Diego Aparicio reviews Faith Akin’s controversial and violent thriller.
Following The Golden Glove world premiere in Berlin, I’ve seen a few critics comparing director Fatih Akin’s latest to Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built due to the films’ common theme of violence against women. I am not a critic, and I have no agenda, so I’ll say honestly (and in my humble opinion) that this comparison is very superficial and suggests a lazy viewer. The similarity ends with the gore and misogyny portrayed on screen: while von Trier’s ‘construction’ oozed of egocentric and self-indulgent intentions, as if to explain himself and his oeuvre, Fatih Akin’s work seems, to me, at least a bit more nuanced.
A big reason why I appreciated The Golden Glove a great deal is the presence of what I interpret as literary metaphors, presumably stemming from Heinz Strunk’s 2016 eponymous novel. The time at which the novel was written makes me all the more eager to conclude that the film has a lot more to say about our times than what its 1970s setting might suggest. I am not a fan of violence, on-screen or otherwise, and, sadly, von Trier’s latest effort failed to convince me. But recently I’ve seen violence used as a means to a cinematic end – and not just for its shock value – much more effectively than I ever thought possible. The first time was in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale; the second in The Golden Glove.
Throughout Akin’s film, we follow serial killer Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler) in 1970s Hamburg. Most of the time, Honka keeps busy by overworking his liver at The Golden Glove – a pub where ex-S.S. soldiers, ex-concentration camp prostitutes, and other similarly unhappy people drink their lives away. Otherwise, Herr Honka spends his time picking up deranged, drunken homeless women at the Glove, raping them, and chopping them up into pieces to keep in his attic. Whenever the next victim asks where the stench is coming from, Herr Honka’s reply is always the same: it’s the Greek family’s fault, the one living in the flat below, always adding that disgusting garlic into everything they cook.
‘Gruesome’ doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors to which the viewer is subjected. (If we could describe everything with words, we wouldn’t need films in the first place). People walked out of the auditorium, brought their hands to their mouths and eyes, and turned their gazes away from the screen in disgust more than a few times during the screening I attended. But on behalf of those who didn’t walk out, I would like to argue that The Golden Glove is really not as pointless as some are calling it. Far from glorifying violence through the portrayal of his troubled – to put it mildly – protagonist, Akin gives us a taste of a reality unpalatable to humanity through the years: that the rottenness we so hatefully perceive around us, is very often an internalised hatred that we dare not admit.
One should not overlook the fact that this story’s characters are all victims of war: a woman forced into prostitution during WWII; an ex-Nazi official with no purpose in life 30 years later; and Honka, whose father was arrested for being a Communist in Nazi Germany. In an early scene, we are introduced to the theory that there are three reasons for people to drink: to celebrate the good things, to drink away the bad things, and to escape the boredom of nothing happening at all. Celebration seems to be the least likely reason for these characters’ severe alcohol dependence. These are people whose lives were forever dismantled by violence in all its unimaginable and horrific forms. It is a violence that is very much passed on and inherited, still pervasive in the lives of younger generations. No matter how we try to conceal the hateful acts of violence from the past, they inevitably slip through the cracks of the rotting attics of history, like maggots feeding off dead bodies.
Much like the characters in The Golden Glove, our own generation’s passive acceptance of violence and the inability to connect may have been inherited through postwar trauma in more ways than we realise. The fact that Fritz and Willi (Tristan Göbel) share a similar taste in eyewear and teenage girls implies a few reasons why the Honkas of the world have not yet ceased to exist. Akin does not force feed his audience this reading of the story, but there are hints supporting this reading inconspicuously scattered throughout the film: WWII references occur more than a few times, and war becomes the common thread connecting all characters.
In The Golden Glove, men and women alike have to live with all the trauma that the war has brought upon them in a strongly divided Cold War era Germany. Honka and his brother seem to believe that women are objects made for their satisfaction. This unhealthy relationship between the sexes is perpetuated by apathy in a society whose wounds can only be numbed by alcohol.
The only glimpse of humanity we see in Honka is when he decides to stop drinking – which is also when he develops what appear to be feelings for a coworker. “I had dreamed that I’d do more in life than just clean offices,” she opens up to him. This is a cleaner who’s wasting her life away with an unemployed husband who spends her earnings on alcohol. Sympathetic as he may appear, Honka’s only verbal attempt to express feelings towards her comes when he’s once again drunk. “I love you. Now I want to fuck you,” he exclaims before violently assaulting her.
There is much power in Akin’s subtle insertions of the peaceful Greek family scenes amongst all the massacres and acts of inhumanity committed by the film’s antihero. Through this lens, see a family of refugees accused of creating the foul stench in Honka’s apartment, a situation which is likely to be a commentary on today’s increasing nationalism in various states globally. When read this way, the film appears not only to be opposed to war and toxic masculinity, but also to right-wing extremism.
The film doesn’t justify itself in any obvious way, but comparing The Golden Glove to The House that Jack Built seems unfair to say the least. Akin’s depiction of Honka’s monstrosity is ultimately unsettling for a much more profound reason: the real horror is that, in contrast to von Trier’s, this misogynist serial killer actually existed. Fritz Honka was alive in the 1970s, a product of one of the most horrific periods in recent history.
Overall, The Golden Glove was not a strong contender for the Golden Bear Award at this year’s Berlinale. Jonas Dassler’s extraordinary physical performance and Rainer Kalusmann’s commendably greasy cinematography were not enough for the jury. Still, I thought there was a case to be made in the film’s favour. Akin succeeds multiple times in drawing laughs only moments after showing a murder, and that says something very interesting about our attitude towards violence.
The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh) premiered at Berlin Film Festival on February 9th. It has yet to acquire a UK release date. Check out a clip below: