Fatih Akin, Turkish-German director with international acclaim, has a reputation. His background as the child of Turkish immigrants is irrefutably ingrained into his films, which work through a headstrong voice that continuously offers a refreshing perspective in the overwhelmingly white realm of contemporary German auteur cinema. His cinema is angry and often more focused on its morally ambiguous character’s journey than the ever-present politics of their situation. This is an approach that doesn’t always work out: 2017’s In The Fade slightly stumbles when it shifts from a political testimony of judicial failure to personal revenge tale, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to watch how Akin’s clings to this kind of storytelling and attempts to dissect the personal implications of the political.
He continues this narrative attempt with his newest film, The Golden Glove, an adaptation of a novel based on a real-life case, and sparked controversy in the 2019’s Berlinale competition as a result. Critics of national and international outlets harshly criticized the unflinchingly graphic story of serial killer Fritz Honka, who centers the films politically loaded narrative and whose violent acts against women leave a deep feeling of unease and disgust in the viewer’s gut. It’s absolutely legitimate criticism, but busy festival schedules and a perhaps biased (and understandable) attitude against the serial killer narrative might have blocked out the film’s qualities as a rich and engaging study of the marks of psychological violence that the wars of the 20th century left on German society.
Something smells. A pathetic yellow-ish light hangs on the living room ceiling. The walls are plastered with pin-up photos. In the corner, most of the furnishings are compiled into something that was probably intended to be cozy. Expressionless dolls share their decor function with empty bottles of schnapps. An older, beaten up woman lies on the ground, dead and naked. Welcome to the miserable home of Fritz Honka, “Hamburger”, unemployed, sociopath and serial killer of the most vile kind. He enters with a saw and starts to dismember the body. This first scene, while less graphic than it could be, is an instant clarification and a last warning of how this film chooses to portray this story and its violent implications – in the most ugly and unpleasant way possible.
As we follow Fritz Honka, we are introduced into a rendering of 1970’s Hamburg whose aesthetic resorts somewhere between authenticity and romanticism and which is gloomily captured by cinematographer Rainer Klausmann in almost obsessively detailed compositions – production designer Tamo Kunz easily delivers some of the year’s best work. It’s always hard to aptly critique film settings which are based on real-world locations, but as a fictional, visual universe, it adds up to something almost spotlessly organic. An ever-present sense of dread and the scent of decay seem to ooze from the screen, and in some moments, there is no doubt that we seem to be witnessing some sort of preliminary stage of hell.
This world is Honka’s world and a three-way split of locations can quickly be recognized: His flat, the streets and finally, the titular bar, ‘Zum Goldenen Handschuh’ (The Golden Glove). On the streets, he is barely a presence. His psychopathic intentions are only reflected in his creepy appearance, but his identity is hidden. During those scenes the film’s narrative threads often come from other perspectives, such as the ones of a young, reserved girl and her shy classmate. In broad daylight, Honka is nothing but another shabby inhabitant of the ‘Kiez’, a slang for a self-contained neighbourhood of a big Northern-German city. In the bar, he is just one of many strange personalities, who are, as the entire cast, studded to eerie perfection. During these scenes, he’s almost a side character, who has his moments from time to time, but never is a constant point of attention. The audience at the bar mostly comprises men and women of middle age and older, but a particular group of women, who are a bit older than average, sticks out especially.
Fatih Akin’s film is the most intriguing, when it explores how these women in particular, are the ones that Honka ends up taking home, after he is rejected by proportionaly younger women, who are appalled by his crippled appearance. Their characters are thorougly explored in the short screentime they have and it’s heart-wrenching to watch to see them being violated by Honka. These women haven’t learned a job, because conditions and the extreme inforcement of gender roles during World War 2 denied them to. They have been abandoned and neglected by a post-war society that still tried to get up on its feet. To them, going home with Honka is a bearable price to pay in exchange for a possibility to numb their senses and have a place to sleep.
Of course, none of them is consenting to what Honka does to them as soon as they arrive at his apartment, the place where he is – and only here – in power and focus. His assaults are vicious and brutal and Akin shows them in an shocking, immensely physical manner that is absolutely horrifying to watch – and as Honka’s temper escalates in consequence to his sexual frustration, truly hard to sit through, despite the fact that Akin shows a lot of restrain in actually depicting the most cruel acts and lets the sound and acting departments do the job. These moments of immense violence might immediately pose a question of purpose for the entire film, particularly since the dramatic dynamics are so heavily rested on them. The abuse and death of women are hardly legitimate to justify a film’s existence. In latter’s clear favor, Fatih Akin sidesteps the glorifications of the deaths by portraying them as nothing but appalling and aesthetically ugly.
Its not easy to instantly encapsulate where the film actually goes beyond the bare-bones concept of an exploitative tale of violence, since the reasons are all in-between the lines. The Golden Glove is an arresting horror film that observes how too many circles of violence can completely disintegrate a neglected milieu and give way to unpunished hate crimes. It deftly works its narrative around the fascination of decay, both of the body and the mind, and grasps the danger of existence without structure and meaning, which is posed as the stepping-stone to doom. As a whole, it’s a difficult film, because every misstep it does, blows up to immense proportions. It surely has a few of them, especially related to Honka’s character developement. But there is no denial of the immense affect, the fascinating ideas and the immersion it offers. It delves into the implications of hopelessness – a gradual loss of humanity and a return to an almost animalistic, instinct-driven behaviour, enabled by substance abuse and psychological damage. It’s a grim picture, but it’s one that never feels illogical – something that makes it so terrifying in the first place. The Golden Glove is a warning sign, which tells a story that urges us to swiftly find ways in breaking psychological circles that will eventually spiral out of control. In one of the most crucial scenes of the film, Gerda Voss, one of Honka’s victims that he didn’t kill, is addressed by a member of the Salvation Army. After brief hesitation, she goes with her, fleeing Honka’s oppressive grasp. Gerda is at the lowest possible point in that moment, and religion can be something immensely stabilizing. It’s a necessary moment of hope, even though ridden by heavy trauma.