The Film: 4/5
Before he was reduced to helming a never-ending series of terribly-shot true crime flicks for direct-to-video distribution, Ulli Lommel displayed great promise as a filmmaker with 1973’s Tenderness of the Wolves, a chilling character study and realistic horror tale produced by world cinema legend Rainer Werner Fassbinder that makes its debut on Blu-ray in the U.S. and U.K. courtesy of Arrow Video.
In the years following World War I in the German town of Hanover, petty criminal and con artist Fritz Haarmann (Kurt Raab, who also penned the screenplay) devoted his depraved energy to stalking and murdering many young boys and men. After killing his victims, he would devour some of their flesh and sell the rest to appreciative local restauranteurs who had no idea where these choice cuts of meat originated. When the police arrest Haarmann for a laundry list of crimes including assault and soliciting sex from minors, they offer to release him and drop the charges in exchange for becoming one of their informants. Empowered by his new status with the law, Haarmann intensifies his efforts to hunt and kill a growing of number of fresh victims he finds wandering the streets or hanging around in train stations. He entices them back to his apartment with the promise of food and work, seduces them into bed, and then proceeds to gnaw holes in their jugular before finishing the job and savoring the remains.
Haarmann’s only true friend is his partner-in-crime Hans Grans (Jeff Roden), a pimp who abhors the murderous direction his old compatriot has taken but refuses to do anything about it. Haarmann’s benefactors on the police force, desperate to make an arrest for the killings, begin to put the squeeze on the underworld, forcing Hans and several of his fellow criminals (including producer Fassbinder making a cameo as “Wittowski”) to forge an alliance with their pursuers in order to bring the true “Butcher of Hanover” to justice.
The real-life case of Fritz Haarmann has long been cited as the inspiration for Fritz Lang’s 1931 crime masterpiece M, with Peter Lorre playing a Haarmann-type killer of children in what is considered his greatest performance. Tenderness of the Wolves was conceived by Kurt Raab, the celebrated German actor who had previously worked with producer Fassbinder on the filmmaker’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? and The Merchant of Four Seasons and served in a wide variety of behind-the-scenes roles on various projects for television and the silver screen, and he wrote the script with the desired intention of playing the central role of Haarmann.
A compelling presence with his youthful visage and clean-shaven scalp giving him an appearance similar to that of Nosferatu, Raab is in nearly every scene of Tenderness and his owns each moment he’s in front of the camera. Through the combination of writing and performance, Raab gives us a surprisingly empathetic monster, utilizing natural charisma to offset the character’s horrific tendencies. It helps that Lommel keeps most of the focus of the film squarely on Haarmann the human being besieged by murderous impulses who fits the profile of the basic everyday psychopath longing to be caught so he can be released of the compulsion to kill. Haarmann is an animal, no doubt, but Raab exposes the beating heart of this infamous lunatic for the audience to behold. It’s a great performance, one of the finest in the modern German cinema.
There is a fair amount of bloodshed in Tenderness, but Lommel and Raab wisely restrain it in favor of creating a backdrop of a Germany brought to its knees by war and its everlasting effects. Poverty is rampant throughout the country and the citizens are struggling to make ends meet however they can. Lommel shot Tenderness in the cities of Dusseldorf and Ruhrgebiet, and with the assistance of Jürgen Jürges’s (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Funny Games) autumnal cinematography and some terrific minimalist production design by Raab, Lommel gives life to a Germany living in the shadow of one World War and not quite yet realizing that they are about to be destroyed by another to come. In short, it’s perfect territory for a serial killer to bathe in the blood of his prey since the police are too busy dealing with the same professional criminals with whom Raab once associated. Peer Raben (The Marriage of Maria Braun) crafted the music score of Tenderness out of several evocative pieces by the legendary German composer Johann Sebastian Bach that gives both the film and its insidious central character a tender, haunting classical voice that speaks greater volumes about the mindsets of Haarmann and the individuals who populate the story’s fringes than any line of dialogue. When violence is employed, the effect is quite shocking since Lommel hasn’t spent the preceding minutes desensitizing his audience to the impact blood and gore.
Jeff Roden (Lommel’s Second Spring) offers able support as Haarmann’s friend and true love Hans Grans, as does Margit Carstensen (Possession) as the killer’s suspicious downstairs neighbor Frau Lindner. Wolfgang Schenck and Rainer Hauer (both of Fassbinder’s World on a Wire) represent the law enforcement side of Tenderness with muted, weary authority, but they are wisely kept to the sidelines as we witness the events of the story unfold through Haarmann’s eyes. Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) puts in one of his early film appearances in a bit part that might be hard to spot unless you happen to be eagle-eyed.
Arrow Video presents Tenderness of the Wolves in a rich and illustrious 1080p high-definition transfer sourced from a restored print prepared by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The original 35mm camera negative was scanned in 2k resolution, and the result is the finest home video presentation of the film to date. Picture quality boasts finely saturated colors, including a warm and pleasing palette of brown hues, and a well-balanced grain structure that retains the filmic quality of the theatrical presentation. The 24-bit uncompressed German PCM mono 1.0 audio track keeps most of the sound mix at the front channels where it belongs and allows for the dialogue and soundtrack of Back compositions to flow together naturally without suffering from overlap and distortion. Volume levels are strong and consistent from start to finish, making manual adjustment unnecessary. Newly translated English subtitles have also been provided.
A sumptuous selection of new bonus features begins with a commentary with director Lommel moderated by Uwe Haber that contains few instances of silence and presents a fine contemporary overview of the production of Tenderness, from its origins to Lommel’s working relationship with producer Fassbinder to the final film’s critical and commercial reception. “The Tender Wolf” (25 minutes) is the first of a trio of fresh retrospective interviews, this one bringing back director Lommel to discuss some of the topics he went into in greater detail on his commentary as well as a few revelations that weren’t brought up before. Lommel also appears in a 27-second optional introduction to the film.
“Photographing Fritz” (24 minutes) next focuses on cinematographer Jürges and his remembrances of working on Tenderness and creating the film’s distinctive visual style and texture in collaboration with Lommel and Fassbinder. Finally, “Haarmann’s Victim Talks” (16 minutes) sits down with actor Rainer Will and allows him to talk about the early days of his career, how he came to be cast in Tenderness, and his brief time on the production. Stephen Thrower, the author of Nightmare USA and Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci, holds court on Tenderness of the Wolves, the history of both the production and the crimes that inspired it, personal and professional backgrounds of the filmmakers, and much more in a 41-minute video appreciation. Commentary moderator Haber donated a series of German lobby cards and the film’s original press book and ratings and classification certificates that comprise the stills gallery on this Blu-ray. The disc-based extras close with the original theatrical trailer (3 minutes), presented in German with English subtitles.
Arrow has also included a DVD copy containing a standard-definition presentation of the film and the accompanying supplements, a collector’s booklet that features a new essay about Tenderness written by Tony Rayns, and reversible cover art with new art created by Twins of Evil on one side and the original poster art on the other.
A bitterly enjoyable true crime horror story fueled by sadness and insanity and soaked in Cognac and clouds of cigarette smoke. Tenderness of the Wolves remains to this day one of Ulli Lommel’s finest feature films and one of the most provocative and underrated entries in the international cinema of the 1970’s. Arrow Video’s excellent Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, with restored picture and sound guaranteed to please the senses and deliciously in-depth supplements, represents the best home video presentation of Lommel’s minor masterpiece to date and comes highly recommended if you’re looking for a more somber and downbeat horror film that you will have a very difficult time trying to shake.