“FERAL” (American Horror Stories, episode 6 – August 2021)

Last week’s blog was not a film or TV story but a real event, the account of displaced people being kidnapped for ransom by Mexican cartels, and chopped up for their meat if the money was not found. This segues nicely into this week’s blog, in which a boy disappears and the parents suspect a cartel kidnapping, but in fact (spoiler alert) he has joined a group of feral cannibals.

The response to news of cartels, kidnapping and cannibalism is to shake our heads and ask how people can DO such things. The assumption behind such a question is that we have ‘progressed’ and, while cannibalism may have been a part of our savage past, it should have been left behind in today’s enlightened civilisation. Yet we are aware that cannibalism continues to exist, and that it can reappear when food is short, as in the siege of Leningrad, or for revenge like the man who killed and ate up to thirty women because he resented their rejection of him, or sexual attraction and desire to keep the person with us (or within us) like Jeffrey Dahmer and Armin Meiwes, or just for fun and profit, like Fritz Haarmann.

Sigmund Freud wrote of an ORAL SADISTIC or CANNIBALISTIC STAGE, which coincides with the time babies’ teeth start to erupt. We recognise our mother’s breast as external to us, and wish to retain ownership, by biting and swallowing it. At the same time, the aggression is tempered or sometimes instead magnified by anxiety at the potential loss of the other (mothers don’t like to be bitten) or fear that the much stronger parent will instead choose to devour the child. Our first instance of logical reasoning – if I can bite her, she can surely bite me harder. These early influences may sink into the sludge at the bottom of our unconscious minds as we grow up, but they remain there, and can reappear at any time in different forms.

It is tempting, therefore, to see acts of cannibalism as simply throwbacks – to our earlier social models (savagery) or to psychotic deviance dredged up from tortured unconscious memories. Civilisation, we think, can conquer such eruptions. But not always, and not in this episode of American Horror Stories, another episode of which we considered recently.

This one is set in, and against, nature. A man, woman and three-year-old boy are driving into Kern Canyon National Park in California for a camping trip. The father wants to return to nature, get them out of their comfort zone. The mother points out that “out of the comfort zone” is equivalent to “uncomfortable”, and the little boy wants a TV. A phone call on the way tells us that the father is a lawyer defending a “greedy-ass corporation” – the type that exploits and destroys the environment for profit. This is going to be about nature, red in tooth and claw, and revenge.

The boy, Jacob, disappears while camping with his family. Ten years later, his father, Jay, is approached by a hunter who tells him that he believes Jacob is alive, kidnapped by a drug cartel running pot farms in the park. The hunter leads Jay and Jacob’s mother, Addy, into the woods to look for him. The Park Ranger, who for some reason is Australian, warns then not to go, but of course they head off and, like last week’s Mexican abduction, it’s a trap.

Deep in the woods, they are attacked by wild, human-like creatures, who eat their abductor. Jay and Addy seek refuge at the Park Ranger’s station, where the Ranger tells them that the National Park Service was created by the government

“…to keep Americans from things that would kill and eat them.”

These are feral humans, he says, possibly descendants of Vikings, or of mountain men who never came down from the mountains, or maybe Civil War soldiers who never surrendered. Or people who just checked out, had enough of the world. In any case, they have gone back to nature, gone feral, and so are a threat to the civilised, cultured humans who use and abuse the natural world. The Ranger tells them there are are tribes of ferals in every National Park – over 2,000 people have vanished from the parks over the years. There are certainly people living off the grid in the wild areas of the world, but not necessarily feral cannibals. Why is it kept top secret?

“Governments need their citizens to believe they are in control. Plus, the National Parks generate billions of dollars in revenue every year. Capitalism, baby! If people knew there were feral cannibals running around, attendance might drop off.”

The Station is attacked by the feral cannibals, and the ranger is killed. Jay and Addy are taken to the leader of the creatures, seated on a throne of skulls, looking remarkably like a Renaissance Jesus.

Of course it is Jacob (speculation is already mounting that Jacob, the cannibal king, might get his own spin-off series). Jacob seems to recognise his parents, but when one of the creatures asks Jacob who they are he answers, “dinner“. Freud would have enjoyed the feast that follows: the “primal hordes” overthrowing and eating the father; Jacob, frozen in his infantile cannibalistic phase, tasting his parents’ blood.

This episode is also a study in what Georgio Agamben calls the “anthropological machine”, a paradigm that we use to separate ourselves from other animals. In the pre-modern machine, non-humans were depicted as human-like to draw the distinction – we spoke of werewolves, minotaurs and cyclops; in this episode they evoke Bigfoot or the Australian equivalent, the Yowie. But the modern anthropological machine instead declares certain humans to be less than human or else inhuman – race, ability, gender or social status may be used to divide us into human and “other”. The ferals are inhuman because they have regressed to savagery, chosen nature over civilisation. For hundreds of thousands of years, we existed in small clans, and anyone outside the immediate family was assumed inhuman. We need to fear, and sometimes eat, the outsider, because we evolved to do so.

We like to think that this is all ancient history. But our sanguine belief in social progress lulls us into supposing that that acts of cannibalism (as depicted in this blog thecannibalguy.com, for example), are simply aberrations, throwbacks to a savage past, or unfortunate outbursts by deranged or psychopathic individuals. What this confident diagnosis ignores is the inherent violence of the human species.

As sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, the civilising process has simply presented a “redeployment of violence”. Instead of hunting animals or, more recently, slaughtering them in the street in what used to be called “the shambles”, we now mass produce death in huge factories called abattoirs, which are placed away from residential areas and surrounded by high walls and sophisticated security systems. Violence against our fellow humans has been similarly redeployed, with drones and smart bombs replacing hand to hand conflict. Fear of social sanctions or maybe divine punishment keep us in control of our internalised aggressive drives against our fellow citizens, at least some of the time. But at any moment, for reasons usually unclear, we can loose this violence, together with the voracious appetite that characterises consumerism, and redeploy it against adversaries. Call it feral, as per this episode, or perhaps, instead, call it authentic, cannibalistic humanity.

The “vampire of Hanover” – DEATHMAKER (Der Totmacher, Romuald Karmakar, 1995)

I expected this to be either graphically violent or else painfully dull, but it was neither. It is quite different from any cannibal movie I have reviewed on this blog.

Deathmaker (German: Der Totmacher) is a re-enactment of the transcripts of the interrogation of the serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann who killed and ate parts of at least 24 homeless boys between the end of the Great War in 1918 and his eventual capture and execution in 1924-5.

Haarmann became known as the “Vampire of Hanover” for killing his victims with a “love bite” that went right through their windpipes. He made a living selling the victims’ clothes and flesh (marketed as “pork”) on the black market to grateful customers who were barely surviving the collapse of the German economy after the war.

There are no flashbacks or re-enactments of violent incidents, just three men sitting in a room, and only two of them speak. Imagine it as a play that has been recorded to film. Or think Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre mixed with In Treatment. The great German film maker Ulli Lommel had made a re-enactment of Haarmann’s killing spree some twenty years earlier called The Tenderness of Wolves (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe). The two films are a wonderful glimpse into the mind of a cannibal, although the characterisation is so different as to be almost unrecognisable

Almost the whole film is set in one room in an asylum, with psychology professor Ernst Schultze (Jurgen Hentsch) interviewing mass-murderer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann (Götz George, who won best actor at Venice Film Festival for this role) to determine if he is sane, or at least lucid enough to be tried and executed. Except for entrances and exits and the occasional visiting doctor, no other people are present, and the only other member of the cast is the stenographer (Pierre Franckh) – whose notes of the meetings this film used as its script – he is variously terrified, fascinated and sympathetic to Haarmann, all depicted entirely in his face, as he never says a word.

The Director, Romuald Karmakar, is known for producing thoughtful films that often follow perpetrators who are responsible for their own downfall. The professor asks unexpected questions about maths or geology, while Fritz plays the clown, but as the questions close in on his life and sexuality, he becomes more lucid, trying to justify his actions, and trying to win the sympathy of his interrogator. The professor has full control over the hulking Fritz, who is soon describing exactly how he killed the boys and young men during sex, with graphic details of how he dismembered them and disposed of the body parts.

“Took out the bowels. And threw them in a bucket. Dumped them in the toilet. It’s all rumpled up. I cut them up and threw them away.”

Haarmann’s boyfriend, Hans, would acquire the boys, sometimes just because he wanted their clothing, and knew he would get it after Fritz finished with them.

The professor, unlike modern psychs, pours scorn on Fritz, contemptuously condemning his homosexuality and violence and dismissing his claim that he will be allowed into Heaven to meet his mother. Would Haarmann have acted as he did if his homosexuality had been accepted? We can’t know that, but we do know that German laws against homosexuality were made more draconian after Haarmann’s case in 1924.

The boys won’t be able to testify against him to the heavenly judge, Haarmann says, because he caved their heads in, and he demonstrates how he did it, smashing his fist into his hand repeatedly.

He laughs, he boasts, he complains, and eventually he cries as he realises that his rampages, which he at first maintained were not his fault, will surely have him condemned to the guillotine.

The subject of cannibalism is barely mentioned, even though that is about all that Haarmann is remembered for now.

The professor tells him there is plenty of evidence that Fritz fried shrimps in human fat, made bouillon, sausages and brawn

We are told that he stripped the flesh from his victims and sold their clothes, and finally we get a quick reference to “Haarmann’s sausages”, almost as a double entendre joke. The ethical debate between the professor and Fritz is not about cannibalism but about the families who lost their sons, and his response each time is that they were just “joy-boys”.

The basis of exploitation, killing and eating others is objectification. A cow or pig can be “just an animal” and a homeless boy can be “just a joy-boy”. Just words, but powerful enough to allow the most despicable acts, as they strip all moral value from the intended victim. Haarmann claimed he did not remember killing them, they would just be lying next to him, dead, next morning. And of course, once they were dead, they were no longer “just joy-boys” and were instead now just meat. Our ability to objectify does not necessarily stop at the species line.

The film received several awards and nominations from the Deutscher Filmpreis in 1996 including Best Feature Film, Best Direction and Best Actor. Götz George is simply superb in the role, for which he also won the Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival. Deathmaker was chosen as Germany’s official submission to the 69th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, but did not manage to receive a nomination.

It is not a film for everyone, both because of the descriptions of the dismemberment of human bodies, as well as the fact that, if you don’t speak German, following the dialog in subtitles can be wearing for some people. But it is quite brilliant, and if you can’t find it on a streaming service, it is available on DVD at Amazon. Well worth the effort.

The Vampire of Hanover: THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES (Ulli Lomel, 1973)

The Tenderness of Wolves (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe) is about the German serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann. It’s not a documentary though, it’s an artistic interpretation of the story, and it’s a classic of the cannibal genre.

Fritz Haarmann, a.k.a. “the Butcher of Hanover” or “the Vampire of Hanover”, was a German serial killer who sexually assaulted, murdered and mutilated at least 24 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924 in Hanover, Germany. His case was the partial inspiration for Fritz Lang’s film M, the antagonist of which was a composite of Haarmann and at least three other interwar cannibals.

The most recent film to be directly based upon Haarmann’s murder spree, Der Totmacher (The Deathmaker), was released in 1995 and focused on the written records of the psychiatric examinations of Haarmann.

The real Fritz Haarmann

Haarmann was a petty thief, conman, and homosexual (which was against the law at that time) and served several prison sentences. Germany was in dire social and financial distress after the war, and crime was rampant. The police knew of Haarmann’s minor criminalities, but preferred to use him as an informant, and even tolerated him patrolling the railway stations demanding to see travellers’ documents and making arrests.

The film transfers the action to the late 1940s after the second world war; it was too expensive to recreate the streets of 1924, although the final scene reveals that Haarmann was executed in 1925. But the story is timeless, so the time shift is incongruous, but not disturbing.

Everything else about the film is disturbing though. The streets of Germany were full of homeless youths, and Haarmann would offer them shelter, take them home, feed them and make love to them, and then bite through their adam’s apples to kill them. He called this his “love bite”. He was never actually charged with cannibalism (it was not a criminal offence, and still isn’t in most jurisdictions) but he actively traded in black-market ground meat, and neighbours reported seeing him carrying large amounts out of his apartment, although he was never seen to bring in any carcasses.

The film makes it clear that the meat he supplies his delighted neighbours is human. The “innocent” cannibals around the table accept Haarmann’s story that the meat comes from a butcher named Karl, are pleased to be able to get meat, and do not ask questions.

Tenderness of the Wolves was produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the prolific if short-lived German film maker. Fassbinder also appears in a minor role as Haarmann’s criminal accomplice, Hugo Wittkowski.

The director, Ulli Lommel – later responsible for the infamous video nasty The Boogeyman – was a regular actor in Fassbinder films, but this was only his second directorial effort and shows an exquisite artistry.

Kurt Raab wrote the screenplay as well as delivering an astonishing performance as Haarmann. At once vulnerable and yet able to play the tough cop, Raab’s Haarmann is drawn from Peter Lorre’s performance in M but also F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Expressionist vampire classic Nosferatu. The symbolism of the monstrous killer is clear at the beginning as we watch Haarmann’s shadow moving over the street, just as we saw, in the earlier movie, the nosferatu climbing the stairs.

But is he the vampire Nosferatu or the snivelling child molester from M?

Well, both, and that gives him a complexity that makes the film so fascinating. Haarmann is not the only criminal in the story – he is just worst among equals. Everyone is grifting and looking for an edge. The homeless kids are looking for food and shelter and affection, and Haarmann is only too willing to give them all that, but there is a price – their lives and their flesh. He is looking for love too, but from all the wrong people, in particular his tempestuous relationship with Hans Grans, who sees him purely as a meal ticket.

Roger Ebert summed up the film:

“the movie has a haunting banality. It’s about insignificant creeps, and it invests them with a depressing universality.”

Haarmann in this film is both tender and wolf, and in that he encapsulates Hannah Arendt’s summation of Adolf Eichmann in her study of his war crimes trial. Eichmann was a leading figure in the Holocaust, the destruction of European Jewry during the second world war. Arendt found that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann was a monster, in fact he was “terribly and terrifyingly normal”. Eichmann maintained that he was just following orders, doing his job, and Arendt called this “the banality of evil”.

Just so, Haarmann would have argued that he was just doing his job, doing what he needed to do to survive a broken society, make a little money and feed his appetite for food, for sex and for flesh. And for love, the one thing he never achieved.

At the end, Haarmann is led off to the police car, his neighbours and followers who ate his meat gladly watching on. His last words are:

“Take my little life. I am not afraid of death through the axe or the hangman. It is my salvation. I am happy to give my death and my blood for atonement into God’s arms and justice. It could have been thirty, but also forty – I don’t know. There are victims that you don’t know about. But they are not the ones you’re thinking of. They were the most beautiful ones I had.”

The full movie is currently available on YouTube.