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.

The cannibal apocalypse: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (George Romero, 1968)

The author John Steinbeck wrote to a friend in 1941 that:

“It isn’t that the evil thing wins—it never will—but that it doesn’t die… two forces are necessary in man before he is man.”

Horror depends on our inability to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, and cannibalism adds to the recipe the terror of that death involving our total disappearance, not just our spirit but our bodies, incorporated into the stomach, then the cells and finally the shit of another. We cheer the death of the ‘bad guy’ because we feel at a primal level that his death is required for the continuance of our life. But what if, as Steinbeck says, the evil never dies, and keeps coming back for us?

This I think is the attraction of the zombie, who has become a critical character in our culture since the release of this movie in 1968. An earlier movie, The White Zombie (1932) saw Bela Lugosi turned Madge Bellamy into a mindless love object – returned to life, but as a slave with no will of her own. Those zombies did what they were told, but they did not go out of their way to eat people. That type of compliant, submissive zombie is pretty much what Jeffrey Dahmer was hoping to achieve when he drilled holes in his lovers’ skulls and poured in what he hoped were non-lethal doses of acid.

George Romero’s genius was to combine the undead with the cannibal to create what in this story is called a “ghoul”. The zombie was still, in 1968, the undead servant of Haitian mythology. In this film, the ghoul, a figure that traditionally hangs out in graveyards and sometimes digs up corpses, becomes those corpses, and so gives birth to what we will ever after call zombies. These zombies are cheaper by the dozen – they have no will, no intelligence, just the force of numbers, and overwhelm the living with their ragged, shuffling weight of numbers.

What raises these dead? We are told by a TV newsreader that a strange phenomenon, perhaps radiation from a space probe that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, is causing the dead to rise from their graves. They are voraciously hungry, but very fussy eaters – their preferred cuisine is living human flesh, although cooked (when a truck explodes) will do. But the horror in this movie is from the “banality of evil” – the things that really haunt our nightmares are not ogres and aliens, but cemeteries at dusk,

Ordinary (ish) looking people trying to get into our car, when we can’t find the keys

Technology that won’t work at times of crisis

And of course the dead. Particularly when they look angry. And hungry!

Romero did not just bring to life the zombie hordes, but also very many cannibal movies owe a debt to him, as do “splatter” movies generally. The simple opening scene of a couple of siblings driving across the desert to visit their father’s grave was later replicated to some extent in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and The Hills Have Eyes. And of course many, many zombie movies and TV shows have followed in the shuffling footsteps of this one. Without Night of the Living Dead, there is no Walking Dead.

The story revolves around a group of people sheltering in a farmhouse in western Pennsylvania, which is under assault by a growing crowd of cannibalistic, undead corpses. The phone doesn’t work, which is annoying, but the radio and even the TV are fine, which is useful as a dramatic device to fill us in on what’s going on.

The radio reports that they are:

“things that look like people but act like animals.”

The horror of this film seems so much greater by their ordinariness (although the low budget may have had something to do with it). Cannibals are often described as acting “like animals”, but of course, we are all animals, great apes, and cannibals are just as likely to be accused of treating their prey “like animals.”  Ordinary people, animals, fall down when shot, but the horror of these undead is their invincibility. It’s hard to kill someone who is dead, and has just risen from the grave. Shoot them in the chest and they fall over and then get up again and keep coming. They can however be shot in the brain or walloped on the head or burnt, so we are not left without hope.

But there are other dynamic binaries – heroism and cowardice, fire and fuel, shelter and intrusion, eater and eaten, and a scene where an infected girl within the boarded up house eats her own parents, and an undead brother returns to eat his sister. In two short scenes, Romero takes Freud’s insistence that cannibalism and incest are the two original prohibitions of mankind, and merges them into incestuous cannibalism. The film comprehensively problematises the narrative of humans vs monsters. We are all hiding in our houses, terrified of the latest headline, and we are also all members of the monster horde.

The protagonist is Ben (Duane Jones), an African-American hero, which in itself was rare in the sixties. Romero says Jones was chosen just because he gave the best audition, but the dynamic he brings, particularly in the inter-relationship battles inside the house, where he insists on being boss, and of course in the climax, took the film into the heart of darkness that was 1968 America. As the ghouls lurched toward the house, the Vietnam war was raging, students and police were battling on the streets of Chicago outside the Democratic Party convention, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down, and in Paris revolution was in the air.

But it’s not “all right”. The racism issues raised by the film further complicate the dichotomy between human and ghoul; human and, well, inhuman. Because when the authorities arrive, they are basically a vigilante mob killing ghouls with a random collection of guns, and building bonfires to dispose of the corpses. When they see a black man – will they recognise him as a real, live human? Well, no, Ben has made it through the night, surviving the attack of hundreds of the ghouls, only to be shot through the head by a police sharp-shooter as he emerges. The film ends with grainy images of him being pulled from the house with meat-hooks and burnt with the corpses of the again-dead, and the pictures are unmistakably reminiscent of photos taken at lynchings.

The review from the Pulitzer Prize-winning movie reviewer, Roger Ebert, sums up the response to the movie at the time. This was written after he had watched the movie in a cinema filled with kids, who had been dropped at the cinema, unaccompanied, for an afternoon of fun scary time.

The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying.
I don’t think the younger kids really knew what hit them. They were used to going to movies, sure, and they’d seen some horror movies before, sure, but this was something else. This was ghouls eating people up — and you could actually see what they were eating. This was little girls killing their mothers. This was being set on fire…

The movie has 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the Chicago Reader summing up:

Over its short, furious course, the picture violates so many strong taboos — cannibalism, incest, necrophilia — that it leaves audiences giddy and hysterical.

Interestingly, the movie was removed from Netflix in Germany, following a written demand from the German Commission for Youth Protection.

“Banality of evil” is a phrase coined by Hannah Arendt in her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi organiser of the death camps in which millions died. What shocked Arendt was that, while it would have been comforting to find that Eichmann, one of the most pivotal figures in the Holocaust, was a monster, in fact she found him “terribly and terrifyingly normal”.

This is the crucial difference between the early cannibals of Herodotus or Columbus and the ones inside our cities after 1888 (the year of Jack the Ripper). They don’t look that different from us. They are men and women, young and old, dressed and naked. We can no longer tell them for sure from our next-door neighbours.

The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are human but dehumanised. They are dead, but still walking and eating, and the dead and the undead all burn in the same fire. In fact, the ghouls are us, filled with rage at the fact of our mortality, but they don’t look that dissimilar from people you might be standing next to at a political rally.