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 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.