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.

Cannibal hunter: “CHILD 44” (Espinosa, 2015)

Most cannibal movies are about the cannibal, but Child 44 is almost entirely about the cannibal-hunter. He is a member of Stalin’s secret police, the MGB, the predecessor of the KGB, and the movie is set in the last days of the Stalinist terror. The perp is torturing and killing children and surgically removing their organs, so our hero wants to, like, stop him. There is an administrative problem though: in the Socialist Paradise of the USSR, there is no such thing as murder; it is a capitalist crime. So the first case is put down as a train accident. Then there are 43 more – thus the title.

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The film is based on the bestselling book by Tom Rob Smith, the first of a trilogy featuring former MGB Agent Leo Demidov. In the film, Leo is played by the English actor Tom Hardy, with a convincing mix of power and vulnerability that carries an otherwise rather overlong production. Leo is a war hero who planted the red flag on the Reichstag after the conquest of Berlin, and is now a senior investigator.

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One of his friends from the Berlin days, Alexei (Fares Fares), also a MGB officer, finds that his little boy has been brutally murdered, but Leo has to persuade him to accept the official explanation that he was hit by a train.

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The antagonist (not the killer, we barely see more than his legs or arms until half way through the film) is another veteran of Berlin named Vasili (Joel Kinnaman, who played the clean-cut Republican candidate running against Frank Underwood in House of Cards). He is a coward, liar, etc and manages to derail Leo’s career by accusing Leo’s wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) of being a spy. Stripped of his rank for refusing to denounce his (maybe) pregnant wife, Leo must start his investigation as a mere militiaman in a remote town. He is under the command of a General played by the brilliant Gary Oldman, who has portrayed everyone from Dracula to Beethoven, Sirius Black to George Smiley, Winston Churchill to Mason Verger (in Hannibal the movie).

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The General has two boys and is not pleased when another dead boy, with organs surgically removed, is found nearby. He arrests the man who found the body, not because he thinks he is the killer but because he is gay, and he assumes that a gay man must be responsible (also because homosexuality was a crime in the Soviet Union). But rounding up all the gay men in town doesn’t stop the killings. The killer is seen picking up a boy in a station, later making sweets (where would archetypal paedophiles be without bags of sweets) and still later abusing himself for being weak and prone to remorse.

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The film, as I said, is based on a book, which is based on the true story of Andrei Chikatilo, the “Rostov Ripper”, who was eventually convicted of 52 murders, although he confessed to more. Chikatilo was able to continue his killing spree from 1978 to 1995, due to a combination of general ineptitude, official denial of the concept of a Soviet serial killer, and luck (apparently his semen had a different grouping to his blood). He claimed that he had been told by his mother that his older brother had been kidnapped and cannibalised by starving neighbours when he was little. This may have been her way of trying to scare him into behaving, but he was born in Ukraine at the time of the Holodomor, when Stalin was busy starving millions of people to death as part of the process of Collectivisation, so could well have been true.  Chikatilo was a self-confessed cannibal, stating that he gained sexual satisfaction from torturing his victims, and would sometimes drink their blood and eat their nipples and tongues. The real Chikatilo was far more depraved than depicted in this movie. There is a list of his crimes at the criminal minds website.

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Andrei Chikatilo

This film has a lot going for it, particularly a first-rate cast, some good action scenes, and a lot of sets which capture the oppressive darkness of Stalinist Russia. But it has a lot of problems too. It’s over two hours and gets a bit tedious in parts, and the decision to have a bunch of English, Swedish, Lebanese, Polish and even Australian actors speak in English with heavy Russian accents to make it seem “authentic” was widely derided by critics. The Guardian critic called the film “an Iron Curtain version of ‘Allo ‘Allo”.

With a Rotten Tomato rating of only 26%, the film bombed at the box office, grossing just $13 million against its $50 million budget. It was banned in Russia, with the Minister of Culture accusing the film of making the Soviet Union look like Mordor. Outrageous of course. Stalin was far worse than Sauron.

And perhaps the worst thing? Just as the Soviets would not admit that there was a serial killer in their paradise, this film does not approach the fact that he was also a cannibal (although it refers briefly to the widespread cannibalism of the Ukrainian famine). It asks some important questions about social ethics and who is actually responsible for people like Chikatilo, the individual or the state and its terrorist organisations. But without people getting eaten, it’s just another very long murder mystery.vlcsnap-2018-11-30-18h59m44s130.jpg

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Sex and appetite: “Suddenly, Last Summer” (Mankiewicz, 1959)

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Some movies drip with stars, to the extent that you start to wonder if most of the conflict in the film was about who would get higher billing. Not this one – as well as star power, we have a story of homosexuality and cannibalism, and it’s not totally clear which was more shocking to the audiences of 1959.

As for the stars – we have Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, in a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra, etc), and loosely adapted from a play by Tennessee Williams. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay. A veritable galaxy of stars.

The film is about a young woman who has descended into mental illness due to a traumatic experience with cannibalism, the details of which the audience are not shown until the very end. Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is being evaluated by a psychiatrist, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), at the insistence of her wealthy New Orleans aunt Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). Violet suspects there is more to her son Sebastian’s death than she wishes to become public, and offers to finance a new wing for the hospital if they will pressure Dr Cukrowicz to give Catherine a lobotomy (which is what had happened to Tennessee Williams’ sister). Violet hopes thereby to remove the memory of what happened to Sebastian (who is only seen in flashbacks and never front on), while Catherine was travelling with him in Spain “last summer”.

Sebastian has rejected his smothering mother, with whom he has had an almost Oedipal relationship, and instead has been using his cousin Catherine, as he used his mother on earlier trips, to attract young boys, whom he then procures for sex. Sebastian’s appetite changes though – just as he discarded his mother when she got older, now he no longer wants these Spanish boys: he says he is “fed up with the dark ones” and is “famished for blondes”, intending to head to Northern Europe.

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Catherine reflects on her naivety

Catherine in the final scene is given a truth serum by her psychiatrist and finally recalls Sebastian’s death. She remembers that the boys followed Sebastian, calling for bread (pan), and when he refused and ran, they chased him, tore him to pieces and ate his flesh.

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“…there were those children along the beach which was fenced off with wire. Our table was less than a yard away from the wire fence. And those… children… there was a band of them, they looked like a flock of plucked birds and they came darting up to the wire fence as if they’d been blown there by the wind by the hot white wind from the sea. And they were all calling out… Pan Pan Pan.”

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Psychiatry and cinema evolved together and are closely tied, particularly in cannibal films (consider Hannibal Lecter), where madness is sometimes used as a convenient explanation to avoid deeper social analyses. This film brings together complex themes that often were avoided in the 1950s. In the conflict between the rich tourists and the starving children of the seaside village we witness savagery as a response to a colonialist mentality of exploitation, objectification in Sebastian’s use of the boys and of his relatives as sexual objects to bait the boys, voracious appetite and the breakdown of normative morality. Sebastian’s sexual appetite is mirrored in the hunger of the boys he has abused, enjoyed and abandoned.

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“…cousin Sebastian was, he was lying naked on the broken stone… and this you won’t believe…nobody, nobody could believe it… it looked as if they had devoured him…as if they had torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or with knives or with jagged tin cans they made music with. As if they had torn bits of him away and stuffed them in their gobbling mouths.”

Tenessee Williams hated the adaptation of his play. To him, the cannibalism should have been metaphorical, not graphically represented (although it was certainly polite by today’s standards). He wrote:

“I walked out. Sam Spiegel, the producer, gave a private showing of it at a big party, and I just got up and walked out. When you began to see Mrs Venable, and it became so realistic, with the boys chasing up the hill – I thought it was a travesty.”

The New Yorker called the film “a preposterous and monotonous potpourri of incest, homosexuality, psychiatry, and, so help me, cannibalism.”

It’s not totally clear how a film about incest and homosexuality got round the Hollywood “Production Code”, which had strict rules against such immoralities. Critics have opined that Sebastian’s grisly death gave the film a free pass, because, the review board said, it “illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle” and “can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.” Weirdly, the cannibalism seems to have cancelled out the homosexuality.

Anyway, it was a hit at the box office due to its big stars and scandalous content, earning $6.4 million on release, a tidy sum in those days. Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

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The film pressed all the buttons of 1959 America: homosexuality, incest and cannibalism. But what happens to the cannibals? The film leaves them on the top of the hill, their mouths stuffed with pieces of Sebastian. Like the angel of death in Violet’s parlour, they have passed judgement on Sebastian’s proclivities and handed him a sentence equally unpardonable (in those days) – to be eaten alive. Presumably they remain there, ignored and hungry until another rich man seeks to sate his appetite by arousing theirs. There is no judgement offered – these cannibals are simply forces of nature, a “flock of plucked birds”. Savages inhabiting our own travel itineraries.

 

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