Volker Schlöndorff’s 1979 adaptation of Günter Grass’s 1959 novel The Tin Drum remains even by contemporary standards one of the most harrowing German films about World War II ever made. Unquestioningly, a great deal of this intensity hinges stems from its particular deployment of sex and violence. From Fritz Lang’s iconic M (1931) to Éric Rohmer’s The Marquise of O (Die Marquise von O, 1976), sexual violence has long been present in German cinema. But it is arguably The Tin Drum which remains today one of the most widely recognised examples associated with New German Cinema. According to Aristides Gazetas, this movement was marked by a collective interest in “the political and social situation arising from the postwar American Occupation”, and these films were generally “preoccupied with questions of sexual identity, paranoia and disillusionment within a radical left-wing political framework”.1 In regard to sexual violence in particular, its place in German cinema’s vision of the war would become explicit during this period in films such as Helma Sanders-Brahm’s Germany, Pale Mother (Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter, 1979), a movie that follows a woman’s postwar experiences (including her gang rape by soldiers).
Schlöndorff’s second feature film Mord und Totschlag is a curious film to consider from this perspective, particularly in regards to its central narrative intersection of rape and revenge. While broadly associated with American exploitation cinema of the 1970s and 1980s with films including I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978), Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972), Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) and Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981), the European arthouse ancestry of the trope of course can be traced at least back to Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan, 1960).2
As the follow up to his acclaimed debut Young Törless (Der junge Törless, 1966), A Degree of Murder failed to attain the same critical and commercial acclaim of its predecessor, despite featuring a now-lost soundtrack by Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, and hailed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as one of the ten best movies of the New German Cinema.3 Sharing a focus on wandering urban hipsters with Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Mord und Totschlag has a loose narrative structure that perfectly captures its zeitgeist. Marie (Anita Pallenberg) is a young waitress who at the beginning of the film has an argument in her apartment with her intoxicated ex-boyfriend Hans (Werner Enke), whom she shoots after he assaults and attempts to rape her. Panicked, traumatised and disoriented, she befriends Gunther (Hans Peter Hallwachs) at the café where she works and confesses her crime to him, imploring him for help and offering him money to do so. Egged on by the promise of financial reward, he agrees and at her apartment they hatch their plan as they drink coffee and have sex. Borrowing a car from the garage where he works, Gunther and Marie wrap Hans’s corpse in a rug and with Gunther’s friend Fritz (Manfred Fischbeck) – with whom Marie also becomes sexually involved – they drive to the country and dump the body at an autobahn construction site. Returning to the city after visiting Fritz’s mother, time passes and Marie is once again working happily in the café. The film’s final moments reveal the discovery of Hans’s body by autobahn construction workers.
Mord und Totschlag ebbs and flows across a series of barely-connected vignettes, and the bulk of the film’s action meanders around its characters hanging out in pinball arcades, shopping, chatting, arguing and driving. Mord und Totschlag contains elements of both the road movie and black comedy that intersect with its core rape-revenge narrative, constructed as it is around Marie’s murder of the man who tried to rape her. Hans-Berhnard Moeller and George Lellis have shrewdly granted it the “antithriller” label as it “operates with topoi of the crime film but shows ambivalence about following the rules of the genre too closely”.4 This is clear from the outset, where Marie, Gunther and Fritz are shown playfully chasing each other with a gun near the autobahn construction site as the opening credits roll. It is in its status as an “antithriller” that Moeller and Lellis identify the film as an ancestor of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) which shares its postmodern, pop-culture influenced approach to quotation and style.5
Yet by also drawing parallels between Mord und Totschlag and Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991),6 Moeller and Lellis inadvertently also identify its inescapable connection to rape-revenge cinema. Along with The Tin Drum, Schlöndorff’s 1990 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) continue to illustrate a fascination across his filmography with the power dynamics of sex, power and gender difference, the roots of which are certainly at the core of Mord und Totschlag also. From one perspective, with its light-hearted, wandering tone, the brutal assault and attempted rape at the film’s beginning could erroneously be dismissed as an exploitative but mechanically functional plot device employed merely to propel the narrative. But this misses something vital about the film’s quiet, disturbing energy and the unspoken power of Marie’s brief yet consistent subjective flashbacks to the opening scene that punctuate the film at seemingly random moments throughout. While she does not go to great lengths to verbally articulate her trauma, memories of what happened to her come from out of nowhere: this trauma is always with her, be she travelling in a car, goofing off, playing fußball.
The impact of this deeper, long-term trauma is rendered most explicit when she returns to her apartment after burying Hans’s body. Seeing his photograph next to her bed, she begins to scream hysterically in a tonal spike that is notably out of whack with the action immediately surrounding it. It may be a stretch to identify A Degree of Murder as a neat, direct parable of postwar German guilt, but there is regardless something both powerful and poignant about Marie’s inability (and by helping her dispose of the body, Fritz and Gunther’s also) to deal with the reality of their situation. As they cling desperately to a performance of carefree urban youth, they are weighed down – both ethically, emotionally and psychologically – by the overwhelming seriousness of their circumstances.
- Aristides Gazetas, An Introduction to World Cinema (Jefferson: McFarland & Company Inc., 2008): p. 275 ↩
- Of which Craven’s Last House on the Left famously reimagines. I have written extensively about rape-revenge film in my 2011 monograph Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (Jefferson: McFarland and Co.) and – more recently – Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017). ↩
- Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis, Volker Schlondorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics, and the “Movie-Appropriate” (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002): p. 46. ↩
- Ibid., 43. ↩
- Ibid., 46. ↩
- Ibid., 42. ↩