Verfolgt, also released as Hounded or Punish Me, is a 2006 German drama directed by Angelina Maccarone
As I’ve pointed out before, female dominants who aren’t sex workers are almost invisible in popular culture. Verfolgt is one of the rare examples of a dominant woman who is not in part motivated by money. Elsa, a youth probation officer, has an obsessive, sadomasochistic affair with Jan, a young offender fresh out of juvenile detention.
Elsa Siefert (Maren Kroymann) is in her 50s, and looks like it. You can see her wrinkles and soft belly. She does wear a black leather coat and shoes, which hint at her interests. Early in the film, her daughter moves away, and her relationship with her husband, Raimar, has begun to sour. She resents his past infidelity. The loss of her roles as wife and mother has left her adrift.
Enter handsome youth offender Jan Winkler (Kostja Ullmann), just released from juvenile detention. Jan is a bit of an enigma, and prefers to communicate in gestures instead of speech. We immediately see his masochism as he baits other young men into beating him during a basketball game, and later strokes his injuries. On meeting Elsa as his parole officer, Jan immediately crouches on the floor. This is a recurring motif, they are positioned so that Elsa is standing, while Jan sits, kneels or crouches before her, facing her stomach, while looking up to her. As Elsa discovers in her second sexual encounter with Jan, he’s a masochist, but abandonment makes him cry. Jan is definitely a “smart-assed masochist”, alternating submission with passive aggression, trying to get a rise out of Elsa. The original German title, Verfolgt, is the imperative form of the verb verfolgen, which means “to track” or “to follow”, but also “to persecute”. Does Jan want to be “persecuted” for some real or imagined crime? His actual crimes appear to be no more than petty theft. We know nothing about his family of origin, such as whether there was childhood physical or sexual abuse.
Verfolgt goes against the grain for most cinematic portrayals of female dominance. First, Elsa is not a sex worker. Nor is she conventionally beautiful.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Elsa as a character is that she has genuine power over Jan and the other probationers, and she gets an erotic charge from that authority. Her job requires her to balance care with discipline. It may be that her relationship with Jan is a surface expression of the unexpressed erotic dynamics of her work.
Another recurring pattern in female dominants is portraying them as caregivers, regardless of their attitude. Elsa is definitely a caregiver to Jan, such as getting him a job at Raimar’s garage, or holding him after she has done impact play on him. Sometimes she touches him with nuturing, but other times it’s desire. Her attraction to Jan is so strong that she forgets her professional obligations to her other probationers. There’s also reciprocal nurturing; after their fourth scene together, it’s Jan who holds Elsa as she cries.
Verfolgt also departs from cinematic norms is that it works from the “female gaze”. Unlike, say, My Mistress, the camera is not afraid to emphasize the younger male lead’s beautiful body. Sometimes in their scenes, Elsa just looks at him, naked. Ullmann appears alone on the front of the poster and DVD case, in a sexualized pose; Kroymann is nowhere to be seen.
There are a few brief moments of nudity with Elsa, including when she has sex with Rainar while she knows Jan is watching through a window. Otherwise, the film does not eroticize her body in the same way. You can see the wrinkles on her face. While Jan desires her, with his big dark eyes, the film is about Elsa as a subject of desire. Though they don’t have sex, she does stroke herself under her pants while doing impact play on Jan.
Jan is 16 in the movie, which is technically above the age of consent in Germany. (Kostja Ullmann, the actor, was 22 when the film was released.) However, as Elsa is in a position of authority over Jan, their relationship is at least a breach of professional ethics, if not a crime. Their affair is conducted in secret at first. Their first scene is in a remote storage space near railway tracks. After having scenes at Elsa’s house is interrupted, they return to public-but-isolated places.
Director Angelina Maccarone’s other films deal with marginal political, gender and sexual identities. Her Alles wird gut (1998) is a queer screwball comedy about black people living in Germany. Her Fremde Haut (2005) concerned an Iranian lesbian refugee who adopts a dead man’s identity to escape to Germany.
While Elsa and Jan’s relationship is heterosexual, Maccarone treats it as “queer”. They relate in secret, without any particular social script for what they are doing. They are going against the social current for their genders, their ages, and their statuses.
Obviously, this is very fraught legal, ethical and emotional territory. Can a person of Jan’s age legally consent to sex with an adult? (In some jurisdictions, the answer is “no”.) Even if legal, should Elsa have said no anyway, even without her professional ethics? Do their genders matter? There is mutual desire and nurturing between Elsa and Jan, but there’s also the sense that they are fleeing from the responsibilities of real life.
In this complicated tangle of desire, the real problem is jealousy. Both Rainar and Jan’s friends are jealous of Elsa and Jan’s connection. It falls apart when one of Elsa’s probationers, Frieder, overhears Rainar complaining that she and Jan are meeting together. He and another probationer girl resent his attachment to Elsa over them, and this eventually leads to them beating him unconscious.
This crisis finally makes Elsa cut ties with her old life, by leaving Rainar. Jan fantasizes about running away with her, but Elsa finally ends the relationship by putting him back in juvenile detention where he won’t be alone. She does what is best for him.
Verfolgt is at its best when exploring unfamiliar subjects like female desire and sadism, particularly from a middle-aged woman. Elsa acknowledges this desire in herself, but then acknowledges she went over the ethical lines of her profession and her marriage in pursuit of this desire.
It also deals with male masochism, as a retreat from adulthood. Jan wants to be hurt, but moreso he wants a female authority figure to look after him. He betrays his peers in awkward attempts to please the adults in his life. But if he feels rejected, he’ll retaliate indirectly.