Ulli Lommel has said that his cinema, like his psyche, is caught in the tourniquet between past and future: a formulation that seems to leave no place for the present, even though these films are filled with our collective present, which they absorb and transform into strange hypotheses. The past is postwar Germany and Fassbinder, who produced Lommel's early feature Tenderness of the Wolves. Kurt Raab plays Fritz Haarman, the Butcher of Hanover (whose murders of young boys were one of the inspirations for the serial killer character hauntingly played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's M), in an indelibly powerful film that explores the relations between a mass murderer and the society of Germany between two wars, where Haarman was able to kill with impunity because he was a police informer and because, the film suggests, his neighbors turned a blind eye to his activities for economic reasons.
The future toward which Lommel was moving was America, where he has been making films since the late 70s — mostly modern-day B movies that he was right to make, French critic Serge Daney once wrote, "with pleasure and without taking them too seriously," because "it is often in little films that the American cinema is best able to introduce big metaphysical subjects." But whereas Hollywood for Fassbinder was embodied by the émigré filmmaker Douglas Sirk, Lommel is a passionate admirer of another émigré, Alfred Hitchcock, for his ability to give ideas concrete form through all the arts of mise en scene. (Lommel, who worked with Michael Ballhaus as an actor and a director, always operates the camera on his films, which enables him to control those elements even on short schedules and tight budgets.) Hitchcock would have been tickled by the ironies of Tenderness of the Wolves, since his first masterpiece, The Lodger, was inspired by a novel about a couple struggling to make ends meet who can't tell the police that their star boarder may be Jack the Ripper because they need the rent money.
Daney was writing about one of Lommel's first American features, The Boogeyman, and his reactions are divided in an interesting way. He is captivated by the idea of "a mirror that…conserves the trace of what it has seen, [and] the idea of someone not really dead who has passed 'to the other side of the mirror.'" But he adds: "Lommel is very good when it comes to creating the characters and the setting, the whole aspect of 'daily life on a Virginia farm,'" and less so "when it is time to film Evil, of which he has a purely cinephilic conception, not sulfurous enough for my taste." One can disagree with the idea that the deaths caused by the fragments of the mirror should not be funny as well as horrifying — the success of the Final Destination films, and indeed of The Boogeyman, a sleeper hit, belies that — without discarding the comment that the film's conception of Evil is cinephilic. How could it be otherwise? It would be difficult to imagine a more cinephilic subject than a mirror containing an evil specter, which, once it is broken, "becomes a cruel, deadly and phallic mirror whose smallest fragment, glowing from the effect of anger, springs into action like a war machine." A Hitchcockian subject, directed with flare and humor learned from the filmmaker for whom Psycho, the model for all modern serial killer cinema, was "a comedy" — like Lommel's light-hearted contribution to the current vogue for the living dead, Zombie Nation. ("What do we eat?" asks one of the zombie girls, who have devoured the psycho cop who killed them and have become cops themselves. "What everyone else eats," says the voodoo priestess who reanimated them: "Cheetos.")
But the spell of Hitchcock — of cinephilia, to use Daney's affectionate term — was still strong, and Lommel's cinema, in a movement we will learn to recognize, struggled with its influence by going backward in order to go forward. Going backward: Lommel decided to make a sequel to The Boogeyman that is like something Raul Ruiz might have done — re-using a considerable amount of footage from The Boogeyman, he shot additional scenes to give the story of the first film a new meaning by creating a context that could not have been inferred from the events recounted in it. Going forward: while scouting locations for the sequel in Arizona, he discovered a replica of London Bridge and decided to make, before Boogeyman II, an homage to Vertigo called Olivia, in which a young woman who witnessed her mother's murder as a child undergoes a second trauma when her lover throws her abusive husband off London Bridge. She resurfaces four years later with a new personality in Arizona, living near the replica of the bridge, where the lover finally tracks her down…followed by the husband she thought was dead. In the childhood sequence at the beginning of the film the mother, a prostitute, is asked by a charmingly bashful client to tie him up and tease him sexually, with the injunction that no matter what he says she is not to untie him. When she does anyway, he goes mad, bashes her brains in and screams: "I told you not to untie me!" It is in this scene, the most shocking and frightening in all of Lommel's cinema, that a future series of films began to take shape that would circle obsessively around the themes of childhood, the primal scene, madness and the unfathomable violence of men against women.
The past: at a retrospective of his films in Germany Lommel met a new generation of film lovers who adored Tenderness of the Wolves, a very controversial film at the time of its release, which they saw as a political statement. And back in Hollywood he learned that Sony wanted to remake The Boogeyman. Making it a condition of the deal that they re-release the original, he was discovered by Hollywood and courted by Lionsgate,
a young company that urged him to make films about serial killers for them. The future: Ulli Lommel's Zodiac Killer launched the new cycle of films in 2003.
The most complex and for me still the best of Lommel's Lionsgate films, Ulli Lommel's Zodiac Killer reuses footage from Tenderness of the Wolves, The Boogeyman, Lommel's Andy Warhol film Cocaine Cowboys and at least two thrillers he made in the 80s: Brainwaves and The Devonsville Terror. This recycling strategy would continue in the films to come. Without trying to be exhaustive: Killer Pickton revisits Tenderness of the Wolves with a tale of free enterprise run wild based on another true story, about a Canadian pig farmer who sold his victims to his neighbors as meat, just as Haarman had done in the 20s; Curse of the Zodiac and BTK Killer hark back to Brainwaves with stories about women who sees visions of murder that turn out to be true; Dungeon Girl reuses footage from The Devonsville Terror to illustrate its protagonist's crippling fear that all women are witches
(a misogynistic delusion rooted in religion, which the earlier film had explored against a historical backdrop); Angel of Death makes footage from Brainwaves the primal scene of a deranged (and strangely funny) male nurse who turns himself into an "angel of death" to liberate his crippled female patients from their "prisons" (after raping them in a futile attempt to liberate himself from his own prison of fear and rage); while The Raven, the most baroque film in the cycle after Zodiac Killer, reuses footage from Olivia, perhaps to complete the exorcism of Hitchcock (symbolized by the saving power of poetry embodied in Poe, Hitchcock's favorite writer), if such influences can ever be finally exorcised.
Repetition is the mark of an auteur in cinema, but for Lommel it becomes a structuring principle as it was for Stanley Kubrick. (Joe Dante, a filmmaker whose art has always given a central place to montage as a tool for "recycling" as "re-inventing," told me that he's a fan of Boogeyman II.) In Lommel's case re-using fragments of his own work has become the foundation for an esthetic of repetition that goes to the heart of the phenomenon of serial murder, which is also embodied in these films by what Gilles Deleuze calls "serial form": images, colors, locations, actions, words and all the other elements of each film are broken up into abstract series to be manipulated by montage, as in music. (The intercutting of pig farming and serial killing of prostitutes in Killer Pickton recalls the systematic perversion of Pasolini's Porcile: eating people and having sex with pigs.) Each murder repeats a previous murder, which repeats a primal scene, and repetition becomes a prison for the murderer. The exemplary film in this respect is Mummy Maniac, in which three cramped settings — a kitchen that represents "home," the back of a van and a narrow green room — frame repetitive sequences where the murderer, dressed as a cop, commits horrific crimes that play grisly variations inside a rigid schema (interrogate, intimidate, wrap, kill) under the impassive gaze of his mother in a mirror, shown approximately 150 times in the course of his killing "spree." "I'm getting bored," growls The Zodiac in Curse of the Zodiac. "What can I do next?" But the curse is his, and it will never be lifted.
Going back for a moment to the Big Bang of the cycle, Ulli Lommel's Zodiac Killer tells one of the most beautiful and original stories in all of serial killer cinema, which is not noted for either quality: a drama of murderous filiation spanning three generations, mediated by the memory of the mysterious Zodiac who preyed on San Franciscans in the 1970s. The film takes place in Los Angeles today. A young boy is imitating the murders of The Zodiac, who was never caught. The real Zodiac (played by Lommel) — believed by all to be an expert on the Zodiac murders — locates and befriends the copycat, and eventually kills him. The Zodiac turns out to be a member of a secret society straight out of a silent film by Louis Feuillade: thirteen black-hooded assassins, meeting in the basement of a church and bent on purging society of undesirables, who are known to each other only by their astrological signs. In his researcher guise The Zodiac torments, interrogates and finally kills the son of Fritz Haarman, who is shown in scenes from Tenderness of the Wolves printed in black and white. And at the end he forcibly inducts a fellow researcher who is obsessed by his crimes into the secret society, obliging him to take up the assassin's trade in turn. This webwork of geneaologies describes a piece of the deep structure of serial killer fiction and fact: Fritz Haarman, after all, had clippings about the crimes of Jack the Ripper in his pocket when he was arrested.
One of many details that make this such a rich film: the obsessed researcher shows The Zodiac photos of his victims that are horrendous beyond description but have nothing to do with the real-life Zodiac crimes. One half expects to see photos of murdered concentration camp inmates or napalmed Vietnamese children folded into the series: violence is a plague that can't be psychologically quarantined by obsessing on the deeds of serial killers. Remembering the Nazi past in the shadow of which he grew up, Lommel gives the copycat Zodiac an idealistic motive: he loves old people and kills selfish people who turn their backs on their aged relatives. Lommel's BTK KillerSon of Sam hears voices telling him to kill, like killers throughout history (George W. Bush says he decided to launch a war that destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives after talking it over with God), while the copycat Zodiac's dream is to join the Navy and fly jets that rain death from the sky, so that he will be killing with a purpose and in the name of an ideal. And Billy Pickton is a vegetarian, like Hitler. The scenes where he tranquilly munches on a carrot while his brother and sister are devouring his "special sausages" have a black humor that recalls Hitchcock's famous tv episode "Specialty of the House."
All the themes of the films to come are stated succinctly in Ulli Lommel's Zodiac Killer, including the raison d'etre of this seemingly inexhaustible series of imaginative portraits, as varied as snowflakes, of modern society's favorite monsters, which is ironically put in the mouth of the obsessed researcher: we mustn't make the serial killer the Other, because we have the seeds of the evil he embodies in our own hearts. Is Lommel as The Zodiac (nodding sagely at this advice, while remembering crimes past and contemplating crimes to come) confessing that his point of view as a filmmaker is no different from that of this obsessed researcher, or the obsessed police detective whom the copycat "liberates" by shooting him while he's watching The Boogeyman on tv, or does the filmmaker have another card up his sleeve? And what is the context for these films' impeccably Brechtian political messages? — the parodies of the Abu Ghraib torture photos in Ulli Lommel's Black Dahlia (musical numbers performed with body parts, because Lommel was struck by the "let's put on a show" spirit of the photos), or the list of terrorists the copycat Zodiac is prepared to target if he's turned down by the Navy, which is a list any one of us might have drawn up — murderous pharmaceutical manufacturers and tobacco peddlers, for example. But the fact that Hitler, or Billy Pickton, was a vegetarian doesn't mean that vegetarianism is a vice.
I would put it this way, borrowing again from Serge Daney, who once observed that any Fassbinder film (Fox and his Friends, for example) can be read on two levels, as a Marxist allegory and as a call for gay liberation — although that formulation now strikes me as a little narrow. I think that Ulli Lommel's serial killer films are political films because his monsters do hold up a mirror to society. But the films are also engaged on another level, where the acts of the Other become a way of coming to terms with our own most hidden urges. The two films where that exploration is carried furthest happen to center on female protagonists: the poignant Dungeon Girl, in which a teenager held prisoner for six years by a kidnapper falls in love with her captor, who can't overcome his religious conditioning and allow himself to touch her; and the astonishing Diary of a Cannibal, about a young woman who kills and literally eats her lover to become one with him. Even Billy Pickton is finally touched by one of his potential victims, who reads Poe's poetry to him and tries to understand him — so touched that he can't destroy her body, which results in his capture by the authorities. The ways of love in these films are torturous as they so often are in real life. (Lommel says he recalled the sense of power he felt as a teenage Casanova while creating the amazingly real sequences where Gary Ridgway toys with his victims in Green River Killer.) That's why they compulsively circle back to the theme of the hated mother (or the too loving mother, who conditions the young man in Diary of a Cannibal to want to be literally devoured), for they all begin with that need. As German critic Frank Arnold says: "Lommel's villains have one thing in common: 'I only want you to love me'" (which is also the title of a Fassbinder film). That's why the movement of the films is always the same: back into the past where love went wrong, into the future, where it can still go right. The copycat in Ulli Lommel's Zodiac Killer is doomed, but the heroine of The Raven, a companion piece to that seminal film, is saved by the tutelary figure of Poe, a master of horror whom even Hitchcock never equaled, and the darkest poet of love. is a believer in animal rights who uses animals to torture his victims, unlike the real BTK, who is shown in interrogation videos with no concern for the conventions of docudrama. (Carrying poetic license further, the two contradictory images of BTK are mirrored by two kinds of torture sequences — talky scenes where the movie BTK deploys rats and spiders to terrify his victims alternate with silent montages that shockingly evoke the actual crimes.) Lommel's
Bill Krohn is a regular contributor to The Economist and Cahiers du Cinema and has written biographies about Stanley Kubrick, Luis Bunuel and Alfred Hitchcock.