Telling the true story of a sexually and emotionally troubled teenager preying on younger boys and killing four of them is a daunting challenge for the filmmaker: How can such difficult subjects as under-age sexual activity, brutal beatings and murders be presented in a way that doesn’t alienate the audience (in the repugnant manner of Irreversible), yet still capture the horror and circumstances in a believable manner?
The solution? Assign Kai Pieck to the task.
Pieck and his able cast (notably Tobias Schenke as inner-tortured, chain-smoking confessor) have come up with a captivating treatment which adeptly alternates between grainy black and white post-incident recollections of Jürgen Bartsch and full colour back story that is remarkable for its restrained candour.
The cantus firmus of the unfolding tragedy is the telling use of candles. The family tanenbuam of Christmas Eve in the late ‘50s is ablaze with burning ornaments—the only images of warmth in a truly silent-night meal where the lack of love amongst any of the parties including the young, only-child Jürgen, his clean-freak mother (Ulrike Bliefert who takes as much delight in beating her son with a hanger as she does washing his maturing body far beyond the age where such diligent personal bathing is appropriate) and frequently absent (emotionally and physically) father (Walter Gontermann, more comfortable in the tough love than in his forced bonding moments with Jürgen, following his inadvertent discovery of the adoption papers while stealing some cash from his “Dad”).
Sent to study at the religious boarding school, Marienhausen, Jürgen spends his waking hours lighting candles, and being slapped at will by the priests charged with his care. In this setting, surrounded by men and boys, Jürgen soon discovers his inner feelings for his colleagues, the repression of which will be his (and others’) downfall. “My soul never grew up,” he recalls “I wanted a lifetime of wearing short pants.”
Like Michael Jackson’s obsession with living in Never Never Land, Jürgen doesn’t want to lose his childhood – brilliantly demonstrated when, after his mother presents his father’s old shaving kit as a present on his 17th birthday, the bear-hating boy blows out the birthday cake flames in a rage and flings the unwelcome rite of passage away.
Soon, there’s another murder. The victims are befriended by Jürgen (some at the midway of the church fair) then coerced or forced into stripping off their clothes and letting themselves be touched. Most often there is resistance once the intent is clear, which only serves to trigger panic and incredible lust as Jürgen shoots, strangles or cuts them to ensure silence and his “hour-long orgasm.” In these brutish scenes, Pieck combines long shots, and off-camera “action” with just enough bare skin and actual violence to chill our hearts without driving us away with repugnance.
Many of these acts take place in a hidden cave where, bathed in wax-fuelled light, the commonality of Jürgen’s secret world with religious and family settings is reinforced – the difference being that, away from prying eyes of those such as Father Seidlizt (portrayed with convincing authority by Jürgen Christoph who invites a not entirely reluctant member of his flock into bed to comfort one fever while kindling another), Jürgen gives in to his emotional and physical desires and needs, no matter what the cost.
The film gives a balanced view of Jürgen as both victim and monster. His undoing is an older child, Dieter, who wouldn’t fight back, then not only accepts a kiss, actually returns it. Left bound and gagged in the soundproof chamber for delights to come while Jürgen runs home to appear “normal” at the family dinner table, Dieter effects his escape using the one flame that was left burning, letting him alight from certain death and extinguishing the uncontrollable fire within the incredibly manic “illegitimate son.”