The seemingly unlikely tale of how Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove got greenlit, funded and selected for competition at the Berlinale warrants further investigation. The German-Turkish director of The Cut and In The Fade has never shied away from hot button topics, nor has he ever beat around the bush when it comes to the darker corners of his inherited or birth nations’ pasts.
Nevertheless, the decision to make a film about Fritz Honka – a serial killer who murdered older women (some of whom were prostitutes) in Hamburg in the mid 1970s – is surely the most audacious of his career thus far. The Golden Glove plays out in a similar fashion to Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built albeit without the voiceover and intellectual asides. Beginning in the immediate grizzly 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 played by the 22-year-old Jan Dassler who – under much prosthetics – is unnervingly believably as the psychotic boozehound. Under Akin’s direction, Dassler is at once 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 a handful of car air fresheners.
Needless to say 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. The filmmaker also dubiously parades around a young woman named Petra (Greta Sophie Schmidt) who serves as Honka’s great white whale – seldom seen on screen but always lingering 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 eponymous bar.
Were it not for these overwrought provocations The Golden Glove could have been Akin’s most accomplished work in years. Aesthetically speaking it remains a marvel. Combining once again with his long-serving cinematographer Rainer Klausmann, the filmmaker has dreamt up a Dickensian grotesque with his latest film, a 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. A terrific middle act in which Honka sobers up and falls in love is a fine example of a good opportunity lost.
In Akin’s reveal of Dassler’s Honka at the beginning of the film we see him hunched over Quasimodo-like in a pose that knowingly harks back to Peter Lorre’s child killer from Fritz Lang’s M. Akin can wink to that great film all he likes, however, as The Golden Glove offers nothing close to Lang’s haunting examination of his killer’s psyche. Indeed, if Glove can be taken as any kind of 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 Deutschland, perhaps one that will soon be freed from its grim past. That subtext will likely matter little, one feels, to the majority of audience members. Indeed, if you walked out of The House That Jack Built you will probably walk out of this. For everyone else, however, there is much to admire.
The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.
Rory O’Connor | @Roryseanoc