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Tatar’s “Lustmord – Sexual Murder in the Weimar Republic” explores the validity of murder as one of the fine arts. It tries to define the nature of the connection between murder and art, and the identification of its expression. Tatar is very concerned with gender roles in German culture during the 1918-1930 period. She questions the ease with which society accepted the woman’s position as victim (either in real life or in images) as “natural”. She also tries to show how producers of this culture became personally implicated in what they put into words or images. Many of these creators felt the need to “act out” the role of murderer; the need to show “lustmord” as nothing more than a genre convention – a punishment of the powerful erotic energy of women.
Tatar examines particular aspects of German culture in this book. She tries to understand the psychological implications of World War I, which resulted in the violent outpouring of bloody creativity. At the outset, she sets about explaining how a maternal figure affects not only the perpetrators of sexual murders, but also the creators of such images. The cultural and social atmosphere of Germany, especially Berlin, is described in great detail as well. This prepares the reader for the flourishment of German pathology in the mentioned period. Tatar then goes on to examine, analyze and dissect the art of Otto Dix, George Grosz, as well as Doblin’s novel “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, and the famous film “M” by Fritz Lang. The main aim is to find out why these works were created, how they were received, and how did the creation affect its creator.
“Lustmord” does have a few main questions which the writer attempts to answer. One of these questions is: to what extent do violent creative works legitimize murderous violence, providing for it a socially acceptable outlet? Tatar raises a very valid question here – if the aesthetically-pleasing images of fictive victims taint social perceptions of real-life victims, then it is possible that society can view the latter as works of art as well.
“In looking at murder victims, it is easy enough to become transfixed by the sight of a body in the state of biological disintegration – to experience a secret sense of pleasure at having escaped that destiny.” (Tatar. Lustmord. Princeton University Press, 1995. p 12 ).
An example is Dix’s “Sexual Murder”(1922), which portrays the murder of a prostitute in intricate and intimate detail – the creation has been almost lovingly created, and portrays the dead body as a symbol of biological and social disorder. To show the brutalization of the body is to reveal its “essence”, and at the same time, to transcend the “bad” death of femininity for the cultural organization and order symbolized in the view from the window of the dead woman’s room.
Tatar points to the human desensitization to the image of female corpses because they are so familiar. Germany was subject to a wave of prostitute murders in the 1920’s, and Tatar shows how human fascination with murder, coupled with the horrific and gory realities of such murders, resulted in a modernist project that aestheticized violence. The artist, in this process, becomes less criminal perpetrator than cultural hero. Tatar quotes Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich on the collective denial of guilt, and the positioning of the guilty as the victim of evil forces in Germany after World War II, especially in their description of German efforts to come to terms with the Holocaust. She questions the motives of these creative agents. Is it to portray themselves (or the murderers) as victims, to perpetuate notions about sadistic female violence inflicted on passive female victims, or an outlet for creators, who saw in their creations kindred spirits? “Lustmord” answers this and other issues.
So one is led to understand that murder is an erotic or sexual ventilation. Tatar looks at some of the most sensational killers – Jack the Ripper, the Lipstick Killer, the Vampire of Dusseldorf, the Son of Sam, to name a few, and the ways in which the minds of fictional and historical sexual murderers produce a composite image made up of mythical and psychological realism. Tatar exemplifies this assumption by reading extracts from other writers on this subject, including Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1885) and Susan Brownmiller’s “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape” (1976). Violence becomes not only a substitute for sexual activity but also a superior channel for releasing the unbearable tension generated by the “manly” act of containing rage. Talk of real-life murders created, whether consciously or not, strong stabilizing arguments about gender roles.
“I released the pressure on her throat…some black-biled lust, some desire to go ahead…came bursting with rage from out of me…” (Mailer, Norman. An American Dream. New York: Henry Holt, 1964. p. 8)
Tatar also inserts clippings from “The Lancet”, “The Illustrated Police News” and “Punch”, which elaborately covered the enormity of current sexual murders, and the effect of these pictures of violence on “the morbid imaginations of unbalanced minds” (Caputi, Jane. The Age of Sex Crime. Bowling Green State University Press, 1987. p 23).
Tatar examines the films of Alfred Hitchcock, which put forward the view that sexual murderers are driven to their crimes either by hostile mothers who traumatize their sons by watching their every move, or by seductive mothers who undermine their sons’ efforts to achieve masculine independence. She cites Karl Menninger who wrote on the possible cruelty of Hitler’s mother resulting in Hitler’s sadistic cruelty, and Susan Brownmiller who contemplated the hatred the Boston Strangler, DeSalvo and the Son of Sam bore towards their mothers. “Psycho” (1960) is analyzed – a film which suggests that Norman Bates was not the killer; it was, rather, the “mother-half” of Norman’s mind that committed the murders. The woman thus, has gotten into the murderer’s mind. Fritz Lang’s “While the City Sleeps” (1955) reaffirms both this feminization of sexual murderers and the way in which maternal behavior shapes the perverse urges of the murderer.
Gender issues did not escape the media’s attention either, and Tatar states that according to Franz Blei (a writer on the Haarman case), lustmord could easily be framed as justifiable homicide. She also refers to Otto Weininger’s “Sex and Character”(1903), which asserts that women are fully devoted to sexual matters, whereas men are free to pursue science, art and philosophy. Thus, it was the female body that was the source of pollution, rather than the men who were engaged in “cleansing operations”, or who had some less deadly kind of social, economic or sexual stake in prostitution.
In the chapter “Crime, Contagion and Containment”, Tatar writes about how, in the context of Nazi racism, deviations from the Aryan norm were socially rather than biologically determined. By 1929 the official Nazi newspaper was openly stating that Jews promoted homosexuality, pedophilism and bestiality. The pathology of “otherness” was only strengthened by images such as Freidrich Murnua’s “Nosferatu” (1922), who posed as a vampire caricature of the Jews who spread plague in Germany. Arthur Dinter’s 1919 novel “Sin Against Blood” also enacted nearly all of the Nazi clichés about Jews – it became all the easier to figure the Jews as murderers who operated with the same bloodthirsty brutality of sexual killers. Hitler tapped into this national fear about the power of demonic monsters that sapped the lifeblood of the Aryan race, to contaminate and destroy an entire nation.
Part II of “Lustmord” deals entirely with case studies. The first artist studied is Otto Dix. Tatar writes about how his perceptions of war, women and the city were colored by serving four years in World War I. The most distinguishing facet of Dix’s oeuvre is his drive to disfigure the female body, a facet fueled by the war experience and emancipatory efforts (both social and economic) in the battle of the sexes. Tatar examines paintings such as “Walpurgisnacht” (1914) which integrates erotic energy with demonic sexuality, and “Leuchtkugeln” (1917), which adds sensual beauty to military carnage – tp prove her theory that the displacement of the female body and the appropriationof its biological functions through the creative energies of male autogeny, is a regular fixture of Dix’s postwar artistic production (also consider “Bildnis des Maters Karl Schwesig mit Modell” (1925), and “Selbstbildnis mit den Sohn Jan”( 1930)).
Next, Tatar studies and dissects the paintings of George Grosz - such as “Greetings from Saxony” (1920) and “Delivery”(1917) - and reads Grosz’s letters to his brother-in-law. From this, Tatar is able to conclude that Grosz deformed naked bodies in his paintings so that they could no longer arouse physical desire. He had a Dadaist irreverence towards conventional artistic ideologies, and was brutal in his depiction of women. He linked them with crude animal instinct (“swinish lust), and fleshy earthiness, being at the furthest remove from mind (Geist). (Grosz, George. Brief: 1913-1959. Ed. Herbert Knust. pp 46, 48, 52. )
“Circe” and “Sexual Murder” (1912-1913) portray Grosz’s relentless demonization of sexual desire. He, like Dix, viewed women as anxious conspirators in a plot to lure men into the terror of military bloodbaths. Tatar cites Angela Carter’s phrase “pornographer as terrorist”, and shows that this is what Grosz reveals himself to be with paintings such as “The Mielzynski Affair” (1912-1913), “The Double Murder in the Rue Morgue” (1913) and “When It Was All Over, They Played Cards” (1917) – the artist who paints the psychosexual realities of a regime marked by tyrannical sexual relations. Tatar feels that the carnage on canvas was a vent for Grosz’s perceptions of World War I as a gigantic slaughterhouse, where soldiers were sacrificed for their generals and the women at home.
Doblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” is another work of Weimar culture that is studied. The novel very blatantly attempts to erase its promiscuously suffering women; to construct images of immoral murderous women as part of a larger culture that binds women to the role of sacrificial victim. Passages from the book are inserted for inspection, all confirming Tatar’s belief that Doblin’s Berlin was a symbol of the Whore of Babylon – an incarnation of woman’s destructive sexuality. The tragic figure of this literary piece – Franz Biberkopf – is presented as the victim of circumstance and hardship, all of which engage the reader’s empathy more than those of the women he rapes or murders. Concepts such as these were what led the general population to accept the cultural and social defacement of the female figure (while her male partner channels his erotic drives into destructive martial aims in order to eliminate the former).
Fritz Lang’s “M” is another example of German images where violence becomes a substitute for destructive desire. In this case, a “lustmord” that violates the body of a child. Tatar studies many of Lang’s own statements (including notes to the screenplay of “The Man Behind You” (1934)) about how struck he was with the psychosis of fear (Angstpsychose) that unsolved murders caused; and how he attempted to mobilize sympathy for the man who has committed the “most heinous” crime possible, by portraying the murderer as a victim of “evil urges” and “of pain”. “M” shifts the blame from Franz Beckhart’s (the killer) shoulders to those of the mothers who have failed to provide round-the-clock monitoring of their children. Once again, it is the woman who is to blame. Tatar also comments on how, like the real-life serial killers who were apprehended during the Weimar era, the criminal Beckhart and the actor-criminal-Jew (for example Peter Lorre) are cast as pathogens – as sources of fatal contamination that must be eliminated before infecting the entire population.
Tatar has supported her statements with extensive footnotes, citations and diverse readings. Her style of writing is forceful, yet fluid, and gives her reader the impression of her being in a strong academic position to posit the theories she puts forward. “Lustmord” is an apt title for this very disturbing, yet informative book on how the female body is put on display as an icon of cultural crisis. The artists, writers and filmmakers who committed - to canvases, books and the silver screen – the murders studied in this book, often staked their reputations (or show us figures who stake theirs’) on disfiguring bodies that represent a threat to the stability of male ego boundaries.
Servitas a Periculum
Servatis a Maleficum