Carl Panzram is unique among serial killers in several regards. First of all, he was the most nihilistic and misanthropic of them all. He was not partial in his hatred because he did not hate only women, Blacks, Jews, hookers... "I don't believe in man, God nor Devil," he wrote. "I hate the whole damned human race, including myself." He had no hopes, no illusions about either himself or the world which he saw it in all its depraved and brutal clarity. "I wish you all had one neck and that I had my hands on it" said the man who described himself as "the spirit of meanness personified".
The second quality which raises him above practically any other serial killer on record: he was a truly lucid, intelligent and sensitive (!) person, and the autobiographical writings and letters he left behind make for a uniquely profound read, at the same time shocking and touching. He's a true philosopher among the serial killers, and his words have the power to resonate like the best lines from Hemingway, Chandler and William Burroughs: clear, cruel, vivid, witty and precisely to the point. No bullshit there. No-nonsense, straight for the jugular, that's Panzram for you.
Raised in poverty, hard labor, ignorance, bestial violence and abuse, Panzram met only cruelty wherever he turned: family, school, church... it was all the same. His Golgotha through the soul-crushing brutality of corrupt institutions culminated in the correctional center for youths which only strengthened his bleak worldview and proved that, sadly, "might makes right". He was fully formed when he was only 14: "I was so full of hate that there was no room in me for such feelings as love, pity, kindness or honor or decency, my only regret is that I wasn't born dead or not at all."
A few years later, while still a teenager on the run from home, he was gang-raped by four hobos. "I cried, I begged and pleaded for mercy, pity, and sympathy," he wrote later, "but nothing I could say or do could sway them from their purpose. I left that box a sadder, sicker, but wiser boy." He felt literally and metaphorically fucked by everybody, and decided that from then on, HE would be the one to fuck everyone he could: "In my lifetime I have murdered 21 human beings, I have committed thousands of burglaries, robberies, larcenies, arsons and last but not least I have committed sodomy on more than 1,000 male human beings. For all of these things I am not the least bit sorry. I have no conscience so that does not worry me." In a world in which you either eat or are mercilessly eaten, his motto became: "Rob 'em all, rape 'em all, and kill 'em all."
At long last, Panzram's colorful life story – and his views, inseparable from it – became the subject of a feature-length documentary. The long wait ultimately paid off because Panzram got the treatment he deserved from John Borowski, independent filmmaker and author of two previous, equally superb documentaries on America's serial killers from the late 19th and early 20th century: H.H. HOLMES (2004) and ALBERT FISH (2007). This means that Panzram ended in truly devoted and more than able hands. The resulting film, CARL PANZRAM: THE SPIRIT OF HATRED AND VENGEANCE, is a true paradigm of how to make a great documentary on a subject like this.
Borowski presents Panzram from as many angles as possible. Understandably, his hands are somewhat tied by the fact that Panzram lived in the early decades of the 20th century (he was executed in 1930), which means that there are no living witnesses, no current first-hand accounts, no direct video or film footage of him or scenes relevant for his deeds. Borowski had to rely on the few existing photographs, news clippings and facsimiles of Panzram's writings. The closest he comes to a direct footage is an archive interview with Henry Lesser, ex-prison guard: the only person ever to treat Panzram like a human being and the one who made him write his autobiography, smuggling and preserving his papers later on. Without Lesser we wouldn't have any record whatsoever of a rich and inspiring human being that Carl Panzram certainly was. This interview exists only on a poor quality VHS cassette, but it's a valuable document and the worthiest asset among the extras on the DVD.
What he couldn't get through direct footage, Borowski more than compensates with the use of said photographs and writings, but also through archive film materials from the period and, especially, through brief but colorful re-enactments. Three actors portray Panzram in the three crucial stages of his life: Brett Jetmund plays Charlie Panzram in his formative, pre-teen years, David Salmonson is the young Carl Panzram (in his 20s, when he did most of his killings) and Tom Lodewyck plays the somewhat older Carl Panzram as an inmate of various prisons before he was hanged at the age of 38. The perfect cast does a great job of embodying the abused abuser, "the spirit of meanness personified" but also the human being behind the mask of a monster.
Another layer of quality is added by the narration by John Dimaggio (best known as the voice of Bender from FUTURAMA): he reads numerous well-chosen quotes from Panzram's writings using a grave whisper somewhat reminiscent of Kiefer Sutherland's "psycho" voice.
The film provides an insight into the conditions which created this "monster", trying to understand his crimes without justifying them. This is a tricky thing: defending a person (as a victim of various circumstances) without defending his crimes, without glorifying him or turning him into a hero. Panzram's spirit of total negativity can be hypnotic and attractive for modern-day nihilists: his attitude of an almost Burroughsian TOTAL OUTLAW is very inspiring while many of his saying are highly quotable. Still, this shouldn't make us forget that this man has raped and killed at least 22 men. Especially unforgivable are his brutal rapings and killings of several pre-teen boys. They are mentioned in the film, briefly, but only in passing, while Panzram's cold-hearted reminiscences of them are NOT quoted. This is a pity, because paragraphs such as this one shouldn't be glossed over:
"I grabbed him by the arm and told him I was going to kill him. I stayed with the boy about three hours. During that time, I committed sodomy on the boy six times, and then I killed him by beating his brains out with a rock... I had stuffed down his throat several sheets of paper out of a magazine. I left him lying there with his brains coming out of his ears."
This is the kind of crimes that earned him the label of a monster, much more than the one single killing (of an abusive prison employee) which eventually led him to the gallows. Other than that, the film does a fine job of balancing the life and times of this man and of putting him into a proper context. Panzram certainly was and is a telling sign of an age. Many bigger social, psychological, ethical and philosophical issues are reflected in and around him: from (in)human treatment of prisoners through the problem of psychopaths all the way to the questions of good and evil, right and wrong, human laws vs. higher laws... A big help in shedding some light on those questions comes from a superb selection of a wide array of relevant participants who talk on camera.
Thus, the documentary includes valuable insights from SCOTT CHRISTIANSON, PhD, author, investigative reporter, and scholar who specializes in crime and punishment;
JOE COLEMAN, artist who has painted a portrait of Carl Panzram, who he sees as a "kind of unholy saint of nihilism: the very shadow of Christ";
MARK GADO, a police detective whose story "Carl Panzram, Monster of Minnesota" (2004) won a Page One award for one of the top three magazine articles of the year;
DR G. THOMAS GITCHOFF, a criminologist and professor of criminal justice at San Diego State University and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at UCSD School of Medicine in La Jolla;
JOEL GOODMAN, Federal Bureau of Prisons Retiree, an expert on jail, prison and community corrections operations;
KENNETH LAMASTER, Leavenworth Penitentiary Historian;
CHARLES DUDLEY MARTIN, Robert Stroud's Missouri Attorney;
ROBERT RAY, Head of Special Collections and University Archives at San Diego State University which holds the original, handwritten Carl Panzram Papers;
JASON SCHUBERT, curator of the J.M. Davis Gun Museum (which keeps several Panzram related paraphernalia, including the rope he was hanged by)
and last but not least - KATHERINE RAMSLAND, PhD who has a master's degree in forensic psychology from the internationally esteemed John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master's degree in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers. She has published thirty-one books, including The CSI Effect, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, The Human Predator, and The Forensic Science of CSI.
With their contributions CARL PANZRAM: THE SPIRIT OF HATRED AND VENGEANCE becomes as layered a story of the unique individual of Carl Panzram as one could possibly hope for.
Clocking at 80 minutes, the film could certainly use some more material without being overlong or repetitive. The extra features on the DVD actually contain many scenes which could've been used in the film. For example, most of the DELETED SCENES (approx 10 minutes of them) deserve to be IN the film itself, as they contain telling information and add further shades of Panzram's character (esp. the issue of being TRUTHFUL and /not/ honoring his word).
MAKING OF feature (approx 25 minutes) also contains at least 15 minutes' worth of material that could've been IN the film. It has very little actual footage of making of the film – instead, it offers many additional pieces of interviews and re-enactments not seen in the film proper.
INTERVIEW WITH HENRY LESSER (approx 45 minutes), like said above, is a priceless document and a more than welcome addition to the DVD (although most of the best bits are used in the film itself).
Other extras include: PRODUCTION STILLS (accompanied by a song about Panzram), TRAILERS and a DETAILED VIEW OF JOE COLEMAN'S PANZRAM PORTRAIT (which is helpful indeed, considering this artist's style of collage with numerous very tiny and minute details, photos, drawings and quotes otherwise hard to decipher).
If I were to nitpick in an almost perfect film, I'd say that it could've presented some more detail about Panzram's afterlife in pop culture and elsewhere. The book PANZRAM: A JOURNAL OF MURDER by Thomas E. Gaddis and James O. Long, which was the first to reveal the full story about this man, including copious excerpts from his writings, is barely mentioned. The film KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER (1995) by Tim Metcalfe, in which James Woods portrays Panzram, is not even mentioned. While Panzram is certainly not a "star" even among serial killer buffs, he has his own cult and his shadow spreads over some significant films. For example, his quote "I wish you all had one neck and my hands were around it" serves as a motto to a Serbian horror-comedy DAVITELJ PROTIV DAVITELJA (Strangler Vs. Strangler, 1984) by Slobodan Šijan, while his words "Today I am dirty, but tomorrow I'll be just DIRT" open the film DER TODESKING (1990) by Jorg Buttgereit. References to these and other possible examples would be just footnotes – but perhaps worthy of inclusion so as to further flesh-out Panzram's ghost which still haunts us.
In spite of these quibbles, CARL PANZRAM: THE SPIRIT OF HATRED AND VENGEANCE is obviously a work of devotion, love and knowledge, self-financed and created among hardships which, thankfully, don't show up on screen. It manages to become the definite story about this unique man – and to show why his story is still relevant and haunting.
The best way to get this DVD is to order it directly from the filmmaker's site http://www.panzram.com/.