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.

Fritz Lang’s Cannibalism Masterpiece – “M – EINE STADT SUCHT EINEN MÖRDER”, (1931)

Fritz Lang considered this film to be his magnum opus. It regularly appears on lists of the best movies ever made, it was voted the best German film of all time by the Association of German Cinémathèques, and it is one of the few movies with 100% on the website Rotten Tomatoes. It set the standard by which police procedurals and serial killer stories would be judged for the next century. But is it a cannibal movie?

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The story starts with a group of small children standing in a circle, and a little girl, Elsie, is choosing who is eliminated from the game, using a song:

“Soon will come the man in black for you…”

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Ja, it’s a cannibal film. We don’t see anyone get eaten, but that is not unusual, particularly in the older films from the cannibal genre.

Elsie is heading home after school, bouncing her ball, past a poster seeking information about the murderer of eight children.

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A nice man, Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre in his first major film role), compliments her colourful ball and offers to buy her a balloon. He is whistling Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”. The music is best known for its use in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which is not actually a cannibal story, but does involve a lot of stuff about trolls eating people.

Soon we see the ball rolling away, the balloon floating off, briefly caught on telegraph wires.

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Like most modern cannibals since Jack The Ripper, the killer is indistinguishable from the rest of the public – just a normal guy (well, as normal as Peter Lorre could ever be).

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The panic over the ninth murder makes everyone a suspect, particularly after Beckert writes to the papers, boasting that he’ll keep on killing.

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The police raid the criminal underground every night, which is terrible for business.

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The bar owner complains to the police that even the hardest working prostitute…

“hides a mother inside… I know many hard crooks whose eyes mist up looking at the little children playing.”

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And so it goes. The coppers can’t catch him, so the underworld decides they will catch him, just so they can get back to business as usual.

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The police have their own theories of why they cannot catch him:

“He’s not a real crook! Maybe he’s somebody who shows the harmless look of a good citizen who wouldn’t kill a fly.”

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“If it wasn’t for this… apparent innocence of murderers, it would be unthinkable that a man like Grossmann* or Haarmann* could live for years next door to their neighbours, without raising any kind of suspicion”.

The police follow leads from the asylums; the crooks have other methods. Of course, everyone is a suspect, except – the beggars. The heads of the underworld offer them a reward to watch all the children of the city. Meanwhile, Beckert is watching little girls in shop window reflections.

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The “M” of the title is chalked onto his coat by one of the beggars, as he is taking away his next child.

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No more spoilers. Let us just say that the climax is a trial, in which Lang asks some hard questions about whether we are responsible for our actions, even when we cannot control our own minds.

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The moral of the story is presented by Elsie’s mother, sitting outside the court, who says:

“This will not bring our children back to life. People should take better care of their children!”

Indeed.

No mention is made of the precise fate of the victims in the movie – Lang leaves that up to our imagination, and some knowledge of German serial killers of that time. They disappeared without trace for some days and…

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*   Some critics and reviewers claim that M was based on serial killer Peter Kürten—the Vampire of Düsseldorf—whose murdered at least ten people including several children in the 1920s and achieving sexual climaxes from the killings, and from drinking the blood of some of the victims. He was also keen on writing to newspapers, as is depicted in the film. Kürten was beheaded in 1931 for his crimes, so would have been very much in the news at the time of the film’s creation.

Fritz Lang, however, in an interview in 1963 with film historian Gero Gandert, denied that M was based solely on Kürten

“At the time I decided to use the subject matter of M, there were many serial killers terrorizing Germany—Haarmann, Grossmann, Kürten, Denke”

The first two are actually mentioned in the film. Fritz Haarmann, known as the “Butcher of Hanover”, killed at least 24 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924, often by biting their throats, and then allegedly eating or selling the meat from their corpses as pork or horse-meat. Carl Großmann was arrested in 1921, a suspect in up to 100 murders of women and girls, whose flesh he was suspected of selling on the black market and from a hot-dog stand in Berlin during the Great War. Karl Denke killed and sold the flesh of dozens of homeless vagrants and travellers from 1903-1924.

The fact that Lang quoted those four serial killers as his models indicate that he certainly had cannibalism in mind when creating the role presented by Peter Lorre – the serial killer who cannot control his urges.

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M is highly recommended as a classic, not just of the cannibal genre, but of cinematic art.

The full movie is currently available (and with excellent quality) on Youtube: