"I am happy to give my death and my blood for atonement into God's arms and justice". The words of Fritz Haarmann, also known as the Vampire of Hanover.

Prior to relocating to America and making cult indie horror films in the 1980s such as THE BOOGEY MAN and the underrated THE DEVONSVILLE TERROR, German filmmaker Ulli Lommel made a string of low-key movies in his homeland, under the tutelage of master director Rainer Werner Fassbinder (THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT; QUERELLE etc).

By far the best of Lommel's film from this early part of his career - and indeed the best film he's ever had his name attached to - is this extraordinary, Fassinder-esque masterpiece from 1973. In it, Kurt Raab - who also wrote the screenplay - portrays real-life murderer Fritz Haarmann.

Between the years of 1918 and 1924, the Hanover-based butcher killed several boys and young men, earning his "vampire" nickname due to a penchant for biting into their throats as a method of killing them. He was captured and put to death in 1925.

Here, Raab portrays the grinning, slimy Haarmann - a sinister figure who nevertheless gets by unnoticed due to his position as a butcher of local repute: his neighbours are keen to stay on his good side, even to the extent of ignoring the chopping sounds coming from his apartment on a night, in the hope of acquiring slabs of prime meat from him at reduced prices. Just don't ask where that meat comes from...

When the remains of a vagrant finally point police in Haarmann's direction, they turn up at his apartment to find him sleeping next to a naked boy. Ushered to the local police station, Haarmann's criminal record is read back to him - violence, rape, seduction of minors etc - before an offer is put to him: escape prison by becoming a spy for the police.

Initially reluctant to become a "snitch", Haarmann is quick to realise the perks of being dubbed a "government inspector". Not only does it entitle him to freedom, but also affords him the excuse to approach, challenge and - where necessary - apprehend young men on the streets ...

As the gay seductions and vampiric murders continue, Haarmann's neighbours remain willingly oblivious to his actions - so long as they're kept well-stocked with cheap meat.

With the body count rising, however, how long can the community - and the police - continue to turn a blind eye?

Utilising many of Fassbinder's regular actors (including the great filmmaker himself in a cameo role), Lommel is served well by convincing, understated and natural performances throughout his film. Complementing the naturalistic cast, the filmmaker's direction is supremely focused and assured. Lommel's pace is leisurely, allowing quieter scenes to find their impact through passages of insidiously creepy subtlety; the infrequent moments of cruelty are presented in a matter-of-fact manner which makes them all the more horrific.

A dark strain of humour runs throughout, from the wry grin on Raab's visage to the cheeky nods towards Fritz Lang's similarly themed M (Haarmann's encounter with a girl and her ball; his shadowed figure echoing that of Peter Lorre's beneath the atmospheric opening titles sequence). Looking deeper, there's rich political subtext involved here too: the action has been relocated from the early 1920s to just after the Second World War, where the concept of a community who can turn a blind eye to evil as long as they're getting what they need from that source, hits home with a heavy allegorical punch.

Visually arresting in almost every scene, this stylish and arty period drama is literally unlike anything else Lommel has directed. In fact, such is its finesse and control - even down to the smart use of scant, but shocking, gore - that many have claimed over the years that Fassbinder was the film's unofficial director.

More on that later. But for now, the fact remains that TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES is as beautiful as it is disturbing, as haunting as it is gripping. It would make a good double-bill with IN A GLASS CAGE due to its unflinching and serious take on homosexual child murders - not to mention full-frontal male nudity which still feels shocking to this day - and superior production values.

It is, in short, a classic. A true horror film.

Arrow Films Video give TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES its worldwide HD debut courtesy of dual format blu-ray and DVD combo releases in both America and the UK. We were sent a copy of the blu-ray to review.

The film is presented fully uncensored as an MPEG4-AVC file, in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio (16x9 enhanced) and benefitting from full 1080p HD resolution.

When compared against the old Anchor Bay US DVD from several years back, the upgrade in quality is quite startling. This new 2k restoration brings out the colours and the filmic depth of each carefully composed scene like never before. Detail is far more pronounced, viewers can now clearly make out what's occurring during darker scenes, and colours are strong in a way I hadn't previously thought possible. A light layer of natural grain is present throughout; I never thought we'd see TENDERNESS looking this good.

German audio is provided in a clean, clear and consistent 2.0 mono soundtrack. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easily readable at all times.

The disc's animated main menu includes access to a pop-up scene selection allowing consumers to negotiate the film by way of 12 chapters.

Bonus features begin with an optional English language introduction to the film from its director, which is 27 seconds in length.

There follows an engrossing, fact-filled audio commentary track from Lommel. Uwe Huber moderates this newly recorded track and does a great job of coaxing fascinating titbits of trivia from Lommel, as well keeping the flow fluent and engaging. Huber has an easy job if anything, because from the off Lommel is keen to talk through every aspect of the film - Fassbinder's influence as a producer, the visual style, the nods to M, the acting, the real-life inspiration, working on troubling matter with minors, Raab's reluctance to shave his head for the role etc. More than anything else, this should once and for all dispel any speculation that Fassbinder actually directed the film but credited it to his underling due to its controversial theme and content: this is clearly Lommel's film.

We also get a new (July 2015) 25-minute interview with Lommel, conducted in a German cafe but with the director speaking fluent English - as he does in the above commentary. Once again he's engaging, unafraid to throw in the occasional F-bomb when describing volatile situations and graced with a good memory for his early days and time spent on the film. Intercut with clips from the main feature, this is a fun featurette: Lommel seems at ease too, unlike that interview which featured on the German blu-ray release of THE BOOGEY MAN, where he looked like a rabbit caught in headlights. Again, Huber takes the credit for this excellent feature.

"An Appreciation by Stephen Thrower" does precisely what it says on the tin. The esteemed film author hosts a thoroughly involving 41-minute appraisal of the film, taking in a brief summation of Lommel's early career (including the director's brief stint working with Andy Warhol) and, naturally, the true crimes that the films is based upon. Thrower is not only well-researched, of course, but clearly a passionate fan of the film too: this makes for a winning featurette, packed with intricate details. It looks good in HD, too.

Actor Rainer Will is afforded 16 minutes to take us through the fascinating time he spent working on the film as a 17-year-old, in the Huber-produced "Love Bitten". Will speaks of the humour on set while filming his most difficult scene, the intricacies of applying make-up to a young lad's nether regions, Raab's insistence that he was no real actor, and so on. Best of all is when Will reacts to watching key scenes from the film, during the final moments of this most enjoyable addition.

Busy bee Huber also provides a 24-minute interview with cinematographer Jurgen Jurges. He tells of how Lommel introduced him to the project, where and how it was shot and some of the practical issues that he faced during the shoot. His observations on the sometimes volatile relationship between Raab and Fassbinder is interesting, as are his recollections of the financial penalties cast and crew members would incur from the producer if he didn't feel they were pulling their weight. Great stuff.

A gallery of 23 stills - also provided by Huber, from his private collection! - follows. From lobby cards and German press book covers to the official German rating certificate, this is a treasure trove for fans.

The film's original 3-minute German theatrical trailer is also in great shape, presented here in HD (as are all the extras). It's in German with optional English subtitles and does a good job of conveying the film's perfect marriage of arthouse and horror principles.

Easter Egg hunters will have fun searching for a 54-second hidden extra, in which Lommel sings along to the song about Haarmann which features in the film.

This release also comes with double-sided reversible cover art and a collectable booklet, neither of which were available for review purposes.

TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES remains a challenging, grim and - above all - powerful art-horror film, one of the most elegant and yet perverse. It's a must-see in my book, and Arrow's blu-ray is the perfect way by which to see it.

Highly recommended on every level.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Arrow Video
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review