“THE GOLDEN GLOVE”
A True Crime Recaptured
Fatih Akin’s “The Golden Glove” is about Fritz Honka (Jan Dassler). a serial killer who murdered older women (some of whom were prostitutes) in Hamburg in the mid 1970s. Beginning in the immediate aftermath of his first killing in 1970, the film details the Honka’s three next murders and stretches all the way up to his arrest in 1975.
Honka (who was 35 in 1970) is a psychotic boozehound. Under Akin’s direction, Dassler is menacing and grimly comedic, wheezing and sweating as he drags his victims’ body parts into a compartment in his attic room before covering the remnants with car air fresheners.
This is an unsettling watch. Akin may not show a lot of the grislier details on-screen but he revels in the mere suggestion, not least with regards to Honka’s apparent fetish of sexually assaulting his victims with household objects. Akin parades around a young woman named Petra (Greta Sophie Schmidt) who lingers in the viewer’s mind. The film suggests that Honka’s frustrations over not seducing younger, more attractive girls led him to kill the older women he took home from the bar, The Golden Glove.
Akin once again uses his long-serving cinematographer Rainer Klausmann to film a Dickensian grotesque world full of overflowing ashtrays and distorted characters, especially with regards to the patrons of the Glove – who he affectionately christens with names like Anus, Ernie the Nose and SS Norbert. If the film has a message it is perhaps a comment on the generation gap between the Glove’s decrepit bar patrons and the freshly faced Petra, who appears representative of a hopeful new Germany, perhaps one that will soon be freed from its grim past.
The dregs of society wind up in Hamburg’s red light district and a sleazy bar known as The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh). It is the hunting ground of Honka, an unskilled laborer and bottom feeder whose murders are detailed, without too many scruples or explanations. Watching old alcoholic prostitutes being lured to their deaths has the morbid fascination of all true-crime tales might be too much for most viewers to take.
Akin’s prostitutes are pitiable and they seem to have had very few choices in their sad lives, but no redemption is possible, unless you count the Salvation Army lady who saves one of the women.
Though the killer is real, the film is based on a recent novel. Honka has just murdered his first victim and stays around his attic home, thinking how to dispose of the body. It is night and his first attempt to drag a body bag down the rickety stairs wakes the building. The loud thumping sounds have an undeniably comic effect, as does the misshapen ogre’s face of Jonas Dassler. He has no choice but to saw the lady to pieces and wrap the result up like bloody pieces of meat. When it turns out to be too risky to dump the body parts in an empty lot, he hits on the idea of simply walling them up behind a wooden trap door in his apartment, where they stink to high heaven. He blames the smell on a Greek family cooking downstairs.
Much of the action takes place in the bar where losers and boozers hang out. Even the sad collection of aged hookers slumped around the tables can’t stomach making nice to the ugly Fritz. But he knows how to win their favor with free drinks and the offer of more back in his apartment.
Then there are the two “normal” women he lusts after, who unwittingly assume the roles of angel and devil. The angel is Petra, a pouting blonde teen goddess who meets him while slumming in the red light district with a reckless schoolmate. The devil is an attractive office cleaning woman who, just when poor Fritz has gone sober and is cleaning up his life, entices him off the wagon and back to hell.
The film is so viscerally disgusting, with trash strewn on every surface, feces caked on every toilet, and mold growing in every jar of sausages. The viewer is assaulted with nonstop brutality and moral emptiness.
Director Akin grew up in the same working-class Hamburg neighborhood where Honka murdered at least four women between 1971 and 1974. He has said the movie is about both “humanity” and “nothing,” which in practice combines to make a movie about “how humans are, in the end, nothing more than meat—rotten, stinking meat infested with maggots, tucked into the crawlspace of a flophouse attic apartment.” We see this in the film’s opening scene, which begins with a shot of a woman’s leg clad in a drooping stocking, twisted up in the bloodstained sheets on a sagging bed. A man enters from just out of frame, drags her limp body onto the carpet, strips her of her panties and girdle, and pulls out a saw. It is easy to imagine the rest.
This is the most tasteful of the movie’s four murder scenes; the sound effects are absolutely sickening, but the actual sawing off of the woman’s head is framed so it’s out of sight, blocked off behind a door. Over the course of the film, the violence moves from the edges of the story to its center, both visually and in terms of Honka’s increasingly mental state. Four years go by between the opening and the rest of the film—which, aside for a brief interlude where Honda gets a job as a night watchman at a sterile office building, is a cycle of heavy drinking, sexual assault with a variety of household objects, and rage-fueled murder. While the opening scene is undoubtedly shocking, the growing effect of this despair is ultimately even more unsettling.
Akin leaves his intention in focusing on the violent degradation of these women open to interpretation. There’s tangible empathy in scenes where each woman reveals her tragic backstory. Honka himself is also portrayed in a humiliating light; Dassler wears facial prosthetics that ooze in closeup, and Honka’s tiny penis makes several appearances. He’s an impotent misogynist who’d be pathetic if he wasn’t so irredeemable, and the movie is repulsed by him most of all. But, it’s hard to shake the thought that Akin is indulging in a little cruelty of his own by putting the victims in with all this smelly trash.
Whatever pleasure there is to be found in watching a film like this is in the intellectualizing, and the film does prompt a series of provocative questions about the implicit contract between artist and audience. Akin clearly knows what he’s doing in terms of filmmaking, and the fact of the matter is that this is a more realistic depiction of what serial murder actually looks like than the vast majority of films on the subject. The real question is how many more variations on its particular theme do we need for us to understand that serial killers are bad?