Psycho, Aswathama, Anjaam Pathiraa: In the season of serial killers, revisiting The Golden Glove from Berlinale 2019
German filmmaker Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove premiered in the Competition section at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival.
This is the season of serial killers. In Tamil, we have Mysskin’s Psycho, where women are beheaded and their headless corpses – clad only in underwear – are put out on display for the public. In Malayalam, we have Midhun Manuel Thomas’ Anjaam Pathiraa, where cops are killed, and their eyes and heart are gouged out. And in Telugu, we have Ramana Teja’s Aswathama, about a serial sex offender. But in terms of sheer squint-your-eyes disgust, nothing compares to Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove, which premiered in the Competition section at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival.
The film is based on Heinz Strunk’s novel of the same name, and it’s based on Fritz Honka, who killed four women between 1970 and 1975 and hid parts of their corpses in his apartment. The first scene – set in Hamburg, in 1970 – shows a woman on Honka’s bed. She appears asleep, but she’s dead. Honka stuffs her into a plastic bag and begins to drag it down the stairs. Each step resounds with a sickening thud as the body bumps against it. Hearing the noise, a door opens in the floor below. It’s a curious child. Honka scares it with the kind of exaggerated gestures you’d adopt to portray a monster in a fairy tale.
Honka is a monster in more ways than one – not just because of what he does, but also because of how he looks. But we’ll come back to that. Because he’s been spotted, he drags the body back to his house and lays it out on the floor. He strips off the clothes. He realises the woman is too big. He needs her to be in smaller pieces if he’s to dispose of her easily. He goes into the kitchen and comes out with a knife. At this point, I’d really screwed my eyes shut – and I speak as someone who managed to endure the duckling mutilation in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built.
Another sickening sound ensues – the raspy scrape, scrape, scrape of knife against neck. Honka plays some music, but it can’t drown out this sound. Maybe you can look around his walls, if you want to avoid what’s happening on the floor. There are many nudie pictures. There are also many dolls. It’s an unsettling combination of womanhood and girlhood. Who knows what they mean? The real-life Honka killed these women for sexual reasons, either because they would not have sex with him, or because they were not passionate enough. After a point, the “reason” ceases to matter.
At least, Akin, whose Head-On won the Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlinale, isn’t interested in exploring his depraved protagonist’s mind. This is more a movie about bodies – some of the most unattractive physical specimens ever committed to the silver screen. I realise this sounds terrible, like a judgement on people who are not conventionally attractive – but this is a judgement the film itself makes. At the bar he frequents (it’s called The Golden Glove), Honka sends the bartender to women with the offer of a drink. One of them looks at Honka and says, “Nah, he’s way too ugly.” The next woman says, “Nah, I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire.”
Many scenes later, to a woman he brings home, Honka himself says, “Turn your face aside, you’re too ugly.” And there’s an “ugly” smell in his apartment as well, from all the rotting body parts stashed behind a wooden wall. At one point, when Honka opens the partition in the wall, he actually pukes. In interviews, Akin admitted that The Golden Glove is a film about ugliness. He told Collider, “Some (viewers) are disturbed that (these characters) are ugly but people like that exist and I think they have a right to appear in a film; they have a right to appear naked in a film.”
In an interview with Kino-Kunst, Akin added, “I come from a society which is educated and socialised in a very different way. In my world we choose yoga, healthy food, we take care of our looks, we discuss business. But we are only part of the society. The other part is different, they smoke, drink, speak ugly. I was fascinated about the ugly world; it felt like wellness to me. I wanted to dive into a completely different mindset.” Oddly, Jonas Dassler, who plays Honka, is a very handsome man. He had to be “ugly-fied” with prosthetics, and he was also fitted with a hunch.
I was torn watching the film because (1) the easiest way to show a “monster” is to show them as being “ugly” (even in the paintings based on our legends, the devas are fair and handsome, the asuras are dark and pot-bellied and ugly), and (2) the ugliness really becomes hard to take after a point. This points to how aesthetic-ised cinema is. Take any serial-killer movie – say, The Silence of the Lambs, or Zodiac. These are fabulous-looking films, and the fabulousness of the films’ look – the production design, the cinematography, the staging – helps to mask the ugliness at the core of the plot.
But in The Golden Glove, we have ugly people doing ugly things in a very (deliberately) ugly-looking film. Reviewers called it vile, repulsive, grotesque, disgusting. The New York Times called it “vomitous”. By no means am I recommending this movie. But whatever its merits as cinema, it’s surely some kind of test of how much one can take. And it’s surely the only film where two people discuss the fact that after you are dead, anything can be done with you. For example, “Anyone who wants to can cut you open. Poke around in your intestines, take them out or mess around with them.” Talk about a unified vision – even the lines are ugly!
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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