Director: Ulli Lommel
Script: Corinna Brocher
Cast: Kurt Raab, Jeff Roden, Margit Gartensen, Ingrid Caven, Wolfgang Schhench, Brigitte Mira, Jurgen Prochnow
Running time: 82 minutes
“I am happy to give my death and my blood for atonement into God’s arms and justice” – The Tenderness of Wolves opens with this rather abstract quote from the infamous serial killer, Fritz Harmann, the activities of whom this film dramatizes.
Fritz Harmann (played here by a mesmerising Kurt Raab) is a conman and a habitual criminal who has done prison time and is under police scrutiny. Our film starts with Fritz being apprehended by the police, who then later let him go, under caution, as long as he becomes a ‘snitch’ for them; this sort of practice used to be common in some countries, but in this case the authorities would have been much better off locking Fritz up and throwing away the key as he went on to murder a fairly large number of young men and boys for sexual kicks.
The rest of the film follows Fritz as he goes about his day-to-day life, running various scams to make some cash with his conman boyfriend, Grans, and doing his bit for the community by picking up street kids and putting a roof over their heads – well, until he gets bored of toying with them, and then he strangles them and cuts their bodies up for meat, which he then seems to hand out to grateful cafes because of the shortage of meat and supplies in post WWI Germany at that time.
Harmann continues on with his beastly activities until his neighbours start to get suspicious and go to the police asking them to investigate. The police are, at first, reluctant to lose their valuable black market snitch, but the most suspicious neighbour, Frau Engel, is persistent and finally persuades the cops to take her worries seriously. An investigation is launched, culminating in a police raid… finally leading to Franz being executed in the Spring of 1925.
The Tenderness of the Wolves is basically an art-house serial killer thriller. It’s the sort of genre movie that critics love to pick over and write long essays about. But for this reviewer, I’m just going to stick to the immediate facts and, as usual, give my initial opinion as to whether or not I think it all works and what my gut reaction was to the film.
I’d heard a lot about Ulli Lommel’s supposed masterpiece, hence I was curious to sample its grisly delights for myself. I have to say that while I don’t really regard Wolves as a masterpiece of German cinema, it is certainly worth spending some time with, if only for the performances which are all good, at least for the time they were filmed. Judging it by today’s standards some of the acting is a bit too theatrical with some rather over-the-top, wince-inducing dialogue to boot.
Two interesting things that immediately pop into my mind on viewing the film is that this is a film about a killer who was able to thrive in the deprived area he lived in because many of his neighbours chose to turn a blind eye because he used to do them favours and was a very charismatic fellow. The second thing that is of note is the fact that it’s a brave film daring to cover the subject of homosexuality at the time it was made, and in sometimes quite graphic detail; there are plenty of penises to be seen!
Lommel’s direction is pretty conservative, but is nevertheless effective and Jurges’s photography is suitable noir-ish and sinister. Jurges makes an art-form out of creating interesting shadow effects. The film depicts the era during which these events unfolded well, and utilises some excellent locations to their full advantage. Apparently the filmmakers really lucked out with locations and the actors they managed to get, and I can’t disagree.
In between many morbid sequences there’s also some black humour to be had amongst the crumbling post-war edifices of the ghetto where most of the action takes place, mainly from watching the police has they bumble around being pretty useless for most of the film’s running time.
Ulli Lommel’s career never quite reached the heights expected of him after his earlier frequent collaborations with Rainer Werner Fassbinder; a creative partnership which lasted for a decade and produced over 20 films. He moved to America and there made probably his most well-known film, The Boogeyman, which ended up on the so-called ‘video nasties’ list for a time during the mid-eighties. Since then he seems mainly to have made low budget horror shelf-fillers.
The Tenderness of Wolves is definitely worth checking out and sticking with, even though the pacing is a little slack at times.
Arrow Video are distributing The Tenderness of Wolves on Blu-ray and DVD. The set of extras on the disc include:
The Tender Wolf (25 mins) – an interview with director Lommel about how he got involved in the film and how he had to fight to keep the DoP on set since the producer didn’t approve of his stutter!
Photographing Fritz (24 mins) – interview with DoP Jurgen Jurges (the aforementioned stutterer) who talks about his lighting arrangements using ‘inkspots’ to give the film a suitably noir-ish look.
Harmann’s victim talks (16 mins) – an interview with actor Rainer Will, talking us through his lurid murder scene and how much he got paid… 300 Marks.
An appreciation by Stephen Thrower (41 mins) – Genre journalist Thrower takes us through the director’s career and makes some interesting points about Lommel’s checked history and his film’s censorship.
Stills Gallery – A collection of 28 stills from the movie.
Theatrical trailer (3 mins)
Commentary with Ulli Lommel, which I haven’t listened to yet.