A recurring controversy flared up again at last month’s Sundance festival, this time with the Zac Efron-starring Ted Bundy biopic “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” as its lit match: Where is the line drawn between representation and celebration in films about appalling figures, particularly with a swoon-worthy sex symbol in the lead? That’s an issue less likely to be raised with “The Golden Glove,” Fatih Akin’s hyper-grisly true-crime study of another notorious 1970s serial killer, Fritz Honka: No one could accuse the German filmmaker of glamorizing anyone or anything in a film so strenuously dedicated to its own seaminess, you can practically smell the human flesh rotting on screen.
As played by 22-year-old actor Jonas Dassler, aged up and slathered in repulsive prosthetics, the film’s Honka is practically the anti-Efron/Bundy: a freakish charisma void so inhuman that it’s hard to feel much inside as we watch him brutalize and mutilate one vulnerable female victim after another. Aiming for stabs of morbid humor amid its relentless gutter-level horror, “The Golden Glove” instead takes on the flat, numbing quality of a particularly hardcore Punch-and-Judy show.
That’s all very well, but it’s not a compelling reason for a film this oppressively repellent to exist: Though based on a well-received nonfiction bestseller by Heinz Strunk, it’s not psychologically insightful as a study of violently toxic masculinity, nor even particularly informative as a cold account of a corrupt life. Instead, Akin’s vacant provocation functions purely as a cruel terror exercise, teasing viewers with uncertainty over which hapless woman on screen will be carved up next, and pressing half-heartedly for empathy with a real-life psychopath who, as written and presented here, hardly seems worth such a complex investment. That international sales have already been brisk suggests distributors see midnight-movie potential here, though the film’s finally as dull as it is grueling.
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A 1970-set prologue introduces Honka in the immediate aftermath of his first murder, up in his poky, filthy Hamburg attic apartment: In a static-voyeur style reminiscent of Michael Rowe’s “Leap Year,” the camera hovers in the doorway to his bedroom, where Honka is attempting to bag and dispose of a woman’s trussed-up corpse. That’s a composition to which we repeatedly return, never venturing further into this hellish boudoir; Akin and d.p. Rainer Klausmann often use coy framing to seemingly spare viewers the protagonist’s most abject offenses, only to taunt us by other sensory means. When Honka finally resorts to hacking up the ungainly body with a rusty saw, squelchy sound editing does all the gut-churning work.
Cut to 1974. An initially perplexing shaggy-dog aside details an afternoon in the life of Petra (Greta Sophie Schmidt), an aimless, pretty high-schooler who, following a fleeting sidewalk encounter, inadvertently becomes Honka’s prime object of obsession. Will she be his next victim? Maybe, but the film sure draws out the question, licking its blistered lips at considerable leisure over the possibility while zeroing in on a succession of older targets — all alcoholic patrons at the eponymous Golden Glove, the rank, daylight-deprived dive bar where Honka whiles away most of his free time. One of them, addled middle-aged vagrant Gerda (Margarete Tiesel), enters into a glum domestic partnership with him, marked by explicit, wince-inducing bouts of physical, sexual and mental abuse; others hang around less long before falling prey to his basest instincts.
Structural and thematic comparisons to Lars von Trier’s recent fire-starter “The House That Jack Built” are inevitable: Though it’s more scuzzily styled, Akin’s film is similarly sadistic and amoral in its scrutiny of female suffering under warped male authority. Yet the former film, whatever its debatable merits, had self-reflexive subtext to its mucky spectacle, framing its violence as a monstrous extension of von Trier’s creative ego.
It’s harder to see what drew Akin, coming off his most substantial crossover hit in the Diane Kruger vehicle “In the Fade,” to this material, which eschews any kind of commentary on its subject’s misogyny — though in characterizing the Golden Glove’s female clientele as uniformly dim, bumbling grotesques, mercilessly treated by camera, wardrobe and writing alike, the film does seem complicit in Honka’s squint-skewed gaze. If there was any intended personal or political dimension to Akin’s pus-smeared torture porn (too bad the title “The Greasy Strangler” was already taken), it hasn’t survived the director’s quasi-cartoonish treatment. Honka’s Holocaust-survivor past is only glancingly mentioned, while the film’s maggoty world is so heightened and hermetically sealed as to prevent much contemporary resonance escaping its airless sphere.
The actors do what’s required of them with grim commitment: Dassler, despite being 15 years younger than his character, largely pulls off a shudder-inducing feat of gnarled physical performance, while Tiesel (star of Ulrich Seidl’s excellent “Paradise: Love,” and evidently a glutton for arthouse punishment) brings a brief glimmer of hollowed-out human tragedy to proceedings. Craft contributions are all on point, too: Klausmann’s lensing couldn’t be more aptly nicotine-stained, while Tamo Kunz’s grime-caked period production design induces all the requisite claustrophobia.
But to what end this artistry? There was a time when Dassler and Akin’s accomplishments here might have been described as “brave,” but it’s hard to see much that’s truly subversive about a film that merely follows a long line of filmmakers in elevating psychotic male violence as an alluring mystery worthy of our considered, disinterested contemplation, while granting short shrift to its female casualties. “The Golden Glove” may not celebrate its subject, but the intimate examination it offers him is itself a privilege — one for which this ugly, unenquiring film scarcely makes a case.