Reading Andrea Maria Schenkel's ICE COLD (you can read my review here) reminded me of a piece I'd written in 1996, for the magazine Headpress, on Maria Tatar's study of sex murders in Weimar Germany, LUSTMORD. What follows has been rewritten and expanded considerably, not only in light of Schenkel's book, but also any number of ideas about film noir, Jack the Ripper, and serial killers I've developed since writing the original...
Weimar Germany is seen today as being to serial killers what the Italian Renaissance was to poisoners, an early golden age. The question of what it was about the conditions of Germany in the 1920s that made it such a fertile breeding ground for serial killing is particularly fascinating today, when we are confronted with what is, at very least in its presentation in media, a modern epidemic of similar crimes. I mention media presentation deliberately, because, in Lustmord, Maria Tatar is more concerned with the artistic representation of sexual murder than with the murders themselves. But by thus narrowing her focus, and by being willing to confuse sometimes the art with the act, she winds up dodging the chance to analyse the question in more detail.
Professor Tatar’s thesis is that German men, already disempowered by the loss of the Great War, felt even more threatened by the growing emancipation of women, and thus sexualized murder, turning it into a crime specifically against women as a manifestation of revenge against them for luring men into their seductive evil clutches. But trying to explain serial killing as a reaction to Louise Brooks was more than even GW Pabst attempted, and is both simplistic and misguided; it's applying the mores of late 20th century feminism to a phenomenon particularly rooted in its own time and place. Brooks' Lulu is punished for her wanton destructiveness as a femme fatale, not just her sexual precociousness (she's not merely the equivalent of a baby-sitter in a contemprary horror film). Lulu's path to the Ripper figure who kills her is inevitable, and he exacts not revenge as much as punishment for her self-confidence. This would seem to fit Tatar's thesis very closely, except of course the Ripper is a figure of Victorian England, and Lulu originally one of Wedekin's fin de siecle plays. Had Pabst made the story itself new, you could argue this didn't matter, but he plays upon the same tropes in 1920s Germany as were played in turn of the century Vienna and indeed Victorian England. This makes it necessary to present more evidence that serial killing was more than an expression of sexual revenge, and that this revenge was indeed a reaction to some particular greater threat specifically by Weimar men.
Prof. Tatar's wider interpretation is close to Ann Douglas', in The Feminisation of American Culture and Mongrel Manhattan, both of which interpret the modern movement in art as a male attempt to destroy feminine culture. In fact, Douglas portrays the Great War as a fit of testosterone madness, European males seeking revenge against their Victorian mothers. Although it is a jump from world war as vengeance against Victorian mothers to serial killing as revenge against newly-empowered women, there is an element of truth in both perspectives. The Great War did engender a symbolic loss of masculinity, particularly in art; Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises is impotent, after all, and Hemingway did resent his mother deeply (and chose mother-figures for both his first love and first wife). The Valentino figure of the Latin lover was expressly feminine, and the bobbed-hair flapper far more sexually indeterminate than her Victorian predecessors. Sexual confusion might indeed be a factor in finding a common motivation for Weimar's serial killers, and disempowerment might indeed be another, but there are all kinds of disempowerment, including those brought on by the political and economic chaos which marked the era. Seeing these frustrations being caused solely by envy of women and taken out solely against women is a mistake.
For example, Prof. Tatar opens her book with references to a German children’s rhyme based on Fritz Haarman, a serial killer executed in 1925. She conveniently avoids mentioning the fact that Haarman’s victims were exclusively male, which hardly fits into the violence against women thesis. In Fritz Lang's M, Peter Lorre's serial killer is an abuser of children. It both cases the victims are the powerless; in neither case is the killer seeking revenge because young children have been recently empowered at his expense.
Our culture's current obsession with serial killers suggests an intriguing parallel with Prof. Tatar's thesis, since it dates from the Vietnam era, in which American masculinity was symbolically eviscerated by the loss of a war. This coincided with the rise of women's liberation, a social change arguably more pronounced than the liberations of the Roaring Twenties or even those of World War II, when women entered the workplace in great numbers. In the latter case, of course, America had just won a war, not lost it, yet underneath the explosion of art and culture which also seemed to conquer the world, we can find film noir, an outgrowth of the meeting of German Expressionism from the Weimar era with the liberated flappers,then mixed with Depression-era hard-boiled detectives. Interestingly, in post-WWII noir it is the masculine hero, often a doomed bozo bewitched by a spider woman femme fatale, who is presented as the victim: a reversal of Prof. Tatar's version of Weimar's roles.
Were Weimar's serial killers trying to reclaim their masculinity by revenging themselves on women, or were they revenging themselves on their shattered society by attacking the women who symbolise it? It's admittedly a murky distinction, but Prof. Tatar clouds the issue further by recognising “the belief that men might be able to reconstitute themselves through art”. She points to artists like Dix, Grosz, Beckman, Lang, and Doblin as needing to kill women to do that. But she ignores the major art movement of this period, cubism, which was all about deconstruction, or even destruction, and offered in its explosive realities a reconstituted humanity full of non-murderous loss. She often seems confuse cause and effect; does the work of Otto Dix and Georg Grosz really serve as a subtitute for actual killing? Is it as bad as actual killing, in a Catharine MacKinnon sense? Or does it reflect the contradictions of the society in which the artists found themselves? It is somewhat like Patricia Cornwall deciding Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper because of a painting which referenced the Camden Town murders, but which reads not as murderer and victim but as a portrait of essential emptiness within a relationship defined by commerical or other societal boundaries.
Prof. Tatar suggests that these misogynist male artists felt so weakened that they needed to kill women, figuratively, in order to re-ignite their creative powers. But it's as much a jump to suggest the artists of Weimar identified with sexual killers as to suggest, as she does, that Grosz was somehow a pervert who preferred 'shapeless, obese' women, simply because his 'Self-Portrait As Jack the Ripper' (see right), whose title seems at bottom ironic, features his fiancee Eva, whose 'zaftig' quality was one he admired. So did Ruebens, after all. If one is going to make the representation, rather than the reality, the core of one's argument, one needs to avoid attributing the latter to the former.
One final problem is that Weimar Germany's sex killings do stand out, as Prof. Tatar suggests, because of the ways they were portrayed in the art of the time. Germany had seen killers before: Karl Deake, for example, the cannibal who sold his victims' flesh to meat-hungry Germans during the Great War. They've seen far more active serial killers (admittedly not all of them sexual in nature) since the war. And of course it is tempting to look at World War II and the Holocaust as a protracted exercise in institutionalised serial killing, as I suggested Andrea Maria Schenkel might be hinting in her recent novel Ice Cold. I've mentioned the parallel one might draw between Prof. Tatar's Weimar and post-Vietnam America, and certainly works like American Psycho constitute a lightweight version of Dix or Grosz. But I wonder about patterns. Does Andrei Chikatilo, on whom Child 44 was based, reflect something about Stalinist Russia, beyond what Tom Rob Smith pointed out, that a refusal to admit the possibility of a serial killer allowed him to pursue his obsession, and precluded any sort of artistic interpretation within the USSR? Can we explain the Ripper, or the Acid Bath Murderer, or Fred West or Peter Sutcliffe in terms of reaction to various stages of British society?
Perhaps it is telling that none of these societies and their killers has generated the kind of lasting artistic reponse that Weimar produced, although you could argue present-day America has tried. Partly it's because Patricia Cornwell and CSI aren't quite Fritz Lang. But by mis-identifying the forces that drove Weimar's sexual killers, and then attributing those same motives to its artists, Prof. Tatar has left us with a conundrum, a set of symptoms, not causes. Violence against women is certainly a part of the art of Weimar Germany, and certainly a part of the serial lustmord that partly characterises the era. But it is more symptom than cause, and the causes run far deeper than Prof. Tatar, for whatever reasons, cares to look.
LUSTMORD: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany
by Maria Tatar
Princeton University Press 1995 ISBN 0691043388