Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Ice Cold covers familiar ground in an unusual manner. Andrea Schenkel's short novel details the stories of a number of victims of a serial killer in 1930s Berlin, then sets them against the confession of their killer, Josef Kalteis. Meanwhile, interwoven with these tales is the story of Kathie, a young country girl who comes to Munich entranced by the freedom and excitement of the city, but soon finds herself falling into a sort of desperate life of casual amateur prostitution. Inevitably, her path and Kalteis' are doomed to cross.

The originality of this approach hides its familiarity. If Kathie's path is reminiscent of Louise Brooks' Lulu, the scene with two cycling brothers neatly details not only the sense of a price fallen women must pay, which forms the core of much serial killer fiction, but also the very real innocence behind Kathie's 'fall'. She is not, like the fornicating babysitters of modern horror movies, shown as somehow inviting her demise, rather her simple desperation aimed at finding a place to sleep is set against the powerlessness which brings out a very different sort of response from Kalteis. But the sense of inevitable doom, which recalls Murnau and many other films of the period, is engineered delicately and precisely.

Kalteis seems based, loosely, on Peter Kurten, the Dusseldorf vampire, with one crucial difference. The Weimar era was Germany's first golden age of serial killers; Schenkel's setting the killings in the Nazi era articulates them against a different backdrop, one in which female sexuality, often seen as the provocation for the Weimar serial killers, is less a matter of modern empowerment as a reaction to the relative lack of economic power within the new system. In other words, an echo of the particular story of Kathie described above. Like Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, Schenkel's setting is within a system which refuses to allow for the existence of serial killers within it, though Schenkel doesn't actually make much of the ulitmate ambiguity of this system's dedication to its own serial killing on a far larger scale. But her portrayal of Kurteis, pathetically almost unaware of his own actions, is also familiar; it was set out by Colin Wilson, among others, in his study of Kurten, and shows a marked sociopathology which perhaps suggests something more universal within the Germany of the time.

Serial killers reflected Hannah Arendt's famed 'banality of evil' just as surely as the Eichmanns of the Nazi death machine, and perhaps it is here where Schenkel's implied parallel is most accurate. Though this interpretation would be easy to miss. There is a difficulty in that, interpreted through our modern victim culture, Kalteis becomes a stock villain, an abusive man, and this more personal approach is something reinforced by the translation. I cannot say how some of the speech, not just Kalteis' but other characters' as well, is meant to be presented, but I assume it was written in some sort of German slang. It is translated into a kind of mockney right out of a 1930s movie. I'm not sure if this is accurate or not, but the effect is to recall Hitchock's The Lodger, say, not Pabst's Lulu, removing the sense of temptress and guilt from Kathie, which is good, but somehow removing from Kalteis a general sense being a force within an evil world, his Nazi context if you will, and place him instead as a mundane evil everyman.

The strong point of Ice Cold is that it is, indeed, ice cold (the German title was Kalteis, but this one works far better). We build a certain amount of sympathy for Kathie, as we follow her story knowng she must be doomed, but there is a palpable lack of horror, of feeling, from most of the characters; some understated expressions of loss, but mostly a certain sense of acceptance of this unnatural violence. As if it is already their world. And perhaps this was Schenkel's point after all, using the idea of the serial killer and the sex murder to crystallize something more horrific on a far larger scale, an acceptance of a slightly twisted world, which became far more than slightly twisted. It's a lot to read into, indeed to ask, of such a compact mood piece, but I think it works on that level as well as that of a thriller.

Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel translated by Anthea Bell Quercus, £9.99 ISBN 9781847245656

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