Berlin’s resident pioneer of gay rights cinema, Rosa Von Praunheim, is nothing if not prolific. In the 48 years since his groundbreaking feature, It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives, the iconic ambassador of queer politics in cinema has made over 48 films, feature and documentary – the overwhelming majority retaining a gay focus. This time around, Von Praunheim tackles the story of Dirk P, the darkroom serial killer that terrorized gay Berlin for a very short time in early 2012. So, warning, there are spoilers ahead, but only for the elements that stick to the true story and were widely covered in the Berlin press at the time.
In Darkroom: Drops of Death, we meet Lars, who, through a series of courtroom episodes and flashbacks, we learn was a bartender in Saarbrücken who moved to Berlin with his boyfriend to start a new life together. Jumping back and forth, we see the couple both happily in love and struggling to define exactly what they want from the relationship, while by night Lars is poisoning men giving them lethal doses of liquid ecstasy aka knock-out drops aka GHB (Guess what? He never gives them anything close to drops) inevitably killing them before he takes their money and runs. Bit-by-bit we see elements of Lars’ past in scenes oscillating between Lars with his dreamy boyfriend (played by a charming Heiner Bomhard) and disparate elements of just how duplicitous and deceitful Lars has been throughout his life. In Berlin, (just like in the real story) Lars murders three men, is sentenced to life in prison and kills himself there after the trial.
Hats off to Bozidar Kocevski who plays Lars, going from detached daydreamer in the courtroom to dreamy twink in the love story to creepy killer, a part inhabited well as Kocevski at points bears a strong resemblance to another real life gay serial killer: Jeffrey Dahmer. Playing all these roles means the film has to inhabit all these roles too, something that makes it a bit uneven. Not quite sure what it wants to make out of the film, it doesn’t hit any of them square on the head.
In the era of the Netflix serial killer documentary a la Conversations With a Killer and The Confession Killer, interest in serial killer films is high and if one takes to the exemplary films of the genre like 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Germany’s 2002 The Child I Never Was, or more recently Fatih Akin’s engrossingly grotesque The Golden Glove, Darkroom doesn’t come close to the sheer terrifying reality of a sociopath’s mind. When it approaches scary, it returns to more ‘lighthearted’ courtroom scenes in which Lars daydreams about his boyfriend or imagines the judges saying outlandish things to him, eliciting no sympathy from the audience because Lars is, well, a dick.
Unevenness aside, Dirk P/Lars’ story is a part of homo history (as well as Berlin’s) and is worthy of being told. And while you may not get a grip on the mood, Von Praunheim takes you through it in his own inimitable and entertaining way without moralizing on wider taboos like anonymous sex or drugs. And if you’re in the right mood, you could have a killer time.
Darkroom: Drops of Death | Directed by Rosa Von Praunheim (Germany 2019) with Bozidar Kocevski, Heiner Bomhard. Starts Jan 30.
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