Arrow Video: Tenderness of the Wolves (1973) - Reviewed

Before his name became synonymous with D— grade straight-to-video schlock like Zombie Nation or B.T.K. Killer, German born actor-writer-director Ulli Lommel first burst onto the cinematic scene as a protégé of the iconic New German Cinema film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  Having starred in Fassbinder’s The American Soldier and World on a Wire, Lommel was then tasked with his third feature as a film director to make a picture that would be produced by Fassbinder as well as co-produced and written by the film’s leading male star Kurt Raab: the disturbing true-crime shocker Tenderness of the Wolves. 

Based upon the life of infamous WWI-era convicted German serial killer and cannibal Fritz Haarmann whose crimes served as the primary influence on Fritz Lang’s M, Lommel’s take on the case moves the timeline up to a dilapidated post-WWII Germany and chronicles the exploits of a murderous pederast who hid in plain sight for years as an informant for the police while molesting before murdering young male victims and disposing of the evidence by selling the flesh off to restaurants.  How did he get away with it for so long and what finally gave him up to the authorities?  Lommel’s film doesn’t have all the answers but gets closer to the amoral headspace of its subject than most films would dare in this uncompromising, nonjudgmental character study.

First and foremost, Kurt Raab owns the film from the moment he walks onscreen.  Co-writing the screenplay as well as co-producing the picture, there aren’t many actors out there willing to dive so completely into such a reprehensible character without looking back.  With scenes of the bald and stocky Raab molesting young boys including but not limited to graphic full frontal male nudity, Raab’s take on Haarmann comes across as something of an unholy crossbreed between Peter Lorre and an androgynous sexually violent vampire.  It’s a fearless and unforgettable performance that easily ranks among the most psychotic and despicable onscreen villains ever dramatized.  While the film branches out into an ensemble cast with brief cameos from El Hedi ben Salem and Jürgen Prochnow, the film is largely trained on Raab whose jovial smiles and showy selflessness only mask his viciousness. 

Lommel’s direction coupled with Jürgen Jürges’ mannered cinematography of an impoverished and broken down Germany, giving viewers a setting which perfectly exemplifies why Haarmann was able to proceed undetected for so long.  When all life around you in the world of the film is struggling for survival, Haarmann’s affiliation with the police and efforts to share fine cut “meats” with local eateries can’t help but paint the man as a good-Samaritan even if his neighbors start to wonder about the banging and cracking sounds coming from his apartment.  In other words, this is one of those films where gauging the environment and setting better explains how Haarmann operated for as long as he did than a list of historical bullet points chronicling the chain of events ever would. 

Let it be known, Ulli Lommel’s one true masterpiece is not for most people.  While die-hard Fassbinder fans will get much artistic value from it as a reference point in the counter-cultural gay icon’s career in film with most of the cast invariably showing up in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, this is not a fun watch.  The dramatization of molestation and murder won’t strike many as justifiable enough reasons to make the film let alone view it.  And yet when you’re dealing realistically with one of the most infamous serial killers in world history, you can’t sugar coat the facts when you gaze deep into the eyes of complete monster.  Not for the faint hearted but for the adventurous cinephile keen on Fassbinder’s career and one of the world’s most notorious true crime stories, not to be missed!

- Andrew Kotwicki