German auteur Rosa von Praunheim writes and directs Darkroom: Drops of Death – a thriller centred on a brief period in the life of a fictional gay serial killer. Stylistically the film has an original aesthetic and sombre tone, although the project fails to wholly engage due to its unsympathetic characterisation and patchwork approach.
Centred on male nurse Lars (Bozidar Kocevski), who moves to Berlin with his partner Roland (Heiner Bomhard), an aspiring musician. With their open relationship allowing them some sexual freedom, Lars stumbles upon a deadly gay party drug which triggers a concerning obsession. As Lars begins to let this drug take over his life – the ripple effect on the couple’s relationship begins to have damaging consequences.
Structured with a non-chronological style, Darkroom dips from past to present exploring key moments in the early life of Lars, his relationship with his militantly conservative grandmother, his romance with Roland, his crimes, and ultimately the court sequence which serves as the film’s present. Dipping between these in a loose fashion gives Darkroom an unpredictable narrative structure, which proves an engaging choice with viewers piecing together the circumstance which lead to Lars’ present situation. This narrative structure also provides a somewhat dreamlike style with the gruesome nature of Lars’ behaviour never quite seeming real.
This dreamlike tone continues through the film’s aesthetics with cinematography from Lorenz Haarmann and the film’s slow panning camerawork giving the film a surreal atmosphere. Visions from Lars’ hospital bed at one point in the film impressively hammer home this surrealist style. This, paired with more conventional documentary inspired talking head confessions from victims and witnesses gives Darkroom an eclectic narrative design, that can feel like something of a curious patchwork. This patchwork feel continues through numerous unnecessary ukulele numbers which prove more grating, than the film’s desired ‘quirky’ effect.
There is some investment in the narrative as we see Lars fall into the world of illegal drugs and addictive violent behaviour. Sequences in which he attacks or murders numerous gay men are portrayed with a shocking realism, whilst Lars remains cold and unflinching throughout his crimes. Even in flashbacks before Lars’ crimes, there is a lack of warmth or compassion within the character – and due to this we can never quite buy into the relationship between he and Roland. Kocevski’s performance is so centred on the detached serial killer, that it struggles to convey the humanity within Lars – even during the film’s early stages, pre-murder. Therefore when von Praunheim tries to convey Lars in a sympathetic light towards the film’s final act, it is all rather futile.
With moments of stylistic skill and gritty realism in the crime scenes, Darkroom is a sombre and occasionally challenging watch. Yet the emotional heart of the film is lacking and the curious patchwork effect of the narrative somewhat lessens its impact.