Tenderness Of The Wolves

tendernesswolvesThere oughta be a law that cinematographers and production designers have to be German. Them krauts can really craft some gorgeous images. Now if only they could write a decent story…

Tenderness Of The Wolves is one of the grimmest movies to come out of the Fassbinder school of overly allegorical, socialist German filmmaking, focusing on the real-life criminal Fritz Haarman who inspired Fritz Lang’s seminal M. Wolves doesn’t measure up to the mastery of Lang’s film, but it’s an interesting if thoroughly unpleasant addition to the serial killer genre.

The film follows Haarman through daily life as a part-time criminal and police informant, and it positions him as just one of a host of prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, and social deviants who come together as a great big happy family. It turns out that Haarman is the black sheep, coupling his anti-social behavior with murdering boys.

Kurt Raab plays Haarman as a cross between Peter Lorre and Nosferatu‘s Max Shreck, with an ingratiating smile that gives way to a discomfiting stare. Raab is creepy and pathetic at the same time, trying to win back his deviant friend from the prostitutes he pimps like a lovesick puppy. “You know you’re the only one for me,” he says to the pimp while sitting right next to the dead body of his latest victim.

All of these elements are interesting on their own, but Kurt Raab (who wrote and did the art direction) and Ulli Lommel don’t craft them into more than a string of creepy vignettes. There’s no plot or story arc, and the characters are brought up and dismissed at irregular intervals, so it’s tough to keep a bead on who is who.

However, the images work – those hunks of meat that Haarman keeps bringing to friends, so pink and fresh, just like the boys he’s murdered. The film implies cannibalism, and while this isn’t made explicit it makes for some very uncomfortable scenes. The scenes of murder are few, but they are explicit – mainly Haarman biting the necks of boys and slurping down the blood as it drips.

As in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire, the decaying and ancient look of the city becomes a character. Haarman’s apartment is a neo-expressionist hell, centered around a huge wooden cross on the gray and textured walls. The city itself leads to some indelible images: the credits shot of Haarman’s shadow moving against a brick wall (semi-lifted from M), Haarman standing still between dead trees on a bridge. The images as well as the subject matter make the film an unsettling experience.

And it’s these elements that gave Wolves such a tough road in America. Beyond the ugly subject matter, the film isn’t shy about showing young male actors in the buff, often with blood dripping down their chests. The Anchor Bay DVD and VHS release is the first time the movie has been seen in the U.S., and the DVD contains a commentary by Ulli Lommel and the DVD producer, but there are many long gaps of silence.

This isn’t an easy recommendation. It’s a beautiful film to look at, but not an easy one to watch. The elements of police procedure are perfunctory, which is atypical for a serial killer film; they’re thrown in when the movie needs something to happen. What we’re left with is a great-looking movie that’s a bit of a wet blanket in the story department.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email kentc@explodedgoat.com