There is a pub in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany where desperate men and women, calcified by decades of hard-living, congregate to drink until their pockets are empty – and then drink some more. It is where the willfully forgotten go to forget: their pasts, their traumas, their names. This bar is one of those pockets of society we've been trained to ignore, to avert our eyes and turn our heads away from; the natural reflex not a sigh, but a cringe. It is the perfect fishing pond for the depraved, where women who go unnoticed disappear just the same. The Golden Glove takes its name from the very real bar (which still stands today, same as it ever was) frequented by German serial killer Fritz Honka, who killed four people – all women – between 1970 and 1975. Based on the book of the same name by Heinz Strunk, Fatih Akin's latest film explores this exceptionally dark and dank corner of society, eschewing the seemingly unavoidable sexiness of the true crime genre to tell an appropriately depraved, visceral, and deeply unsettling story the way it should be told.
We first meet Honka as he's committed his first murder, and he appears every bit as repulsed as we are by his own impulses – and yet, like us, he finds the situation at hand impossible to ignore. He cannot bear the gut-churning sound of the saw as it struggles to cut through his victim's neck in an effort to dismember her corpse, so Honka puts his favorite record on and turns the volume up, but the music is no match for the brutish sounds of his gruesome task; a jarring juxtaposition between pop and crunch. Jonas Dassler (Never Look Away) portrays the lumbering Honka, his a face that could only be loved by an absent mother he never mentions, with a crooked nose and a lazy eye, his skin serrated by pock marks hard enough to cut through the din of the Golden Glove. The women at its tables have the consistency of tattered crepe paper, and even they reject his clumsy attempts to woo them with Schnapps. One by one, Holka tries and fails to buy them a drink until he finds a woman obliterated, desperate, and lonely enough to accept. Honka takes her home, where he tries and fails to fuck her; she tidies up his house in exchange for alcohol and a place to exist unbothered. But to Honka, these women are not sexual objects of desire; they are a ragged screen on which to project his insecurities and frustrations. He closes his eyes and sees the blonde teenage girl he encountered on a sidewalk, their meaningless, brief exchange mutated into a disturbing fantasy in which she tears into raw meat with her perfect teeth, the blood dripping down her porcelain, unmarred skin onto a clean, white apron. She is everything he is not, everything he cannot have; she is an emblem, something to aspire to in a life so hopeless you could hardly call it living.
Dassler's transformation into Honka is the stuff Christian Bale's dreams are made of. The facial prosthetics and false lazy eye are useful accessories, but not nearly as effective as Dassler's physicality, an extremely imposing figure articulated by insecurities; the curve of his back a question to which we already know the terrifying answer. The Golden Glove spends almost all of its nearly two-hour runtime with Honka as he lurks and barks and makes clumsy schemes. Part of what makes true crime – and period true crime in particular – so engaging is the frustration of watching senseless atrocities play out unchecked and undiscovered: How could this happen? Why didn't anyone do something? How could this go on unnoticed for so long? Honka's crimes capitalized on inherent classism and willfull ignorance of a group perceived as inconsequential, if they were perceived at all. These women were far from the perfect victims exalted by the Nancy Graces of the modern era. An old, poor alcoholic is of little concern – a problem just waiting to solve itself out of the world.
Akin forces us to look at that which we prefer to ignore, to disrobe ourselves of the privilege that places the disenfranchised in some nebulous periphery. At best, we treat them like tokens in our socio-political skirmishes. And yet, the privilege remains because we are confronting a horrendous reality through a comfortabe remove, witnessing it through the pacifying veil of cinema. Grotesque as Akin's film may be, it pales in comparison to the true horrors experienced by women like Gertraud Bräuer, Anna Beuschel, Frieda Roblick, and Ruth Schult. The Golden Glove does not excuse or justify Honka's brutal taking of these lives, but it presents us with an opportunity to empathize with the sorts of human beings we often avoid because their lives have become an insurmountable terror. We wouldn't even know where to begin.
Grotesque as it is, The Golden Glove is a profound exploration of the ease with which depravity is bred and nurtured in the carcinogenic, sticky corners inhabited by indigent people – and women in particular – who have aged out of our concern. It is the rare true crime film that succeeds in depicting a time and place with astonishing clarity, not unlike David Fincher's Zodiac, perhaps, though its tone and texture is more evocative of Wake in Fright. Another film that comes to mind, surprisingly, is American Psycho, in that Akin and Dassler have created what amounts to a depraved, grimy inversion of Patrick Bateman with their recreation of Honka's crimes. There is a scene, midway through the film, when Honka brings two women home and aggressively instructs them to engage in sexual acts with each other while he watches. But one of them refuses, and after a brief, violent struggle, she manages to escape – effectively ruining Honka's fantasy and sending him into a furor, not unlike the scene in Mary Harron's film in which Bateman chases the sex worker down with a chainsaw. You can see those same wheels spinning in Honka's mind.
For Honka, that blonde teenage girl haunting his fantasies is a symbol: a beautiful means to a violent end, an achievement unlocked, a trophy to win and proudly display, proof of (his) life, validation. To the viewer, she is a different kind of symbol: the perfect victim whose beauty and youth and white skin give her life immeasurable value. The camera follows her with genuine interest, and not the morbid curiosity that plagues Honka's victims. Another jarring juxtaposition emerges, between the soft halo of light around the blonde teenager's face and that of Honka's last victim – enjoying an inevitably short-lived moment of victory as Schnapps trickles down the folds of her chin, through a wash of blood. What comes next is what came before: A tragedy.