Collectively, pop culture seems to exist in a twenty to thirty-year vacuum where, if an item that falls before that time has not been taken up into the public consciousness as a cult icon, it is relegated to the scrapheap of forgotten art. Those who are remembered, especially in the medium of film, are often cherished for their significant influence or their importance to cinema. Occasionally there are those filmmakers whose works are known for their incompetence and their lack of knowledge of the craft of filmmaking.
I am guessing that Uwe Boll and Edward D. Wood Jr.’s individual filmographies are what a lot of people think of when they consider cinema which has gained infamy for being bad, but what of Ulli Lommel? If he is known at all, it is for his string of cheap, incompetently made straight-to-DVD horror movies, based on the atrocities caused by real life serial killers, with titles as blunt as B.T.K. Killer (2005) or Green River Killer (also 2005). Films such as these have earned Lommel the kind of reputation that only the likes of the aforementioned Boll and Wood have received; yet even those filmmakers have fans who look at their work with affection (even if it is only for an ironic "so bad it’s good" quality). Lommel seems only to raise people’s contempt, with many people accusing him of being one of the worst filmmakers to ever sit behind a camera.
When reviewing Lommel’s Diary of a Cannibal (2007), entertainment website The Plugg spent two paragraphs accusing Lommel of being the worst living filmmaker, suggesting that his continuing employment is proof that God exists only to make our lives miserable. They finished their review by pithily saying, "What do you say when ‘suck’ just doesn’t remotely cut it? I’ve settled on ‘pukes.’ As in: Every film by Ulli Lommel pukes." Damning indeed, but not undeserved in the slightest, because Lommel’s work in the last twenty years is downright dreadful, and capitalizes on the misery and notoriety of real life tragedies.
Those being slightly kinder to Lommel’s oeuvre may go as far back as 1980, when he made The Boogeyman; a horror film about an unknown force possessing mirrors, causing those to look in the mirror to die. Far from being as awful as his latest works, The Boogeyman has at least a passable reputation as a watchable Video Nasty with a goofily ridiculous plot and some mildly amusing visual effects. The same, however, cannot be said about its sequels, Boogeyman II (1983), Return of the Boogeyman (1994) – both of which he was not credited as director; Bruce Starr and Deland Nuse were credited, respectively – and Boogeyman Vampire Club 4 (1997).
Given Lommel’s rather poisonous reputation, it may surprise some that he began as an actor, frequently collaborating with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who is among the most important auteurs of the New German Cinema movement of the 1960s to the 1980s. In 1969 he was cast in the leading role in Fassbinder’s directorial debut, Love is Colder than Death. Fassbinder would continue to cast Lommel a total of twelve more times, both in films and in mini-series made for television. In total, Fassbinder and Lommel would collaborate twenty times, whether it was as Lommel being part of his acting troupe, or as Fassbinder acting as either writer or producer on Lommel’s projects. So, it comes as no surprise that Fassbinder produced Lommel’s third directorial effort, and by far his most ambitious film to date, Tenderness of the Wolves (1973).
Despite the reputation Lommel would later get as a filmmaker, this film is considered by most who have seen it to be an excellent piece of work. Not only has the film been mentioned in the book Time Out 1000 Films to Change Your Life (2006), it was also one of the films in competition at the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival.
Tenderness of the Wolves (Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe) is based on Fritz Haarmann, who is believed to have been responsible for the murders of between 24 and 27 young men between 1918 and 1924. Known as the "Butcher of Hanover" and the "Vampire of Hanover," Haarmann was one of the three serial killers who served as the basis for Hans Beckert, the killer in Fritz Lang’s M (1931).
Played by frequent Fassbinder collaborator Kurt Raab (who also acted as the film’s screenwriter) Haarmann found a way to eke out a living during the depression years in Germany. He was a conman, a black-marketeer, a police informer, and competent in each profession. He also spent his evenings picking up runaway boys, seducing them, murdering them, and selling their remains as meat.
Fortunately, Lommel does not wish to simply replicate what Lang achieved, which is noticeable by how much screen time he devotes to Haarmann’s day-to-day life, such as buying and conning people out of their goods to sell on the black market. Comparatively speaking, Fritz Lang treats Hans Beckert like a ghost, who is often spoken about, but rarely seen. Haarmann operated during The Weimar Republic, an era which spanned from 1919 to 1933. During this time, Germany’s economy was incredibly weak and unemployment figures soared. Whatever else anybody can say about Lommel’s skills as a filmmaker, he does a remarkable job of showing Germany as a vulnerable country, attempting to continue after being crippled by a feeble economy and the devastating effects of a world war. The devastation shows through the characters’ body language: The destruction left over from the war is palpable through their misery.
With this in mind, it is easier to see Haarmann as being a completely three dimensional character, since it allows us to see how such a vampiric parasite could seep through the cracks, and profit from the misery of others. This is a portrayal of a psychopath which displays a man divorced from emotions. That is not to say that other films with a similar subject matter do not do this, or that this automatically puts this film above other films about those who murder; what it does do is make the murderer less of an ethereal figure, and more like a predator who could be someone in our own lives.
What is perhaps most interesting about the film is that the depictions of Haarmann’s crimes are interspersed with moments of very dark humor. Raab’s screenplay prods at various social classes which existed in Dusseldorf at the time, making the film the most unlikely comedy of manners one will ever see, albeit one which uses gallows humor instead of light comedy. Haarmann’s immediate circle of associates are grotesques who will happily sit down to eat the meat of the people Haarmann has killed, no questions asked, while singing songs and flirting with one another. By comparison, those in positions of authority, such as the police commissioners, are shown as being incompetent buffoons, acting condescendingly towards Haarmann’s suspicious neighbor, who complains about the noises coming from Haarmann’s apartment.
A common character trope in Fassbinder’s work is that his leads are often resourceful and cunning, but ultimately destined to fail. To put it bluntly, they are the plucky losers who end the film on the bottom rung of the ladder. Since Kurt Raab worked so regularly with Fassbinder, he understood how to incorporate this trope without it being distracting, striking the right tone between the horrific and the humorous, with marvelous pacing and perfectly balanced tone. His screenplay and, by extension, his performances, are thoughtful and extremely layered, making the character occasionally appear endearing and sympathetic.
Sympathy quickly ends, however, when we are shown just how brutally Haarmann kills his victims. Early scenes in the film show him seducing his victims. Later we see how these young men are now slabs of meat, ready to be served to a group of degenerates. When we finally see one of his victims being dispatched, the only real way to describe what Haarmann is doing is nothing short of vampirism. By biting their necks, and drinking their blood, he is more feral beast than man, and yet, this is the man we had previously watched, in amusement, selling stolen goods.
Of course, the question remains, how involved was Ulli Lommel in the filmmaking process, really, if his future work was so bad? If it was not Lommel who was the creative force behind the picture, then perhaps it was Fassbinder, since the film bears his distinctive style and the majority of the film’s crew is people who have worked with him before. One of the most discussed topics on Tenderness of the Wolves’s IMDb discussion board is the speculation that Fassbinder directed the film and Lommel was handed the director’s credit as a favor. Unfortunately, speculation is all we have since the only official director is Lommel and it’s unlikely he would ever admit to not being the man in charge.
What I believe more likely is that Lommel called the shots, and everyone involved in the cast and crew were so used to working Fassbinder’s way, that the film resembled something that looked like it was directed by Fassbinder. It is also true that the film was made on a shoestring budget with a very tight shooting schedule, which made it easier for all involved just to make the film in the only way they knew how, since doing otherwise would have required time and effort that they simply did not have.
With this much praise, it is regrettable to say that the film is not perfect. None of the flaws is jarring; they often accentuate the film’s qualities. Due to the film’s low budget and brisk shooting schedule, everyone dresses as if they just walked in with what they were wearing that day, introducing anachronisms which betray the post-Great War setting. While this was a crutch when it came to perfecting period details, it gives the production an eerie, naturalistic look. Everything from the production design to the cinematography feels real, without the hindrance of artificial sets or overly stylistic lighting.
This is not the kind of movie one would watch again in a hurry, especially since Raab and Lommel are content with showing us Haarmann’s sordid little world, without commenting on why Haarmann acted the way he did. When all is said and done, Tenderness of the Wolves is both fascinating and distancing, and will remain in the memory long after the credits roll.
Despite Lommel’s notoriety, he has been able to achieve more than anyone could have expected, considering that he was able to work with one of the most important German filmmakers of the past fifty years, and make something well regarded while under his tutelage.
In the years since Tenderness of the Wolves, Lommel has led a fascinating life, which may surprise anyone only familiar with his appalling straight-to-DVD filmography. After moving to New York in 1978, he began working for Andy Warhol who introduced Lommel to the Pop Art scene and appeared in Lommel’s Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and Blank Generation (1980), the latter of which was Lommel’s first film made in America and starred punk musician Richard Hell. In 2011, Lommel staged a play about his time working with Andy Warhol entitled Dream Factory, which had its premiere in Bremen, Germany.
Perhaps the most brazen work that Lommel has been involved with is Fucking Liberty! – a play he wrote and directed – which was staged in January 2013 at the Volksbuehne am Rosa Luxemburgplatz Theatre in Berlin. As far as I can tell, the show is a post-modern variety show about Lommel’s time in America, which attempts to satirize America’s obsession with celebrity culture. Apparently, the show opens with a demonic, giant Mickey Mouse floating above the stage, and actors play the likes of Tony Curtis (dressed in Marilyn Monroe drag, naturally) and Jackie Kennedy. Lommel himself appears on stage as Michael Jackson, raised from the grave, which should give one an idea of the production’s demented style.
Given this history, it is a shame that Ulli Lommel will most likely be remembered as one of the worst filmmakers of all time. That’s not to say that this reputation is undeserved – bearing in mind how bad his recent output has been – but he is such a bizarre, demented package of inconsistencies, contradictions and oddities that I feel he should be remembered for his entire time behind and in front of the camera as well as for his bizarre stage work. It seems a shame that a man who was there during the days of New German Cinema and Studio 54 should be disregarded. However, when Lommel decided to direct all of the films for which he has later became known, he had only himself to blame for the unraveling of his public image.