Out gay writer and director Rosa von Praunheim’s “Darkroom,” now available on demand and on DVD, is an absorbing character study “freely adapted from the true events” about a serial killer in Germany in 2012.
The film tells the story of Lars Schmieg (Bozidar Kocevski), a gay man in Saarbrücken, who meets Roland (Heiner Bomhard) in a bar and falls in love with him. Roland sings and plays the ukulele in a band with his mates Bastian (Bardo Böhlefeld) and Manuel (Lucas Rennebach). Bastian and Manuel, who are lovers, are not fond of Lars, but there is not much discussion why. When Roland asks Lars to move to Berlin with him, he agrees, and they refurbish an apartment together.
But one night, when Lars goes out cruising, he is given a dose of GBL, which enhances his feelings. A fantasy scene has an intoxicated Lars imagining two handsome men on a train having sex. Lars procures some GBL knowing that too much of this drug (described as rim cleaner for tires) is lethal; nor should it be mixed with alcohol. For reasons that are left ambiguous, Lars doses several men with the drug. One of them is the unsuspecting Bastian, who dies. Two other men Lars meets for dates also take the GBL with fatal consequences. An additional two men Lars poisons survive.
“Darkroom” recounts this killing spree and its aftermath in a distinctive style. Von Praunheim has the story toggle back and forth between Lars’ life in Saarbrücken and Berlin with Roland, his trial in a Berlin courtroom, and a few moments from Lars’ childhood with his religious grandmother (Christiane Ziehl), among other episodes. A handful of scenes of Lars in a guarded room where he is on suicide watch, turn theatrical, with the shadow of a disco ball’s lights swirling in the otherwise empty space to signify a flashback. There are also a few flights of fantasy in the courtroom scenes to suggest Lars’ mindset as his trial unfolds.
Other sequences provide some keen insight into Lars’s character. He worked as a nurse, and his caregiving for an elderly woman on her deathbed provides a fascinating glimpse into how he processes death. It also provides an intriguing juxtaposition with how he preys on one of his victims in a gay bar. Another moment, featuring Lars delighting in having a choice piece of furniture delivered to his apartment, reveals his indulgence. And when Lars is described as a thief and a liar in the courtroom scenes, von Praunheim illustrates these accusations with episodes that let viewers understand the truth of these claims — sometimes as Lars sees them to justify his behavior.
Curiously, the filmmaker’s efforts to understand — or even humanize Lars — are slippery. When a title card notes Lars’ first romantic encounter with another man, the sexual tension is interrupted before any intimacy truly begins. This encounter could potentially explain the guilt Lars feels about public displays of same-sex affection — he bristles when Roland grabs his hand walking down the street. Lars also expresses disdain when Bastian and Manuel, who are walking with him and Roland, stop and kiss on the street. But this does not mesh with his experiences of cruising or fantasizing in public.
Lars’ relationship with his domineering grandmother, who does not approve of his sexuality, also provides an indication of his sense of shame. But whether he feels guilt about his murderous deeds is left unanswered, even if it is clear that he is responsible for his grandmother’s death.
The murder (or attempted murder) scenes build tension — especially when the victim’s fate is uncertain. Although why Lars preys on some of these men is unclear. He is deliberately “punishing” Bastian for something specific, but when Lars picks up a guy in a bar, or elsewhere, these are strangers and more “innocent” victims.
“Darkroom” does provide some clues on how Lars was caught, and the courtroom scenes attempt to explain his insidious, calculating behavior. His lack of remorse is also notable.
In the lead role, Bozidar Kocevski gives a canny performance, making Lars alternately seductive and dangerous. Strapped to a hospital bed in prison, and desperate to make a phone call, he tries to appeal to the prison guard’s humanity, only to rage instead. His relationship with Roland shows a completely different, loving side to Lars, but it feels tainted by the scenes of Lars’ killing by poison. Will Roland become one of Lars’ victims? Von Praunheim never quite teases that out, but the question does hang in the air.
“Darkroom” is as ambiguous as it is detailed. It is an intriguing portrait of a serial killer.