Film Review: ‘The Golden Glove’

Fatih Akin's up-and-down filmography takes a precipitous plunge with this nauseating portrait of German serial killer Fritz Honka.

Fatih Akin
Jonas Dassler, Margarete Tiesel

1 hour 49 minutes

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.

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: 'The Golden Glove'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 8, 2019. Running time: 109 MIN. (Original title: "Der Goldene Handschuh")

Production: (Germany) A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Bombero International, Warner Bros. Film Prods. Germany, Pathé production. (International sales: The Match Factory, Cologne.) Producers: Nurhan Şekerci-Porst, Fatih Akin, Herman Weigel. Co-producers: Willi Geike, Jérôme Seydoux, Sophie Seydoux, Ardavan Safaee.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Fatih Akin, adapted from the novel by Heinz Strunk. Camera (color): Rainer Klausmann. Editors: Andrew Bird, Franziska Schmidt-Kärner. Music: F.M. Einheit.

With: Jonas Dassler, Margarete Tiesel, Katja Studt, Greta Sophie Schmidt, Mark Hosemann, Tristan Göbel, Uwe Rohde, Martina Eitner-Acheampong, Jessica Kosmalia, Tilla Kratochwil, Barbara Krabbe, Victoria Trauttmansdorff, Hark Bohm, Adam Bousdoukos.

More Film

  • Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and

    Film News Roundup: Leonardo DiCaprio Presenting Robert De Niro SAG Life Achievement Award

    In today’s film news roundup, Leonardo DiCaprio will present Robert De Niro with his SAG Life Achievement Award, the Oliver Sacks documentary finds a home and UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television gets a new dean. AWARD PRESENTATION Leonardo DiCaprio has been selected to present Robert De Niro the SAG Life Achievement Award  at [...]


    ‘Karnawal,’ ‘Restless,’ ‘Summer White,’ ‘Firsts’ Win Big at Ventana Sur

    BUENOS AIRES  — With Ventana Sur now firing on multiple cylinders, featuring pix-in post or project competitions for not only art films but also genre pics and animation – two sectors embraced by young creators in Latin America – “Karnawal,” “Restless,” “Summer White” and  “Firsts” proved big winners among Ventana Sur’s arthouse and animation competitions, [...]

  • (center) George MacKay as Schofield in

    From "1917" to "Jojo Rabbit," Composers of Some of the Year's Top Scores Talk Shop

    “1917,” Thomas Newman The 20-year collaboration of director Sam Mendes and composer Thomas Newman has encompassed midlife crisis (“American Beauty”), crime in the Depression (“Road to Perdition”), the Gulf War (“Jarhead”), marriage in the 1950s (“Revolutionary Road”) and two James Bond adventures (“Skyfall,” “Spectre”). Now they’ve tackled World War I, with “1917,” but Mendes’ much-talked-about [...]

  • Billy Magnussen Aladdin

    'Aladdin' Spinoff With Billy Magnussen's Character in the Works for Disney Plus

    Disney is developing a spinoff of its live-action “Aladdin” with Billy Magnussen reprising his Prince Anders character. The unnamed project is in early development for the studio’s recently launched Disney Plus streaming service. Disney has hired Jordan Dunn and Michael Kvamme to write a script centered on the haughty Prince Anders, one of Princess Jasmine’s [...]

  • ROAD TRIP – In Disney and

    Disney Boasts a Bevy of Hopefuls for Oscar's Original Song Race

    When the Academy announces its shortlist for song nominations on Dec. 16, you can be certain that at least one Disney song will be on it and probably more. Disney songs have been nominated 33 times in the past 30 years, winning 12 of the gold statuettes. This year, the studio has at least four [...]

  • Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    Innovative Scores Elevated the Year's Documentaries

    It’s next to impossible for a documentary score to be Oscar-nominated alongside the dozens of fictional narratives entered each year. But it did happen, just once: In 1975, composer Gerald Fried was nominated for his music for “Birds Do It, Bees Do It,” a documentary on the mating habits of animals. Fried, now 91, perhaps [...]

  • Ron Leibman, Jessica Walter'Mary Stuart' Play

    Ron Leibman, Tony-Winning Actor Known for 'Angels in America' and 'Friends,' Dies at 82

    Ron Leibman, an Emmy-winning actor who garnered a Tony for his work in Broadway’s “Angels in America” and played the father of Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel Green on “Friends,” died on Friday. He was 82. Robert Attermann, CEO of Abrams Artists Agency, confirmed the news to Variety. No further details were immediately available. Leibman, a native [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content