The graphic depiction of the gross deeds of ‘70s German serial killer Fritz Honka murdering women and dismembering their bodies in Fatih Akin’s movie The Golden Glove left Berlin Festival audiences in shock. What was the celebrated Hamburg-born director of Turkish parents thinking? He’d won the Golden Bear for Head-On in 2004 and had recently attracted worldwide praise for In The Fade, his 2016 film with Diane Kruger who won a best actress Golden Globe after returning to her native German language.
It was important to hear what the affable Akin had to say about taking on Honka, the subject of Heinz Strunk’s 2016 bestseller on which the film is based, but also to meet Jonas Dassler the handsome actor who plays the killer and who could well be up for an award tomorrow evening.
As it happens, the 22-year-old is no newcomer to his profession, having won praise for playing much older high profile roles on the Berlin stage—from Kafka to Danton–and he also appears in Florian Hinkel von Donnersmark’s Oscar-nominated German film Never Look Away.
“It’s crazy,” Dassler admits. “I started this job to work in the theatre and thought I’d get a small role in a movie. But I never expected it would go so fast!”
He transformed completely to play Honka, an ugly hunched man whose only recourse was to spend time with older women/prostitutes, at a downtrodden Hamburg bar called Zum Goldenen Handschuh, which has been open continually 24/7 since 1956.
“I didn’t have to think about playing older because the makeup department did a great job–even if I had contact lenses that meant I could only see in 2D,” Dassler explains. “I didn’t think about the age gap, I tried to think about the biography and history of the character and to suck it in and get it into my body.”
Given the 2017 Jeffrey Dahmer film, My Friend Dahmer, and the current Netflix series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, is he trying to understand murderers and serial killers?
“It’s hard to imagine we are from the same species.”
Akin explains how it was his wife and regular casting person Monique who came up with the idea of casting Dassler.
“We were at an awards ceremony where Jonas got the award for the best actor of the next generation and Monique said, ‘That’s your Honka’. I wouldn’t have considered him because he was too young but I knew I had to work a lot with makeup in any case as I wouldn’t find anyone that naturally ugly and nasty. I didn’t want amateurs doing a rape scene as you need choreography and I needed technically proficient actors. But there was something else: Jonas’s youth gave the character a fragility, it made him more complex so we still want to watch what he does next.”
Akin had optioned the rights the minute he read Strunk’s book which he notes remains a bestseller. “I wasn’t sure I would make the movie but I didn’t want anyone else to get in ahead of me. I always wanted to do something like a horror film and when I look at cinema today in the days of Netflix and Amazon, horror seems to be the only thing that works in theatres because it’s a collective experience more than other genres.”
He decided to go ahead with the movie after visiting the bar for the first time.
“I went with Heinz on a Wednesday night and there were some tourists there because of the film. But there was this one elderly woman who could have been in the film. She was looking like one of the characters in her 70s, an alcoholic German. She was sitting next to me and started to touch the hairs on my arms and convinced me to buy her a drink. She told me her story how she was married for 40 years and after the kids left the house her husband left her. She doesn’t know what to do now and wastes all of her pension at the bar. She touched something in me and the next morning I was a bit melancholy and the next day too. This woman isn’t killing herself but she’s dying slowly and it’s worth telling something about that.”
Akin notes that the story is also about the Second World War.
“Incredibly it doesn’t seem to be reflected that much in Germany when you see the voting and elections and the Right streaming stuff and what the elite are doing. But the working class was left traumatised. That’s why they drink so much. The State gives them liquor and like the Native Americans they lose their memory.”
Akin insists that he sympathised with Honka’s victims whom he brought to his attic apartment, which is replicated in the film. “I like the women in the film. Some people are disturbed that they are ugly but people like that exist and I think they have a right to appear in a film; they have a right to appear naked in a film. I’ve worked a lot with beautiful women like Diane and I tried to shoot these women as beautifully as possible in the realistic concept I have. When this woman was beaten up and set on the table half-naked, maybe people don’t understand it but I think it’s a beautiful shot. It’s strong.”
As for Honka, the actual man we see at the end of the film in the courtroom doesn’t look as bad as on screen.
“That was a police picture,” Akin counters. “The novel is about how ugly the guy was. The guy was so ugly that he couldn’t meet women who were his age. It wasn’t possible. The film is also about sexual frustration. The only access to women he had were the alcoholics, the elderly, the former prostitutes. So it is a very ugly world and that was challenging for me, especially since we now live in the days of spas and wellness and being in shape.”
Does he feel sorry for Fritz?
“I feel sorry about certain feelings, but I didn’t want to manipulate the audience. Some elements of that are in Honka’s biography and they are also in the novel regarding how he was raped as a kid. I shot those scenes but in the editing I found them disturbing because it was a stupid explanation: just because you are raped as a kid it doesn’t give you the permission to be a serial killer. Lots of people have been raped as kids and not turned into serial killers and it would be a slap in the face to them.”
At the end of the day he says it’s a film about ugliness.
“That’s part of life. If people are disturbed by it, it’s not my problem.”
Is the dark humour intentional?
“Those elements were in the novel. I liked it because the jokes were not there to make fun of the grotesque, it was more like observing because it’s a grotesque world. It’s funny when you see those people drinking and since I was trying to do my own horror film I know that humour can be part of that. I wanted to give the audience a break from all this nastiness and realism–a laugh before the next shock!”
Akin has been buoyed by how arthouse movies explore horror of late. “I see how the Blumhouse stuff works and the New Line stuff works and I really liked the remake of Suspiria, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and The Babadook.”
He has in fact wanted to make a horror film from an early age.
“I was eight years old and I have a brother who was eleven. It was 1981 and our mother was in hospital for the weekend and my father was working shifts and there was another Turkish family looking after us. They had one of the first rental video stores in Germany, because the first ones were to show Turkish films, before the internet and all that. They had all kinds of films and gave us a catalogue by way of babysitting. They wanted us to watch Disney films but my brother insisted we watch zombie films, Dawn of the Dead, the Romero stuff. So there I was at eight year’s old watching the uncut version of Dawn of the Dead and all these people being chopped up. I was shocked but at the end I could see the names and I could understand it was made up by people, that this is film. And the next day I went to the library and I borrowed a book about filmmaking and that’s how I started.”
The father of two now says he draws the line at children being killed on screen. “This is my personal border—and I can go far sometimes. When I saw Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and he is killing this kid in front of the parents I didn’t know it was going to happen. I saw it as a teenager and it’s still in my mind.”
As a result he has not seen Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, even if he admits, “I love what the guy’s doing and I still think he’s one of the greatest.”