they are real.

Meiwes is still in jail in Germany, not for cannibalism, which is still not a crime, but for murder, which is pretty absurd since Brandes wanted to die, and was in fact obsessed with being slaughtered and eaten. If anything, Meiwes is guilty of assisting a suicide. We know so much about the case because Meiwes was very open in describing what happened. He believed, and still believes, that he did nothing wrong. It seems that the only thing Meiwes can see as a moral failing is not the fact that he ate human meat, but that he ate meat. He is now a Greenie and a vegetarian:

Bavaria Radio reported that another inmate said Meiwes has sworn off meat in his new role as an environmentalist. “He finds the idea of factory farming as distasteful as his crime was,” said the convict. “He now sticks to vegetarian dishes.”

You can watch the Director’s commentary here, and a documentary about the real case here.

Complete listing of my Hannibal blogs can be found at this link.

“He is pure evil” – the Jeffrey Dahmer interviews

Serial killers and/or cannibals don’t usually give interviews, probably at the insistence of their legal counsel, but after his arrest, and sentenced to 937 years behind bars, Jeffrey Dahmer was willing, even keen, to tell his story to whoever would listen.

Dahmer was arrested in 1991 after a killing spree that started in 1978 and took the lives of seventeen young men and boys. Serial killers are not so rare, particularly in the US, that they get worldwide attention, but Dahmer also readily admitted to eating parts of some of his victims, and the police found body parts in his fridge, apparently ready for the next meal. He quickly became known as “The Milwaukee Cannibal”. The media frenzy was awesome to behold.

In 1993, Dahmer sat down with Nancy Glass for an interview that was aired on Bill O’Reilly’s show Inside Edition. The segment (link below) was called

“INSIDE THE MIND OF JEFFREY DAHMER: SERIAL KILLER’S CHILLING JAILHOUSE INTERVIEW”.

O’Reilly introduced the segment by saying

“He is pure evil, but you’d never know it by looking at him.”

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The tools of true crime interviews are graphics, eerie music and a suitably horrified interviewer. This segment had all three, in spades.

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Dahmer, though, was calm and rational, answering each question fully and, apparently, as honestly as he could. He spoke of his “sexual fantasies of control, power, complete dominance” which became reality, and stated

“It’s a process, it doesn’t happen overnight. When you depersonalise another person and view them as just an object, an object for pleasure instead of a living, breathing human being, it seems to make it easier to do things you shouldn’t do.”

The cannibalism was “a way of making me feel that they were a part of me”.

Nancy Glass concluded that

Jeffrey Dahmer is intelligent and articulate. That is what makes him so frightening.”

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In February 1994, nine months before Dahmer was bashed to death in prison, Stone Phillips recorded an interview with Jeffrey and Lionel Dahmer (his Dad) who had just published a book on his side of the story. Phillips included excerpts from other interviews with Jeffrey’s father and, separately, his mother. This was shown on DATELINE, and later put together with some of the unaired footage into a TV movie (link below) called

“CONFESSIONS OF A SERIAL KILLER”

Dahmer’s father spoke of Jeffrey’s trauma when he was two or three and suffered a double hernia, which can make the penis seem to disappear into the body.

“You know, the old Freudian castration complex might come to bear here… he was concerned about losing his penis. He asked his mother if he had lost it, if it had been cut off”

Which is what Jeffrey did to some of his victims later, so there just might be something to that.

Lionel added that, when he first saw Jeffrey after the arrest,

“He just looked very innocuous. He looked like an average person who couldn’t possibly do the things that he did”

Dahmer made several interesting admissions to Phillips

  • It was not about race (even though ten of his victims were African American): he said that race didn’t matter – his first two victims were white, the third was American Indian, the fourth and fifth were Hispanic. It was just their looks he was after.
  • The cannibalism “made me feel like they were a permanent part of me”. Also, he was curious as to what it would be like to eat human flesh.
  • He didn’t enjoy the killing. What he wanted was to create “living zombies” by drilling holes in their heads and pouring in muriatic acid or hot water, but it never worked.
  • Why? “I just wanted to have the person under my complete control, not having to consider their wishes, being able to keep them there as long as I wanted”.
  • He became a Christian in jail, because of material sent by his Dad, which (he said) proved that evolution was “a complete lie” which “cheapens life”.

Dahmer refused to blame his parents or education or society for his actions, but was happy to blame his formerly secular viewpoint:

“…if a person doesn’t think that there is a God to be accountable to, then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour, to keep it within acceptable ranges?”

Dostoevsky felt the same way in Brothers Karamazov:

“…if you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be lawful even cannibalism.”

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JEFFREY DAHMER: MIND OF A MONSTER

A new documentary was released on May 25, 2020. This is not specifically an interview with Dahmer, although it uses the  transcripts of the lengthy (66 hours) of police interrogations, as well as speaking to cops, journalists, neighbours, his father and even a couple of victims who escaped. 

And if my thought-dreams could be seen
They’d probably put my head in a guillotine
But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

Most importantly, Dahmer was invisible to the society he lived in. Look at the descriptions of him above:

  • intelligent and articulate
  • polite and unnervingly normal
  • innocuous

Dahmer was not the terrifying ‘monster’ or ‘savage’ from beyond the borders of the polis. He looked and sounded just like one of us. His fantasies of control, power, complete dominance and his curiosity and appetite are driving forces of modern, capitalist societies. As, of course, is objectification of people and other animals for pleasure.

Pogo's Warning to Business: 'We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us ...

American cannibal: THE DONNER PARTY (T.J. Martin, 2009)

The Donner Party was the name given to a group of pioneers heading from Missouri to California in 1846. They became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada over winter, and famously turned to cannibalism to survive. Only 48 of the original 87 members of the party survived.

There have been quite a few films and books about the events of that winter, including documentaries such as “Trail of Tragedy: The Excavation of the Donner Party Site by US Forest Service” and an episode of the PBS series American Experience (Season 5 Episode 3) called “The Donner Party” (you’ll need a VPN if you are outside the US). There are also a few supernatural potboilers like Donner Pass, about evil forces that turned poor George Donner and his mates into ravenous cannibals, and will do the same to any nice-looking millennials who stumble into the region. I am not intending to write about them until I run out of movies about “real” cannibals, which looks like it will be in several years, at the present rate.

Look, this movie doesn’t mess about with any set up. The opening is some written explanation of how they got into that mess

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Then there’s a dude, who turns out to be William Eddy (Clayne Crawford) pointing a gun, with his voiceover

“In situations like this, some men may abandon their obligations. This being said, I am resolved to provide for my family.”

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He goes back to camp with some meat (a bear? In winter?) which he shares with William Foster (Crispin Glover from lots of things including Back to the Future and American Gods). Eddy is the group’s guide, and feels that he was pressured to lead them the wrong way, onto the Hastings Cutoff; Foster argues that they all agreed to take the “short cut”. The audience by this point is yawning. From there, as Homer says, “it just gets worse and worse”. The Foster camp is running out of food when the “rescue party” reappears – with no rescue and no food. One of them dies on arrival and they bury him in the snow. Clearly, they had never seen Alive! Once you die, you’re assigned to the frozen food department.

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But as they set out for a last ditch expedition, later called “The Forlorn Hope”, Foster boasts that they have maintained a “clear line of civility”. We know from history that this won’t last.

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There is talk of going back to the camp, but Franklin Graves (Mark Boone Jnr from Sons of Anarchy and Memento) disagrees.

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As they get colder, hungrier and weaker, Foster suggests what we’ve been waiting 51 minutes to hear:

“In the misfortune that one of us should pass, in death we may save the living.”

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In a scene worthy of Monty Python, they all start volunteering. Eddy suggests he and Foster

“fight to the death, the loser dies like a man, feeds the group”.

Instead, they draw straws – Dolan (Crispian Belfrage – who is a bit wasted in this flick) gets the shortest stick and Foster shoots him (not what really happened, BTW). Eddy refuses to join in the lottery or the meal, but then it turns out he has a lump of bear that his wife smuggled into his backpack, so he’s doing OK.

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Graves stabs himself and becomes the next course. Before each meal, they say grace and thank God for what they have received. When they run out of those guys, Foster decides, against Eddy’s opposition, that the “Indian” guide will be the next course. This is the hierarchy of eating – the plant, the animal, the human, with the sub-human squeezed in there, defined by layers of contemptuous racism that was standard procedure in 19th century America (and in some places still is). Rather than wasting bullets, he uses the gun as a club.

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There are long scenes of the group trudging through the snow, interspersed with the survivors sitting around the campfire chewing on some guy and looking vaguely disgusted, but not looking all that gaunt. I guess it would require some pretty good makeup or CGI to make someone look to be genuinely starving, so I can accept that.

What I found disappointing was the total lack of moral debate – one person complains “we’ll go to hell” and Eddy points out that the “Indian” is a man, but still hands the rifle to Foster so he can do the deed. Foster, the gentleman, points out that he is their only hope because he is the only one willing to do whatever it takes. The fascination of the movie Alive! was the deliberation in the plane of the ethical situation, the immortal soul having fled, etc. This lot are devout enough that they could make it a lively discussion, the nature of humanity, why they think it’s wrong to eat white people but not “Indians”, but it never gets past the look of distaste as they chew on bits of other humans. The best scene is the long shot of Foster, the man of God, the keeper of civility, turning into a cannibal king as he watches his flock, waiting to see who will die next.

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It’s a fictionalisation of a true event, which is always fraught, because the historians will object to the inaccuracies, and everyone else to the squalid reality. But as an imagining of one incident from the Donner story (Donner himself never gets a look in) it’s not a bad taste of nineteenth century morality and its fragility. The disappointment is that the cannibalism is direct and honest, but never considered as anything other than abject but necessary. This is one of the defining stories of modern America, and much more could have been made of it. However.

Now, I’ve seen some great cannibal films and some pretty awful ones, and I don’t always agree with the verdicts of the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think this is the first one I have seen where none of the reviewers even bothered to see it.

HorrorNews.Net gave the film a positive review, writing

“Overall The Donner Party was a nice change from the hard core horror films that I usually watch. … I also recommend that you have something to eat on hand while watching it as I was starving by the time I was done watching it. Then again, maybe I have issues.”

Incidentally, Horrornews.net has released their comprehensive survey of the favourite horror movies of each (US) State:

Best Horror Movies: Which Does Each US State Love Most?

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The log line “They survived by doing the unthinkable” is clearly borrowed from Alive! (“They overcame the impossible by doing the unthinkable”).

Copycat Killers 1.08 HANNIBAL: “A real life Hannibal Lecter comes to light”

The TV series Copycat Killers which debuted in 2016, attempts to match real-life crime with murder cases in film. The premise is really a bit of a long-shot. For example, episode 4 is called “Silence of the Lambs” and shows long lingering shots of the naked butt of serial killer Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill). It covers the case of a 14-year-old boy, Michael Hernandez, who cut the throat of a friend, and years later joked on the phone, from jail, about “skin suits” (Gumb’s main preoccupation) and Mason Verger cutting off his own face. The boy also, the judge revealed, listened to death-metal band Cannibal Corpse, a group that thrives on notoriety and violent lyrics, but does not, as far as anyone is aware, actually eat people or recommend that others do so. So this boy did not skin people, like Gumb, nor did he eat them, like Lecter.

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The episode reviewed in this blog, episode 8, is also Hannibal Lecter-based. This particular killer, a German named Armin Meiwes, was nothing like the Hannibal in the books, the movies or the television show. Nonetheless, when the police searched his house, the solemn narrator tells us:

“even the most jaded detective on that case was sickened by what they found in that freezer…. Police had discovered a real life Hannibal Lecter.”

Pictures of Meiwes and Lecter are flashed on screen consecutively, to draw a visual conclusion that is hardly supported by the text.

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An actor re-enacting the Meiwes story cuts meat and drinks wine, which an on-screen expert (crime writer Lisa Coryell) compares to Hannibal’s line from the movie Silence of the LambsI ate his liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti”.

A Professor of Film Studies at the American University explains that Lecter’s elegance, charm and humour makes him “irresistible”. Hannibal, he says, is the top movie villain of the century, and there isn’t even a close second.

Meiwes, a German computer technician, advertised on a fetish website called The Cannibal Café for “a well-built 18 to 30-year-old to be slaughtered and then consumed”. He actually received a heap of replies, but the only one that seemed sincere was Jürgen Brandes. The two met in 2001, had sex, then Brandes took a lot of sleeping pills and half a bottle of schnapps, and they collaboratively sliced off Brandes’ penis and tried, unsuccessfully, to cook and eat it with salt, pepper, wine, and garlic (it ended up in the dog’s bowl). Brandes went off to die in the bath while Meiwes read a Star Trek novel and, when he found Brandes still alive and suffering hours later, killed him and proceeded to eat quite a lot of him over the coming weeks and months.

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When Meiwes started running low on flesh, he advertised again, and this time one respondent reported him to police, who found some of Brandes still in the fridge. Meiwes was charged with manslaughter as he had killed Brandes (at worst it was assisted suicide), and was sentenced to eight years. Due to the ensuing publicity, a retrial was ordered and he was convicted of murder, on the grounds that he had talked Brandes into giving permission to kill him, for his own sexual pleasure.

Silence of the Lambs and its sequel Hannibal caused, we are told in this doco, a surge of interest in cannibalism, leading Meiwes to pursue his obsession with cannibalism. Still didn’t make him into Hannibal though, IMHO.

A forensic psychologist who glories in the name Dr J. Buzz von Ornsteiner: tells us “I’ve worked with a lot of criminals within my criminal history. But this is by far the worst case I’ve ever encountered.”

The recreation goes into Meiwes unfortunate history with his controlling mother, one more thing that he and Hannibal do not have in common (you may remember from Hannibal Rising that Lecter’s mother was a delightful woman, who was killed in a duel between a tank and divebomber while he was still a small boy).

At the same age, Meiwes father left the family. From this trauma, we are led to believe by Dr Buzz, Meiwes decided the best way to keep people in his life was to eat them. The crime writer explains to us that

“If you’ve experienced loss as a child, as Armin clearly did, cannibalism is one way, it’s a sick way, to make sure that no one ever walks out on you.”

Now the idea that Meiwes and Lecter are cannibals because they lost one or more parents is pretty terrifying, since there are a lot of people to whom that applies. On that logic, you might as well suspect Princes William and Harry. However.

Once mum died, Meiwes was free to get on the internet and find others interested in his hobby.

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Lisa Coryell (the crime writer):

“You couldn’t look at the facts of this case and not think of Hannibal Lecter.”

Well, actually, I think I could. Meiwes joined a chat room, something Hannibal did not do and would not do, even in the TV version (set in the Internet era). Brandes, his co-conspirator, wanted to be killed and eaten. Meiwes and Brandes were both convinced that this act of cannibalism would make their bond permanent. It is possible that Hannibal believes eating Will Graham would help Hannibal forgive him for his betrayal. Will, however, was not a willing collaborator in such a scheme.

Is there anything Meiwes has in common with Lecter? Buzz points out that “Somehow between these two men there doesn’t seem to be any value for human life”. I guess Hannibal would agree that human life is not sacred in any way, and that rude people are good to eat. Meiwes, on the other hand, seemed to have liked Brandes, and wanted to keep him around, or more accurately inside.

Brandes wanted to die, but he wanted to taste human flesh before he did so. The show finds a Hannibal parallel here: Hannibal feeding Ray Liotta’s character, Paul Krendler, a portion of his own brain in the movie Hannibal. But of course Krendler was not a willing participant, and once his frontal lobe was on the hotplate, he couldn’t be said to have had any opinions at all.

The rest of the documentary is full of some painful reminders of the speciesism with which philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Kant, and even Derrida, have considered the abyss between human and “animal”.

Lisa Coryell:

“Armin begins drawing on Berndt’s body to map out the places he wants to eat most. Armin was treating Brandes like a piece of meat, like an animal for slaughter and it defies humanity.”

It wasn’t of course “like a piece of meat”; it was exactly as a piece of meat. The commentators assume that we, humans, are not animals and are not made of meat, which is ludicrous.

Buzz sums up:

“he doesn’t think there anything wrong with killing someone provided they want to be killed.”

I spat out my tea at this point. It just reminded me of the scene from Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

Arthur: I don’t want to eat an animal that’s lying there inviting me to. I think it’s heartless!

Zaphod: It’s better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten.

The grave tone of the narrator and commentators of the show, and the ominous music, are intended to convey the extreme gravity of Meiwes’ crime. Meiwes meanwhile has reportedly been a model prisoner, and has also become a vegetarian. In 2018, his appeal to be eligible for release one day (he was given a life sentence) was denied, and he will probably die in jail.

Yet, when compared to other crimes, what has Meiwes actually done? He sought willing victims, men who wanted to die and fantasised about being eaten after their death. He helped Berndt commit suicide, delivering the coup de grâce only when he found Berndt still suffering hours later. He then followed Berndt’s fervent wishes by eating large parts of the man’s corpse. The police originally could not charge him with murder, because there was no evidence that he had intended to kill, until the suicide went wrong and he saw it as an act of mercy. It was the cannibalism that inflamed public opinion around the world, and forced the police to cobble together an appeal, which claimed that he had influenced Berndt to agree to the scheme, which was a bit absurd (he actually offered to take him to the train station if he got cold feet). The problem was that there was no law against cannibalism, and still isn’t in most of the world.

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So the parallels with Hannibal Lecter are bizarre. Hannibal killed and ate people he considered rude and discourteous. He felt that they deserved it, that he was improving the gene pool maybe. He considered himself superior to the people he ate, just as the average carnivore considers himself superior to a cow or a pig. But what Hannibal does is considered murder, because of his intentions and the fact that the victims presumably did not want to be killed or eaten.

But after considering the case of Armin Miewes, we have to consider the question: if a being wants to die, and you help him along, and then eat him, is that really worse than confining a being who doesn’t want to die (from any species), deliberately killing him or her (or paying someone else to do so) and then eating their flesh? Which is what we humans do well over eight million times every hour of every day.

This issue is discussed in a simpler form in the Australian television series Rake. In a re-imagined version of the Meiwes case, the cannibal is a respected economist and the victim’s suicide is successful. There is no murder; all the economist does is eat the body, yet is told “you ate someone. You’re never going home”. Is that scenario also worse than the intentional killing of a cow or pig for human consumption?

If you think it is, please tell me why in the comments, or email cannibalstudies@gmail.com.

I’d really like to know.

 

NEXT WEEK: HANNIBAL Season 3 Episode 2.