Fritz Haarman Goetz George Professor Ernst Schultze Jurgen Hentsch Stenographer Pierre Franckh Commissioner Raetz Hans-Michael Rebberg Dr. Machnik Matthias Fuchs Social Assistant Marek Harloff Orderly Christian Honhold
Practically a documentary about a German serial killer of the 1920s turned into one-room theater, “The Deathmaker” is repulsive and fascinating in equal measure. Auds are likely to be sharply divided in their reactions to the gleefully graphic descriptions of dismemberment, while others will tune out on pic’s closed-room, all-dialogue format. Add to this director Romuald Karmakar’s staunch refusal to either moralistically lambaste his monster or to turn him into a natural born hero, and pic’s offshore audience looks perilously small.
Karmakar’s documentary apprenticeship is apparent in his first film with actors. Pic’s dialogue is lifted verbatim from a stenographer’s record of the meetings between Fritz Haarman (Goetz George, who won the best actor nod at Venice for his perf), a salesman who has confessed to murdering 24 young men, and Professor Ernst Schultze (Jurgen Hentsch), who was broght in by the court to determine Haarman’s sanity. Film unfolds entirely in a claustrophobic examination room in a mental asylum in 1924.
Premise inspires morbid curiosity from the start. Sehultze’s brisk, “scientific” probing slowly circles its target until the grisly details emerge in Haarman’s extraordinary account of how he bit his victims to death in the neck after having sex with them, then calmly proceeded to back them to pieces over the next few days and dispose of the remains.
Dominating the film and lending it moments of hypnotic power is the gripping perf of immensely popular German thesp George. He gives Haarman a madman’s simplicity, lucidity and lack of emotions. Only in pic’s climax does Haarman break down in tears.
As his sparring partner, Hentsch wins sympathy as he and the mousy, mute stenographer (played with comic aplomb by Pierre Franckh) find themselves drawn into Haarman’s tale in spite of themselves. Long after the theatrical staging grows stale and the disgusting details lose their shock value, the cast manages to bring pic to a dignified conclusion.
The Haarman case, which made a sensation at the time, inspired both Alfred Doeblin’s portrait of Franz Biberkopf in the novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” and Fritz Lang in creating Peter Lorre’s role in “M”. “The Deathmaker” suffers in comparison, mainly because it chooses to go down the documentary road and has no brilliant burst of insight to make the film memorable. Fred Schuler’s lensing is strong, and Peter Przygodda’s editing keeps perfs sharply in focus.