Angst is a German serial killer film from the early Eighties, directed by Gerald Kargl and written by Kargl and Zbigniew Rybczynski. I had heard this movie discussed online as a top “disturbing film.” Those are words that capture my attention, and I finally sat down for an afternoon of German terror.
First things first, Angst is shot with terrific camera angles. In some movies, overt cleverness can get in the way, but the images here were handled with aplomb. We start with a descending shot of a prison more imposing than Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Like Kubrick’s film, the interiors of these opening scenes are filmed to appear monstrous, overwhelming to the prisoners. As the guard walks the corridors, we get an extreme close-up of his keys. The instruments of freedom made huge, impossible not to focus on. And as our antihero takes his first steps outside, the camera flies overheard, like a bird soaring on the wind.
Erwin Leder provides a deeply unsettling performance as the unnamed protagonist—credited as The Psychopath. We, the audience, are made privy to his warped thoughts in a nearly continuous voiceover not by Leder, but rather Robert Hunger-Bühler. Voiceovers, like clever camera angles, have the potential to ruin a film, but once again, Angst nails it. The narration plays as a stream-of-consciousness rambling of the psychopath’s mind at every given moment. On the other hand, it is not exactly necessary, because Leder’s unhinged performance gives us all the shifty eyes and frantic movements of a spun-out nut job. His first foray into the public, at a little café, is a marvel to watch. As his interior monologue convinces himself that the girls at the other end of the counter are lusting for him, the close-ups on his sausage-chewing mouth, their lips, and his crazy eyes zoom in until we’re almost inside their skins.
As he walks the streets, we follow along at his shoulder. Are we the better angels of his character, begging him to make the right choices? I don’t think so. We see from the point of view of the devil perched at his ear, ever pushing him toward madness. That his bizarre acts make perfect sense to him engage us even further.
After a taxi driver fails to understand how close she came to death, our psychopath follows a trail in the woods right out of the plethora of German fairy tales. And like any good fairy tale, there is a house in the middle of those woods. Leder is our big and very bad wolf, who breaks in and destroys three lives in a series of long, brutal, complicated nastiness. As he commits heinous acts, he calmly recounts to us the degradation he suffered as a child and his first youthful tortures of neighborhood animals. His violence culminates in an attack of startling and realistic brutality.
We have seen his spiral into madness. What remains is the unraveling of his composure. This is a deconstruction I’ve rarely witnessed in film. He is not the suave Dr. Hannibal Lector who will calmly walk away from his crimes. Our psychopath has completely lost all control by the end of the movie, and his choices will make you cringe and shake your head.
Angst is not a subtle film in its violence and portrayal of a crazy killer. Yet subtle elements abound like Easter eggs to ooh and ahh over. Apart from the camera work and fairy tale imagery, one thing I noticed was the man reading the paper at the café. On the first day, the headline reads WAR. He’s there again the following day, but this morning the headline reads PAX, Latin for “peace.” But will The Psychopath ever find his own peace?
These days, I don’t know if Angst can rightly hold a place in the “most disturbing films” lists, but there is much more to this movie than the brief gore and fits of craziness. Angst is a terrific film. An oddity, perhaps. An experience, for certain. So much more than the sum of its parts, but those individual parts are terrific, too!