The following review was written when the film ‘Verfolgt’ came out in the cinema. I’m now posting a revised, expanded version here to make the review available again. While it doesn’t give away a lot of details, this text isn’t entirely spoiler free. Specifically in its portrayal of a sadomasochistic relationship, the film has some awesome and some problematic aspects. I definitely recommend watching it.
‘Verfolgt’ was released on DVD in Germany by MMM Film. A version by Millivres Multimedia with English subtitles is available in the UK under the title ‘Hounded’. In the USA and Canada, Picture This! Entertainment released the movie on DVD under the name ‘Punish Me’ with a choice of English and Spanish subtitles.
Verfolgt – Hounded – Punish Me. A film by Angelina Maccarone. MMM Film. Germany 2006.
My partner and I went to watch Angelina Maccarone’s film Verfolgt (Hounded) at the cinema in 2007. We were intrigued when it was announced as a love story and drama with sadomasochism as its theme.
‘Verfolgt’ takes place in present-day Hamburg and tells a story about fairly ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances. It shows their discovery of sadomasochism – gritty, awkward, human, unpretentious, and ardent. We meet two protagonists who evidently should not have a love affair with each other. Under the given circumstances, such an affair would be unsuitable, unethical, risky and dumb. They don’t just conventionally fall in love. They start a sadomasochistic relationship.
Elsa (Maren Kroymann), a probation officer, is middle-aged and married. Jan (Kostja Ullmann) is just another one of the juvenile delinquents she works with. He is young and socially awkward and in trouble. He is also masochistic. And he encounters a woman, Elsa, whose presence touches this inner potential. Despite the fact that, clueless about dating as he is, Jan goes about the courtship in the most creepily off-putting manner imaginable, openly and secretly following her around, and instead of putting his request into words, coercing her into kinky interaction without her consent, something in the young man’s nature eventually sparks a flame of dominance and sadism inside Elsa. She becomes intrigued, attracted, and becomes deeply fond of him. Their secret encounters, however, are threatened by their social circles’ suspicion and incomprehension from the start. The ethics of Elsa’s profession, as well as the considerable age difference, would already present plenty of taboos to complicate their lives without BDSM thrown in.
Something I love about the film’s sadomasochistic scenes is how basic and unvarnished they are. The protagonists experiment with surrender and control, distance and closeness, vulnerability, desire, and the fire of giving and receiving pain. What they do is anything but perfect; it is a learning process with stumbling blocks. With Jan’s willing cooperation, Elsa’s first attempt at erotic dominance works well. In terms of pain play however it is a laughable letdown. When she doesn’t really dare yet to do anything along those lines, Jan, intelligent and patient, acquiesces. Elsa makes mistakes, for example, an apparently un-negotiated scene, which due to her ignorance of her bottom’s characteristics casts him into bleak sadness. On an occasion when Elsa takes the step of giving her sadism free rein, she experiences top drop following the glory, and in the aftercare scene Jan comforts and reassures his dominant partner. Another thing I love about the film drama’s BDSM content is that I find the scenes sexy. The acting is convincing throughout. Add to that the fact that the film is aesthetically pleasing and filmed in black and white. I found Kostja Ullmann wonderfully desirable in his role as a submissive man, and it is little wonder that I also recommend Verfolgt for its eroticism.
The stalking scenes made me cringe, and fervently hope that no single submissive men go home from the cinema with the harebrained notion that stalking is a way of making oneself attractive. I found the plot idea of stalking, of all things, leading to a relationship, implausible and exasperating. ‘Hey, it’s a fictional story, not an advice column,’ I repeated to myself numerous times. (In fact, wouldn’t it be a joy to see some more films with female characters actively and directly courting their objects of desire.) One partner being so much younger than the other one is an extreme choice for a story, but thanks to the actors and directing, the relationship comes to life in a way that is both cogent and touching. It rather surprised me that with all their erotic interaction, the protagonists never get around to also having sex in a conventional sense.
The genre of this film is relationship drama, so the problems need to be generated from themes related to the characters’ personal lives. Joy and fun and untroubled tears don’t take precedence in this type of narrative.
It is at present still rare for fiction addressed to a wider audience to approach the subject of sadomasochism in good faith, rather than just use it for laughs or exoticism. As I’m a sadomasochistic person, I watch a film with this theme not just as an interesting film in general. I’m acutely aware of how this particular aspect of the characters’ lives is portrayed, and how it connects with the plot as a whole. In particular, I am acutely aware of the role of prejudices and stereotypes which are associated with sadomasochism in our wider culture (and sometimes also perpetuated by sadomasochistic people themselves).
What, then, were my impressions of ‘Verfolgt’ in particular with regard to prejudices and stereotypes?
Let’s start with things that impressed me positively.
Elsa and Jan are amateurs. They are learning as they go along. Elsa, discovering her sadistic interest, doesn’t magically transform into a know-it-all. She needs to try things out, start slowly. The characters are amateurs in the best sense of the word, lovers who do something they love.
Jan is an erotic, desirable, submissive, masochistic man. The scenes showing his submission – once the characters get around to interacting consensually – are very attractive. Our wider culture, as well as many sadomasochistic subcultures, have tremendous sexist prejudices, often casting submissive, masochistic men as erotically undesired and undesirable. Not this film at all. Especially the intimate scenes showing his beauty make me want to watch the film again.
Elsa doesn’t need a costume. Inside subcultures, dictates of commercialisation and sexism still cause a good deal of female hetero beginners to ask ‘I want to dominate my man for the first time. What should I wear?’. This does not refer to people who actually have clothing fetishes themselves, but to people being collectively or individually pressured into costumes. It is immensely pleasant to see a female character simply going right ahead. Costume? What costume?
Jan and Elsa don’t buy and sell their interaction. They are in a personal relationship. Most people don’t get told by pervasive cultural narratives that the default of their sexuality is sex work. Heterosexual dominant women and submissive men get told just that. Our culture still overwhelmingly frames a man submitting to a woman as a commercial service which a man buys from a woman he is not otherwise in a relationship with. To the point of casting dominant and sadistic women as sex workers by default, and submissive and masochistic men as clients by default. To the point of pressuring many women into imitating prodoms and porn performers in their personal lives, and to the point of causing many men to act as if they were clients even in non-commercial, personal contexts (client mentality). To the point of, in the wider culture and in many sadomasochistic subcultures, effectively erasing and repelling women who happen to be sadistic and/or dominant in their personal lives. It is gloriously refreshing to see a story of a submissive man and a dominant woman doing their own sadomasochistic stuff inside a personal relationship.
One of the prejudices which sadomasochists of all genders and orientations encounter is explicitly addressed. The film shows side characters ignorantly conflating sadomasochism and abuse, and shows harmful consequences such prejudices can have. It’s an important point in the plot and excellently shown.
These things wouldn’t be so notable if most average moviegoers were familiar with a variety of sadomasochistic characters who are in relationships, non-abusive, amateurs, and don’t need extraordinary clothes. As it is, ‘Verfolgt’ can have a certain pioneer function in this respect, which subsequent filmmakers can draw inspiration from.
Things I’m ambivalent about.
Some powerful figure exploiting an unequal situation – that’s often the stuff sadomasochistic fantasies are made of. Except that this story is meant to be a realistic one. Thus, ‘Verfolgt’ shows different layers: Jan taking the initiative and projecting his submissive energy onto a person who has some measure of real power over him. Elsa’s position which, rather than making things easier for the characters, realistically makes a relationship more difficult, due to laws regulating a probation officer’s interaction with her wards. What this particular film does not show is the more common realistic version: sadomasochists who meet on an equal footing, and together construct their own versions of inequality from scratch, voluntarily and based on their respective inclinations.
Vague association with crime. Apart from ridicule and commerce, common prejudice often associates sadomasochism with crime. Want to spice up a crime TV show? Wheel out the bizarre sex people. In ‘Verfolgt’, one of the characters has a criminal record. At least it is Jan, so it is not the tired ‘sadist = criminal’ trope. Crime isn’t a major theme though, it’s mostly a background occasion to bring the two main characters together. Except that Jan’s stalking and harassment of Elsa moves into criminal territory as well. Which brings us to…
Things that made a negative impression on me.
Cheating. Damn, that was depressing. A far too common cliché assumes that sadomasochistic people are less likely to consider cheating unethical than the general population. They do all this other ‘forbidden’ stuff too, don’t they? Cheating, as opposed to voluntary, negotiated polyamory, is nonconsensual. It causes nonconsensual suffering. Are sadomasochists more, less, or just as likely to cheat on partners than the general population? I don’t know. I’d prefer if fictional plots didn’t automatically associate one with the other, thus rehashing negative prejudices. At least in this story cheating appears in one of the less commonly retold variants. It is not the ‘dominant woman = the other woman’ trope.
Pressuring, harassment, stalking and nonconsensual scenes leading to a relationship and consensual interaction. This was the hardest for me to bear. It constitutes a large part of the beginning of the plot. I found these scenes so awful that, hadn’t I heard good things about the film beforehand, I might have wanted to leave the cinema early, and we’d have missed the hot erotic and interesting stuff later on. The title of the film, ‘Verfolgt’ (Hounded), says it already.
The harassment and pressure is, sadly, not the unrealistic part. If one is unfamiliar with the off-putting things people can experience in SM spaces, there may be an initial difficulty putting this part of the plot into context. It is not unheard of for people with entitlement issues to forget that the bottom’s voluntary consent is only one half of consensual kink, and that the top’s voluntary consent is just as relevant. It is for example, sadly, not unheard of for women going to SM events to suddenly find a complete stranger licking their shoes without having bothered to ask their consent (let alone introduce himself and get to know the person in question as a human being first). Even when it is against the rules of an event to engage in kinky interaction without consent, on occasion there are people who do it anyway. (Client mentality: I showed up, now I’m entitled to kinky action with someone, anyone.)
In discussions about sadomasochism, it is sadly not unusual for people to ask the entitled question ‘How do I get my partner to do X?’, rather than a consent-oriented ‘How do I ask my partner if they want to try out X?’ – let alone a reciprocal ‘And how do I ask my partner what things they would like to try out?’. Jan not bothering to ask Elsa’s consent is sadly not unrealistic. People starting to explore their kinky interests later in life, as is the case with Elsa, is not unrealistic either.
What is unrealistic in this plot is the favourable outcome of Jan’s stalking, hounding and pressuring. Stalkers hardly suddenly find themselves in loving relationships with their targets. Pressuring is more likely to destroy whatever positive interest in experimentation may have been there. Nonconsensual entitled behaviour drives people, especially women, away from the company of other kinky people, and drives them to give up on kinky dating. Always supposing personal interests in dominance and/or sadism are there inside a character in the first place, in a plot with a modicum of plausibility, someone who pressures, acts without consent and walks all over personal boundaries is pretty much the least likely candidate to earn the necessary trust to become the person to explore them with. The film here rehashes a cultural narrative which is not specific to sadomasochism. It is the wider cultural misconception of women’s sexuality as nonspecific, with no desires of our own. It is the erroneous narrative of women’s sexuality as reactive and malleable to whatever wishes a man happens to project onto us.
Again, ‘Verfolgt’ is a relationship drama, so the main characters’ relationship itself is expected to be a source of lots of plot-driving problems.
What I hope for in the future are new films with sadomasochistic characters in them, where the plot’s conflicts and dramatic tension originate from a plethora of other sources than some sort of association with crime, people cheating on partners, and issues with nonexistent or dubious consent. Also, dominant women who, yes indeed, do have sex with the men who submit to them. Come on script writers, you can do it!
And I hope for more films showing, like ‘Verfolgt’, sadomasochism with subtlety, beauty and human depth. I hope for more films showing, like ‘Verfolgt’, hotness and desirability of submissive and masochistic men. I hope for more films showing people doing sadomasochism in their personal lives; out of complementary desire and desire for each other; in their everyday appearance, undisguised; imperfect, learning as they go along; with mutual regard, caring, passion and love.
The world of sadomasochism is wide and varied. This film gives a glimpse of two characters who start giving life to their own inner wishes under extremely adverse conditions. On the whole, ‘Verfolgt’ is not a cheerful film. But it is very much worth seeing, for people interested in good cinema, sadomasochism, or both.
Language note: It should be noted that in the German language, we often use the word ‘Sadomasochismus’ – sadomasochism – in a broad sense, encompassing a wide range of erotic domination, submission, bondage, giving and receiving pain, and a variety of fetishes.
Images from MMM Film
Links for the film
DVD. Available from bookstores and DVD sellers
Excerpts from the film
Thanks to Nikita for proofreading the English text when the review was originally written.
This review in German:
Verfolgt. Ein Film von Angelina Maccarone. Filmbesprechung auf Deutsch.