Based on a True Story

Fatih Akin, Der goldene Handschuh (The Golden Glove), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 115 minutes.

SO FAR, IT’S RAINING REALITY at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival (or “Berlinale,” for short). If only someone would invent an umbrella that protects against blades, bullets, and toxic masculinity! The world would certainly be a better place, but then what bitter truths would be left for all these cinematic bigwigs to unpack?

Among the most talked-about films this year is the latest from Fatih Akin, The Golden Glove—named after the trashy Hamburg pub that Fritz Honka frequented in the early 1970s. Honka enjoyed drink and the company of middle-aged to elderly prostitutes, most of them bloated from alcoholism, whom he’d invite home to his apartment, where he would proceed to beat, murder, and dismember them, and then squirrel away their body parts in a storage cavern in the wall. (To his guests, he would blame the strong odor of rotting flesh on his immigrant neighbors’ cooking in the below unit.)

The critics seem to universally revile the film; as is so often the case, they are wrong. For one thing, there’s the performance of twenty-two-year-old Jonas Dassler as Honka, who was nearly twice Dassler’s age when the crimes depicted in the film took place. A hunky Teutonic blond in real life, Dassler here transforms himself into a veritable Nosferatu, a drooling hunchback with prosthetic facial disfigurements, slurring crudities to his equally unwashed and dumpy prey, who greedily slurp down every drop of booze they can get him to buy or otherwise steal off him. Some reviews I read accuse Dassler of overdoing it. This just shows how streamlined the convention of “naturalistic” acting has become in cinema. In this relatively new norm, actors—mostly physically attractive, save of course for the so-called character actors, who are allowed to be ugly—are almost invariably placed in front of the lens and instructed to feign nonchalance as much as possible, except for those scenes where a tear needs to be squirted out, the voice raised a notch or two to suggest hysteria. A measured coolness is always the desired non-affect. This style of acting, of course, isn’t really a style—it’s simply modeling in front of the camera. Dassler, however, dares to bring affectation, swagger, and a compelling weirdness to his character—qualities that, once upon a time, were what drove people to the movies and imbued viewers with a fascination for actors and their craft.

Featuring stale cigarette smoke perpetually hovering in the air, The Golden Glove is an evocative period piece and a visceral excoriation of vomit, blood, sweat, wurst, urine, pus, more blood, more wurst, and more vomit—perhaps the closest thing to Smell-O-Vision without being so. Akin’s script is full of Rabelaisian grotesqueries, ensconced in the scumbag, petty criminal milieu of Hamburg’s Saint Pauli neighborhood, with its famous red-light district. A place where Honka could perfectly blend in as just another ugly and perverted alcoholic lowlife. “I could eat cunt all day like potato salad,” says one of the dirty old drunks to another as they waste away what remains of their livers at the Golden Glove. “I’d like to ram a live codfish up your ass,” Honka tells one of the prostitutes prior to bringing her home. “How exactly would that work?” she responds, unfazed.

With The Golden Glove, Akin—who himself grew up in Hamburg, in one of those immigrant families Honka so hated—does more than merely report a serial killer’s story; he elicits a portrait of a society that has long been conditioned to march to the sluggish rhythms of its own demise. Not since Triumph of the Will has a film so perfectly captured the spiritual essence of Germany.

Adam McKay, Vice, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 132 minutes.

Certainly, Honka was no more repulsive than Dick Cheney, the subject of Adam McKay’s Vice, yet another film that’s nowhere near as bad as everyone seems to think it is. I normally hate biopics, but, like The Golden Glove, Vice features another astoundingly transformational lead performance in Christian Bale’s portrayal of America’s own early twenty-first-century architect of evil. True, Honka murdered at least four women. But Cheney, with his pointless wars, managed to kill hundreds of thousands of people, enriching himself and his cronies with the spoils. If we’re going by sheer numbers, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher why Cheney was never locked up for his crimes, but the world being the sort of place that it is, maybe it’s not that hard to figure out after all. At least that’s the case made by McKay’s film, which retains just enough of the satirical to keep us laughing through the pain.

Heinrich Breloer’s Brecht, a biopic interspersed with interview footage, is essentially a made-for-TV movie—a very long (and quintessentially European) one at that, lasting three hours and divided into two parts. There’s nothing earth-shattering or all that revelatory here about Germany’s favorite playwright; in case you haven’t heard, he was as lecherous as a priest let loose in a kindergarten. He took his first wife’s virginity by raping her, a scene that the film seems to gloss over with an interview with the real-life Frau Brecht, who cheerily reassures us that he took her out for blueberry pie afterward. Brecht continues to fuck his way through life, impregnating as many women as he can while taking the least amount of responsibility possible for his actions, effectively fulfilling the German Romantic conception of the Great (Male) Artist, finally dwelling in a delusional bubble of the Stalinist utopia that was East Germany. Karma, maybe?

Heinrich Breloer, Brecht, 2019, color, sound, 186 minutes.

Speaking of lecherous priests, François Ozon has turned his attention to the recent case of Philippe Barbarin, the archbishop of Lyon, in By the Grace of God. Barbarin is charged with complicity in covering up the crimes of a French cardinal, Bernard Preynat, who molested several young boys throughout the 1980s and ’90s. The action of the film plays out from the perspective of the now adult victims, whose banding together in bringing these crimes to light forms the crux of the narrative. Given the sensationalistic subject matter—and the director’s own proclivities towards sexual psychodrama—Ozon surprisingly crafts a multi-perspectival, sober, and nuanced examination of this most current event (the verdict in Preynat’s trial is scheduled to be handed down next month).

Finally, to end things on a more meta note, Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the legendary film critic, ultimately asserting her integral role in advocating for and influencing the New Hollywood of the 1970s. It was one of the few genuinely riveting documentaries I’ve chanced to catch so far at this year’s Berlinale—though I would have loved an interview with Renata Adler about her legendary 1980 takedown of Kael’s writing in the New York Review of Books. Now when is someone going to make a movie about Armond White?

The 48th Berlin International Film Festival runs February 7 through February 17.