February 05, 2011

TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES (1973) - still shocking?

(1973, West Germany, Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe)

A recreation of the exploits of a German serial killer who attacked young men with vampirism, cannibalism and necrophilia. Watching it again, I've changed my mind about this film.

In post-war Germany (the film moves the setting from the end of the First World War, to the end of the Second), two petty crooks find a new way to find meat to sell to their bankrupt neighbours. Fritz Haarmann murders young homeless men, then sells pieces of their bodies to a local cafe. His lover helps dispose of the remains and cashes in the victims' belongings on the black market.

One of Haarmann's neighbours notices that young men go to his flat but are never seen again. But his reputation as a generous do-gooder and his job as a deputised police inspector help hide his crimes from the authorities...

I've always regarded this as a similarly taboo movie as I Spit On Your Grave, Straw Dogs and Last House On The Left. A 1970s' horror that pushed the envelope too far. An experiment in bad taste that history wouldn't repeat. Viewing it again, my knee-jerk reactions started kicking in again, critical that this was a worst-case representation of gay men. A weird-looking outcast who preys on young straight men for sex, sucks their blood, kills them and eats them... but not necessarily in that order. If that's not enough stigma-by-association for you, some of the victims were under-aged.

More objectively, I imagined the film with female victims, and it became more typical of seventies Euro-horror. The extreme elements of the murders are mostly implied and not shown. The most explicit angle of the film is the sexuality of the killer, and by explicit I mean kissing his boyfriend and the nudity of his prey. Compared to other films of the era, there's little difference in pushing the boundaries, besides gender. In Martin, the bloody victims and the nudity are female. Blood On Satan's Claw and To The Devil a Daughter both had full-frontal nudity of young women.

Admittedly many of the naked young men in Tenderness of the Wolves are gratuitous to the plot, once Haarmann's obsessions have been established. This casual and unflattering male nudity is surprising today, as it continues to be rare in horror or any other genre. I think it's this aspect that makes it relatively obscure, excluding it from it's two genres. Horror and gay-themed cinema continue to keep a mutually-exclusive distance.

I'm accepting the film now, but my paranoid defences originally made me back away, writing it off as indefensible back in the 80s when I first saw it. The theme of gay vampirism was too perfect for providing fuel for demonisation in the decade of AIDS hysteria. But Tenderness of the Wolves was made a decade before the AIDS crisis and might even have been considered relevant had it been released a few years later. It unhelpfully mixed the genre of lurid 'true crime' exploitation with the story of a gay love affair going sour. While it's a truthful and sympathetic depiction of a gay relationship, this isn't a great genre for making positive political statements. But what should you expect from director Ulli Lommel, collaborating with producer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who also appears in the film as a sleazy pimp)?

Anyone frightened off by the recent quality of Lommel's films can be assured that this early work is well-produced and dramatically convincing. Though it's less of a narrative than a timeline of case history highlights. Even the detective work, usually the focus of true crime dramas, is sidelined as music replaces their dialogue. The corruption angle is hardly exploited, despite Haarmann working for the police while they're also hunting for him.

There are homages to Fritz Lang's M in quoted imagery and Haarmann being as completely bald as Peter Lorre's character, even though the real Haarmann had hair. M was also based on a different serial killer - Peter Kürten, the 'Vampire of Düsseldorf', whose most horrific crimes involved very young girls. The two films and their subjects are often confused, the original cases both being from Germany in the 1920s. Fritz Haarmann was known as the 'Butcher of Hanover', and his victims were young men between 13 and 20.

The shaven-headed Kurt Raab gives a relatively restrained performance as the killer (imagine Klaus Kinski in the same role), charming his neighbours and evoking sympathy when his boyfriend leaves him. Raab only lived to be three years older than Haarmann, ironically dying of AIDS-related illnesses. He'd had a full career as a screenwriter and actor, one of his last appearances was in Escape from Sobibor with Rutger Hauer.

I watched the Connoisseur Video VHS release from the UK (with a slight variation of the English title), which has good subtitles and a 1.66 widescreen aspect. The Anchor Bay release DVD is still available in the US.


  1. I watched this film a few days ago, it has some disturbing and raw moments, but again, this was the 70´s, there was Jess Franco, and Rollin, and the ero terror and all the horror-explotation films from the States. I deserves a try though.

  2. It was a few years since I saw this one but I remember it as a very unusual, well-acted and shot, sad movie... more the type of film that would play arthouses than the grindhouses. I liked it a lot, it's a shame Ulli Lommel has only managed to crank out complete crap after his promising debut (i'll admit to liking his THE BOOGEY MAN though, which feels like the essance of the early-eighties video violence).

    Regarding the homophobia, i'm sorry but I don't see it. Actually I find the idea that you could never present gay characters in a bad or problematic light, reducing them to safe, asexual stereotypes (often the female characters shoppingcrazy, wisecracking "girlfriend"), far more offensive to homosexuals than the idea of a gay serial killer. Also I have a hard time imagening that Fassbinder and his troop would collaborate on something homophobic...

  3. I certainly didn't intend to call it homophobic. I thought that it could be used by homophobes to misrepresent gay men, as predatory etc. If anything, I thought the adult relationship was realistic, truthful and non-stereotypical. But this would be a poor film to push positive representation when they're also cannibal murderers!

  4. This was one of those films that I read about and wanted to see some 20 years or more before I was finally able to do. And I have to confess, I didn't like it at all. It failed to engage me and I was pretty bored by the whole experience. I don't really care for a lot of Fassbiner though either, so it could be largely down to personal taste.

  5. Yes, my first experience of it was unimpressed. But knowing it was based on actual events makes it far more horrifying and suspenseful.

  6. Has anyone got a copy of this film on VHS or DVD they would be interested in Selling to me? .. I am researching family history and Fritz Haarmann was my husband's great-great-uncle.

  7. How fascinating! Is your husband encouraging your researches?

    The US DVD is still available on Amazon.com, as is the more recent film Deathmaker, also based on the Fritz Haarmann case.

    The VHS is currently available on eBay.