“Der Goldene Handschuh” by Heinz Strunk/Upcoming Adaptation by Fatih Akin: A quick essay on ableism

A friend of mine lives near Zeißstraße, which is infamous for being the street that housed Fritz Honka, a serial killer who committed his crimes in Hamburg back in the early 1970s. Honka had a disfigurement and was an alcoholic. He killed four prostitutes and hid their remains in the walls of his apartment. The murders were only discovered because there was a fire in the building years later.

Honka’s story has been adapted and referenced frequently in German music, literature and theatre productions over the years, most recently in an extremely commendable novel by Heinz Strunk (if you speak German, I would highly recommend the audio book).

About a week ago, my friend and his roommate had the chance to witness Fatih Akin and his crew shoot part of the movie on set in Hamburg-Altona/Ottensen. I really like Akin’s movies, especially Gegen die Wand, so on the whole, I’m looking forward to his new project. But my friend told me that Honka, who at the time the first murder took place was 35, would be played by 22-year-old actor wearing a mask. This in itself is fairly problematic in my opinion, because disfigured as well as disabled characters tend to be played almost exclusively by non-disfigured and able-bodied actors. In this particular case, one might argue that Honka, a serial killer, isn’t exactly good representation, and that having a disfigured actor play the part would be counterproductive as long as there is no positive representation of disfigured characters played by disfigured actors to speak of.

However, my friend overheard an interview with Akin, in which, according to what they recall, the director stated that he “wanted Honka’s humanity to shine through” and therefore “chose the actor that he did”. This makes it seem as if Honka’s disfigurement was somehow related to his despicable deeds. Akin also allegedly said that he wanted Honka to be portrayed as “repulsive, yet somehow attractive.”

Catering towards society’s obsession with youth and physical appearance seems wildly out of place in a movie about Honka, a hallmark of depravity, who was rotting from the inside while human beings were rotting in his walls.

It’s not the first time that humanizing serial killers on screen has been linked to casting actors and actresses who embody conventional standards of attractiveness to depict real-life people with disfigurements or conventionally less attractive features (Charlize Theron, anyone?).

It might be high time to thoroughly rethink the film industry’s approach to this subject. Facial disfigurement is not a sign of evil, and physical beauty is not symptomatic of heroism. In a way, acknowledging Honka’s disfigurement might actually be the key to understanding how society shaped and fostered a depravity within him, a depravity which, I would argue, exists in all of us, even though most of us would never act on it.