It could be my naiveté, but I have to think that Ulli Lommel’s Tenderness of the Wolves was probably pretty shocking at the time of its 1973 release. A semi-fictionalized account of German serial killer Fritz Haarmann, its violence might seem a bit tame compared to things that would happen, genre-wise, just a year or two later, but its grim atmosphere is hard to shake. Director Ulli Lommel doesn’t shy away from anything, depicting Haarman’s bloodlust and homosexuality in ways that are not overtly explicit, but managed to rile the masses all the same.
I haven’t seen Fritz Lang’s M since college, but Tenderness of the Wolves takes more than a few visual cues from it, from the opening credits to the chilling way that Haarmann interacts with children and victims. Those familiar with Lommel’s later-day work may be surprised to hear that while Tenderness does have a bit in common with Lang, it’s hardly derivative of him. This isn’t a retelling of the life and crimes of Fritz Haarmann, but rather a snapshot of his life taken during the time when he was committing dozens and dozens of murders. Because the production was unable to reproduce the actual period of Haarmann’s killing spree (the late 1910s and early 20s), they updated the story to take place sometime in the late 1940s.
So what we’ve got here is a raw and depressing look at a brutal serial killer, as well as the society that he stalks. Kurt Raab inhabits the role of Haarmann and refuses to give in to the trappings that so often define this kind of character. Yes, Haarmann is an oddball in the film, but Raab and Lommel refuse to demonize him by transforming him into a generic movie villain. He’s certainly demonized through his actions, but his brutal killings are juxtaposed against his somewhat soft-spoken and charming personality (this is where the title’s ‘tenderness’ comes from). When you look at a film like John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, you’ve got Michael Rooker always looking and acting the part. And that totally works for that movie. I think that’s what I was expecting to get out of Tenderness too, but the way this story is presented makes it far more chilling because, as this type of story always goes, the cinematic Haarmann is someone you’d never suspect.
Or maybe the people around him do suspect, but refuse to care. That’d be worse, right? Haarmann does things for the others in his community in the hopes they’ll look the other way. He gives away the clothes of his victims, and turns the bodies into meat to be given to the local butcher. Lommel does a great job of showing the suspicion of others, and takes even greater delight their looking the other way. No, he’s necessarily arguing that they’re the greater monsters, but he is showing a society that’s entirely self-serving in its pursuit of happiness. Harrmann is just one part of that.
I don’t thinkTenderness of the Wolves is completely successful, though. Like many character studies of this sort, its repetitious nature makes it feel a bit too long, even at 82 minutes. We can forgive that because the movie’s oppressive feel leaves a lasting impression. Haarmann’s apartment is tight and claustrophobic, drawing us right into the killer’s world and holding us there as captives. The killings aren’t all that graphic, but the implication of cannibalism is stomach churning. In the middle of the film, Haarmann hosts a dinner party at his house and it’s so sickeningly gleeful that Bryan Fuller had to have seen it. It must’ve been floating around in his mind when attempting to get Hannibal Lecter on television in all of his bloody glory.
Ulli Lommel might get a lot of flack for his modern career. I haven’t seen any of his shot on video, direct to video dreck, but I can tell you that Tenderness of the Wolves is a minor mainstay when it comes to 1970s horror. Budgetary constraints might’ve prevented this from being the definitive story of Fritz Haarmann, but that really doesn’t matter. Kurt Raab’s performance is chilling, compelling, and uncomfortable while Lommel was never more confident with other material (I still love The Boogey Man, though).
Arrow’s disc looks and sounds great, and they’ve stacked the deck with some new extras that are just as interesting as the feature itself.
- Audio commentary by director Ulli Lommel, moderated by Uwe Huber. It’s great to hear from Lommel, who is understandably and endearingly proud of this movie. This commentary and accompanying interview confirm my suspicion that the film was incredibly controversial and successful upon release, and Lommel is incredibly honest about everything.
- The Tender Wolf: An interview with Lommel that’s as interesting as the audio commentary, touching on the making of, post release, and even the glut of police procedural shows that, the director says, bore him to tears.
- Photographing Fritz: Interview with director of photography Jurgen Jurges
- Haarmann’s Victim Talks: Interview with actor Rainer Will
- An Appreciation by Stephen Thrower: A fantastic conversation with Nightmare USA author Thrower, who offers plenty of insight into the film, and Lommel’s career on the whole. Like myself, Thrower hasn’t seen any of his DTV stuff, but argues that it shouldn’t be held against the director’s early career.
- Still Gallery
- Booklet with essay by Tony Rayns
You don’t hear a lot about Tenderness of the Wolves these days, and so it’s very cool of Arrow to give it the royal treatment. I know that a large subset of our reader base is interested in true crime and serial killers, which makes Tenderness of the Wolves right up their alley. It would’ve been interesting to have something a little more comprehensive included on the real Haarmann, much like Arrow’s Eaten Alive disc did for Joe Ball, but the booklet does provide additional details on the killer and his crimes. If all you know about Ulli Lommel is that he’s made some very bad films over the last 15 or so years, then this is a good place to begin your education.