A fetid corpse flower of a film — the kind whose wretched stink only blooms into theaters once every few years — Fatih Akin’s “The Golden Glove” is a movie that you can smell just by looking at it. It’s relentlessly pungent; the cinematic equivalent of an overflowing porta potty. The sets reek of shit and decaying flesh, while even the living characters appear to rot before our eyes. Maggots fall through the ceiling and rain into a young girl’s soup. A jar of pickled sausages grows enough white fur to make a winter coat. There’s no reprieve from all this rancidness. It opens with a long, unblinking take of its sociopathic protagonist stripping the body of a bloated old prostitute and (after the help of some liquid courage) sawing her head off with the wild-eyed clumsiness of a chronic drinker. It’s hard to fathom at the time, but this will be the most pleasant sequence of this godforsaken story.
Ostensibly a historical drama about serial killer Fritz Honka, who cast a long and odorous shadow over the red-light district of Hamburg in the early 1970s, Akin’s empty spectacle of supreme ugliness never has the temerity (or the respect?) to do anything more than disgust its audience. And to that end, well, mission accomplished. Squandering whatever goodwill he earned with the explosive 2016 thriller “In the Fade,” the German-born writer-director has followed the biggest hit of his career with one of the most putrid and willfully unpleasant things ever projected onto a screen.
It’s a film about the depravity that can infect a country in the wake of a lost war, told with the clarity of a clogged toilet; a film informed by the radicality of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the artfulness of Uwe Boll; a film that contrasts the visceral grotesquery of “Se7en” with the psychological depth of Kevin Spacey’s “Let Me Be Frank” video. Most of all, it’s an act of karmic revenge against those who bemoaned the supposed banality of “The House that Jack Built.” 20 minutes into this and you’ll find yourself begging the movie gods for another trip through the abattoir of Lars von Trier’s anxieties.
Anyone familiar with “Head-On” or “The Edge of Heaven” knows Akin to be an uncompromising artist whose best films are provocative without being trollish. Even “In the Fade,” which had the audacity to refigure a suicide bomber as a righteous avenger, was redeemed by a strong undercurrent of emotional credibility and carried along by its director’s natural ability to find the drama in every frame. For better or worse, Akin’s eye remains a remarkable thing, as he arranges even the most emptily nihilistic parts of “The Golden Glove” with the gravitas of arresting visual geometry, and casts every role to sick perfection. It’s just his vision that seems to be the problem.
Jonas Dassler’s performance as Fritz Honka transcends any traditional rubric of “good” or “bad,” though it’s obvious that he gave Akin exactly what the director wanted. Disfigured beneath pounds of hideous prosthetics, the handsome 23-year-old actor transforms into a drunken brute twice his age. His skin is scaly and marked with sores, his pores like rusty dimes that have been filling with dirt in the years since his last shower. His eyes are sometimes covered by the strings of his greasy combover, but they bulge when seen through the thick lenses of his standard-issue serial killer glasses. His teeth are black, and his nose — disfigured by a traffic accident sometime before the film begins — is smashed flat against his face (which helps to explain why he talks like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather”).
It’s hard to tell if Fritz was born to human parents or hatched from the primordial ooze of Isengard by the dark wizard Saruman. One of the many women who Fritz indiscriminately hits on takes one look at the guy and says that she “wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire.”
But Dassler’s performance is hardly skin-deep. On the contrary, every facet of the actor’s being seems possessed by the spirit of the vile man he’s playing. It’s not just in the way he carries himself, or how his body is overtaken by violent impulses like a sneeze that it can’t suppress; it’s also in his eyes, which are glazed with hopelessness and reflect a profound contempt for everything (women, most of all). This is a full and complete transformation — the kind of chameleonic work that Daniel Day-Lewis might have done if no one had been there to offer him something better.
As it stands, Dassler has little to do but reek from one place to the next. One scene finds our Fritz dismembering a victim in the middle of his attic apartment (which is wallpapered with nude pin-ups of beautiful young women). In the next, he gets piss drunk in the unfathomably dank St. Pauli dive bar that lends the film its title. In the one after that, he drags a destitute Holocaust survivor back home and forces her to be his sex slave and hand servant. Fritz even makes the woman sign a contract that supposedly grants him physical rights to her estranged daughter; the two will never meet, but life has so little to offer Fritz that even the the mention of her soft young skin — even the idea of someone who still has blood in their veins — is enough to send him into a state of obsessive ecstasy and lift him above the lower depths of the downtrodden ghouls he drinks with every night.
But that doesn’t pan out. The cycle continues. Fritz gets a job working as a security guard at a Shell office. There he finds more misery, more desperation, and another woman to fetishize and attack. More drinking. More violence. One especially messy victim who Fritz violates with a sausage gets her revenge by smearing horseradish (or some kind of pickle brine?) on Fritz’s penis. Whatever it is, it burns very badly. Needless to say, everything about this movie is disturbing, but the ugliest details blur together in a boring miasma of filth, in much the same way as you might grow nose blind to a new stench after having your head submerged in a septic tank for 90 minutes.
Akin, whose script preserves the gruesome immediacy of the Heinz Strunk novel that inspired it, prioritizes action over reason, but this material is too grim and airless to breathe without context. It’s one thing for Akin not to offer his main character a shred of sympathy, but it’s another to deny Fritz even a faint trace of humanity. Without so much as an invitation to consider the genesis of his alcoholism, or to make sense of how it might have compromised his intellect, or even to understand why his nose is pointed in three different directions, viewers have no choice but to look at the guy as a loutish monster who was never going to be capable of love and never had reason for confidence. He’s just a sallow demon who was destined to be this way.
At times — if only in its most darkly intriguing moments — “The Golden Glove” feels like watching an entire movie about the creature that lives behind the dumpster in “Mulholland Drive” (but directed by some overqualified edge lord instead of David Lynch).
“The Golden Glove” may have been conceived as a pervasive negative image of the economic miracle that swept over Germany in the decades following World War II — an unsparing portrait of the misfortune and depravity that waited for anyone who fell through the cracks when the rest of the country was trying to move forward — but Akin is too compelled by the rot to sniff out the reasons for it. His film is dead from the moment it starts, and once you get used to the stink, there’s nothing to do but wait for it to go away.
“The Golden Glove” premiered at the 2019 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.