Scarier than Monsters!
romancing murder in modernist art & modern cinema
Lustmord. Sexual Murder. 'Lust' = sexual. 'Mord' = murder
At the beginning of the century there were a handful of serial killers in Weimar arrested for heinous multiple murders. These acts also inspired a trend in modernist art during the 1919-1933 German Weimar Republic. Fritz Haarman, for example influenced Fritz Lang. Alfred Doblin and everyday citizens like Alfred Hrdlicka who proposed to have a statue of the notorious sexual serial killer placed in a town square to “provoke thought on enigmas of the nation”. Lustmord is Weimar’s secret legacy. While people do not seem to reflect on the reality of murder as an influence behind the art that symbolizes a culture, it is glorified -- art that celebrates the horrifically vicious sexually influenced murder of the indigent, thought more specifically women, and at times, even children.
Because they are so familiar, so evident, we are culturally blind to the ubiquity of representations of feminine death.
For decades images of the victims of Lustmord were suppressed in our investigation of what has come to be known as Weimar Culture - in part because of the disturbing content, in part because of their unsettling effect on our attempts to produce stabilizing definitions of modernist aesthetics by emphasizing manner over matter.
The artists did not sublimate the killers, they took their fascination with murder in general to canvas, page and screen with much public enthusiasm as a result of a - seemingly misdirected - passion and patriotism:
Oh country of opposites and extremes!" writes the narrator of Yvan Goll's Sodom Berlin as he reflects on Germany,
a place that brought forth the poet Freidrich Holderlin and the psychopath Fritz Haarman.
Holderlin opened his own veins one day to "water a rose tree" with human blood . Haarman drank the blood of blonde boy loves. He was executed in 1925 for committing nearly thirty murders in Hanover. His victims all died by a severe bite to the throat while they were sleeping. Haarman had disposed of their bodies by chopping them, and throwing them into the Leine River. Wilhelm Grossmann was known as the 'Bluebeard of the Silesian Railway', and was charged in 1921 with the murder and cannibalism of fourteen women. Denke was referred to as 'The Mass Murderer of Munsterburg'. During his brief stay in jail where he hung himself, he was known as 'Vater Denke'. Once a year, for thirty years, he had committed a murder in his home, and brought buckets of blood out to his courtyard where he would water the plants. He was caught after trying to kill a beggar that came to his door. The peasant contacted the police, and when they arrived the authorities found human bones, pickled body parts, fingers, human teeth and human skin suspenders. Last, Peter Kurten. It is believed that he influenced the character of Grenouille in Peter Suskind's 1985 novel, Parfum (Das Parfum: Die Geschichte eines Morders) which was a complete success on both sides of the Atlantic. Kurten was a married man and respected professional who secretly would go out with cosmetics on and viciously murder vagrant women and children; thirty five in all with the youngest being thirteen years old. He became known as 'das Ratsel Mensch', or in English: 'That Enigma Man'. Newspapers such as Berliner Tageblatt and Frankfurter Zeitung ran frequent articles on the killers. The public fear, ignited by Haarman, had almost been put to rest when the murders of Kurten began to be reported.
What, though, does any of this have to do with art? Modern art, loosely defined as experiments in style and philosophy, emerged between 1870-1970, often exploring concepts of liberal sentiment, emotion and hedonism. Considered acceptably erotic in Weimar, images of murder enchanted and enticed many masculine painters --- Otto Dix, George Grosz, Alfred Doblin, Fritz Lang.
At the time of the first draft of this essay, Hannibal had just been released in the United States. Directed by Ridley Scott, Hannibal is the third in a series of books written by Thomas Harris which began with Red Dragon. The book became the film Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann in the early 1980's. We are not shocked by that, even though many critics did comment on the amount of extreme gore in the new film as opposed to the second in the series, Silence of the Lambs. We accept in our own culture these heinous crimes as art because these films, along with, say, Kiss the Girls and Along Came the Spider do not just glorify murder, the theme is the race to catch the killer. As long as there is a moralistic goal to have good win over evil, the theme of sexually gratuitous murder is completely acceptable in mainstream culture. Practically everyone and their grandmother has seen Silence of the Lambs. Also in that category are 8MM directed by Joel Schumacher and somewhat in the surreal, In Dreams, directed by Neil Jordon (director of Interview with a Vampire, the film of the book by Anne Rice). They are all a form of psychodramatic thriller now categorized as, "Realist Horror", a genre many feel began with, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, and his mastery of depicting the "criminal sexual psychopath", in such films as Frenzy, and Psycho. Alfred Hitchcock as a child though, was inspired into the genre by filmmaker Fritz Lang. Most well known for his 1927 release of Metropolis, Fritz Lang began his cinema career in Weimar. His 1931 film M is a seductive and sinister tale of a pedophilia and murder. We can assume the position of being shocked by the debauch of Weimar, however if we look at our culture it seems that we, too, are fascinated by those willing to represent and explore the wicked ways of those who are criminally insane or morally bankrupt. We can feign shock and disdain, though it seems quite the vicarious thrill. Long before Eli Roth’s Hostel, or James Wan’s Saw series, Brian De Palma had been quoted as saying, "I don't particularly want to chop up women but it seems to work".
Now, back to Weimar! Erregung = the term most frequently recruited to describe an anxious population, it implies a highly emotional, raw, almost paranoid anxiety; it can also denote sexual arousal and stimulation. Ah - The perfect state to aspire towards when seducing a mass audience into a state of absolute, unadulterated terror.
The feminine body has come to be affiliated with the 'polluting world of biology, with the time bound individual,
with corrupting flesh, with putrescence of the corpse, with a bad death'.
In Otto Weininger's turn of the century German study entitled Sex & Character, the chief differences between the sexes is defined as, "greater absorption of the female in the sphere of sexual activities". Women, according to Weininger, are in fact fixated on the body, wholly devoted to sexual matters, to "the spheres of begetting and reproducing"; whereas men are free to pursue the matters of the spirit - “science, art, religion, philosophy". There is an ideological pressure to view women as fettered to the carnal and to see men as spiritual beings engaged in a noble struggle to free themselves of biologic needs.
Otto Dix: World War One veteran and painter. Dix became known for his post war artistic productions of post war artistic productions, mutilated female corpses, grotesque urban streetscapes and serene neo classical portraiture. He was "single mindedly devoted to working through primal fears aroused in combat situations, both military and sexual". One of his most famous paintings from 1922, entitled, Lustmord, a repeating theme of the time. His work evolved from mutilated women/prostitutes into savage medical landscapes as seen in the 1943 painting entitled Portrait of the Surgeon, Professor Dr. R. Andler, Singen, in the Operating Room. The doctor, who is so noble and regal in his countenance, is not even looking at the open belly on which he is operating - he is posing proud and masculine.
George Grosz: Painter. Distinguished art historian Kenneth Clark says of Grosz' feminine representations, " [All of the] bodies marked by tough surfaces, undisciplined excesses and crude irregularities". He also painted the ruling class and working class in their daily life (though it is noted even by his son that his depictions show them as ugly and vulgar as possible), Grosz became part of the eternal clique of Weimar's sexual murder culture. Like Dix, he has a painting entitled Lustmord which was created in 1912/13. Grosz became known for his depictions of women/prostitutes being murdered, and for his depictions of men in political bondage. The second image I've selected to include is another depiction of classic modernist Weimar style entitled Murder on Acker Street (1916). In the forefront a woman is dead on her bed, viciously bludgeoned with a meat hacker. In the background a fat man with the face of a shamed and confused child washes his hands of her blood. The third image is a bit different than the style of his feminine murder art. For the Fatherland - To the Slaughterhouse (1924) shows in firm and bold charcoal, men being forced off to war. A miniature Hitler sits in the lap of a general like a little doll as blindfolded men are forced to the fight. Grosz was described as being resistant to "representational practices that construct idealized images of female plentitude or perfection (that and his political parody of masculine roles) seem entirely consonant with his DaDaist irreverence towards artistic ideologies".
Alfred Doblin: Author of the well known Berlin Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf and numerous popular short stories. A short story of his entitled, The Murder of Buttercup caught my interest. I thought of Vater Denke watering his rose tree with the blood streaming from his own veins; a surreal and morbid , yet fascinating view, of behavior so deviant it seems more a horrific dream than a truth in reality; especially a celebrated reality!
Published in 1910, before the war, The Murder of Buttercup, is allegorically not at all about the murder of a person, but rather, an innocent flower. The protagonist in the tale, Mr. Michael Fisher, is a dull man with a dull life. One day while out walking with his cane he vents his frustration of being stuck in the rut of a gentleman on a flower he passes during his walk. He takes his walking stick and beheads the flower. As "white blood and yellow foam" flow from the stem of the now beheaded flower, it turns into a cadaver that must be removed from sight. Papers announced that a grown buttercup had been murdered on the path from Immental to St. Otilllie between seven and nine in the evening. "Neither a hardened criminal, nor a crazed psychotic, Mr. Fischer is the 'quintessential German businessman, punctilious in his outer habits, but benighted about his inner life'. Like Franz Biberkopf (protagonist in Berlin Alexanderplatz) he never reflects on the degree to which his violence is motivated by a profound need to punish women, to strike out at "nature", and to reveal secretly at the sight of its vulnerability his destructive force".
Ms. Tatar, expert on Weimar, notes that the connection between modernism and extreme sexual violence is not easy to explain or understand, but it is a reality of the works popular in the 1920s. It is also something we are, I believe, though in slightly different ways, experiencing in our own culture today.
Charles Bernheimer, author of Decadent Subjects: The Idea of Decadence in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Culture of the Fin de Siècle in Europe explains that the theme of prostitution "simultaneously activates fears of decomposition and decay and stimulates the creation of new artistic strategies, which display that very disintegration and proclaim their modernity". Though this is quite akin to the philosophy of George Bataille, still, as Ms. Tatar notes, it does not explain the conjunction of such extreme hostility towards women, who seem synonymous throughout the era with being of whoredom. Painting and literature paved the path for cinema, which brings us now Fritz Lang and his film of pedophilia and murder, M.
Because of the loathsome nature of the crime M dealt with, there was a problem of how to represent such a crime so that it would not sicken the audience, yet would have full emotional impact. That is why I only gave hints -- the rolling ball, the balloon that caught in the wires, after being released from a little hand. Thus I make the audience an integral part in the creation of this special scene by forcing each individual member of the audience to create the gruesome details of the murder according to his personal imagination.
It is known that Fritz Lang heavily influenced Sir. Alfred Hitchcock, but after reading about M, it seems he also was a pioneer influence for such groundbreaking moments in cinema such as J. Lee Thomson's, 1962, Cape Fear, released in England with much observation and involvement of the English censor board, and also Stanley Kubrick's, Lolita, released that same year.
Cape Fear is the controversial story of a small town attorney and the ex.convict he sent to jail. Once released the convict returns to haunt the life of the attorney. The ominous threat he ensues by watching the lawyers young child in a manner that evades the due process of the law. The film was designed to have audiences imagine the worst by not showing or verbalizing direct assault, but by alluding to the fact that the young child was to be the target of the ex.convicts revenge.
Lolita portrays the love obsession that a middle aged man holds for a twelve year old girl. In Weimar, the love obsession in Lolita also had a specific name; similar to 'Lustmord' (sexual murder), 'Liebstod' (love-death) is defined as "the assertion of transcendent desire and the spiritualization of egos", or by love that is a death, a depletion in actuality, of the soul or spirit.
At the time M was being contemplated, the newspapers were running continuous articles on the murderers Haarman, Grossmann, Kurten and Denke, forcing to the attention of Fritz Lang the question as to what led these people to commit such acts, and the same question is probably what appealed to audiences when they paid to see the film. Though it added to the thought put into the film, the film was actually inspired by a conversation Lang and his wife Thea Von Harbou had one evening. They were casually discussing what the most horrible crime to do could be in order to make the plot thick for an interesting film. Ideas were passed back and forth, and they mutually decided on anonymous poisoned letters. They began to collaborate on a film with that theme when Lang thought of the murder of a child, and decided that was the most horrible crime possible. The thought of "a man forced by some urge, by some perverted urge... a sick man ... to kill!" So began the tale of a child murderer whose identity is revealed from the beginning of the film, whose deeds are known by the audience. What is not known is what will happen to the children he meets, to him if / when he is caught, to the families if / when they find out what has happened to their lost children - the origin, maybe, of films such as Silence of the Lambs or 8MM.
Although Lang harped repeatedly on M as a film with a social message (mandatory in most film communities is a politically correct message to confirm that activities such as rape, abduction and murder are not condoned by the authorities, nor society) about the importance of taking good care of children and as a film that stages a debate about the death penalty, he made one particularly telling off-hand observation about just what fascinated him about the serial murders of the 1920s. In following various cases in the newspapers, Lang was struck by the way in which the unsolved murders seemed almost automatically to foster what he described as a psychosis of fear ( Angstpsyhose) -- for him, a revolting mentality that mingled misanthropy with overzealousness to produce the kind of behavior that led to the denunciation of neighbors and other associates (creating a mob mentality)."
It is as though the public yearns for an excuse to release hostility and hatred towards an acceptable icon which can only be found possible in situations such as serial killings. When Elsie Beckmann, the little girl victimized in M, is murdered, the public all turns on each other, and finds scapegoats in those that are "different" or simply disliked in day to day life, yet the killer is as much beyond all of them, as he is directly in front of them.
One of the conflicts that Ms. Tatar has with the film is how, with the above mentioned in mind, by the end of the film the audience is manipulated into feeling sorry for the murderer, Mr. Beckert played by Peter Lorre. He is, we are led to believe, as much a victim of his "pain" and his "urges", as his victims are to his torment. It is an perfect example of how the subtle differences in the portrayal of heinous crime in cinema stand slightly apart between the beginning of the genre and now.
Despite whatever shock may be exhibited in studies of sex and murder in art and culture, we as a civilized, modern society are still fascinated by that we dare not ourselves do. There is something about that primordial taboo that cannot be denied. Audiences can't seem to get enough of that which they are not supposed to have at all. In the American mainstream we see it this very day from the Hannibal trilogy, or independent features such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, through gore-porn sensations Hostel, Saw, Turistas, and Captivity. We yearn for insight and enlightenment into those secret sins from which there is truly no return.
Since the turn of the millenium in global cinema, torture and murder with a deviant sexual charge have become a hot mess topic, leaving America and even the UK in an almost adolescent stage of the psycho-dramatic thriller. From the Korean torture action dramas of Park Chan-wook with his Vengeance Trilogy, to the more recent Srpski film (Serbian Film) by Srdjan Spasojevic the world is viewing content without the same stigma as when Pier Paolo Pasolini released, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, his 1975 version of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. When a film is banned, it only becomes more popular in the global arena.
Erregung for Lustmord and Leibstod are as much in controversial demand today as the day the terms were first coined back in Weimar! Perhaps because these are intrinsic elements of the essence of human nature that go back to concepts of Original Sin and the Garden of Eden. Regardless of why psychosexual shock cinema thrives on that which scares us all worse than monsters - real life horror that could be waiting around any corner on any given day!
This piece originally was written as part of my Goddard College IBA packet work.
It first appeared in CineMuerte magazine/film festival, Vancouver. B.C. & Necronomicon 5: The Journal of Horror & Erotic Cinema, UK
Dialog inspired by
LUSTMORD: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany by Maria Tatar.
Small print areas are quotes from her lecture.