No sex please, they're video Nazis
From ‘ Ilsa the She Wolf’to Tarantino’s ‘ Inglourious Basterds’, cinema has long been fascinated by the Nazis – and their link to ‘deviant’ sexuality, writes JOHN BYRNE
FOR FANS OF savage and sensationalist cinema, the 1970s was an unparalleled golden age of grimy, grindhouse delights and sleazy treats. While many of the outré genres and sub-genres it spawned – from blaxploitation to nunsploitation – have, in recent years, become the focus of legitimate scholarly activity, one particularly taboo and problematic area of exploitation has continued to prove itself beyond the pale.
Nazisploitation! The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture– a new edited collection from Continuum – is the first book-length attempt to critically engage with one of popular culture’s most outrageous and frequently despised niches. As the book makes clear, the term “Nazisploitation” is sufficiently elastic to allow for the resolutely mainstream Indiana Jones series, or the arthouse likes of Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, to be considered examples of the form.
However, the truly “canonical” standard-bearers of Nazisploitation were, as editor Daniel Magilow suggests, the low-budget Italian and American productions of the 1970s that fused Nazism, sexual sadism and torture in deeply provocative ways.
The ne plus ultra of the genre is, by fairly common consent, Don Edmonds’s and David F Friedman’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS(1975). Filmed on the set of the twee and banal Hogan’s Heroes, and starring former Las Vegas showgirl Dyanne Thorne as the titular SS dominatrix, Ilsa was a heady and censor-baiting mix of heaving breasts, sexual violence, and fetishised leather boots and whips. Although it helped ensure that the figure of the sexually insatiable and predatory female camp commandant became a stock Nazispolitation character, it was by no means the first pop-cultural attempt to associate Nazism with “deviant” sexuality.
Among the more significant and obvious influences on Ilsa were the “men’s adventure” magazines of the 1950s and 1960s. In titles such as Man’s Storyand World of Menthe link between Nazism and torture/bondage was made explicit, with lurid covers frequently depicting leering SS officers lustily flogging buxom and scantily clad female prisoners.
Perhaps the most remarkable antecedents of Isla, however, were the “Stalag fiction” pocket books that became highly popular in Israel around the time of Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Consumed primarily by teenage boys, many of whom were the children of Holocaust survivors, the Stalags typically revolved around the abuse of British and American prisoners of war by highly sexualised, whip-wielding female Nazis. While the popularity of such a profane and pornographic treatment of the Holocaust might seem surprising, in Israel of all places, the books may have served some cathartic purpose.
On a basic level, the fact that the Stalags only occasionally featured Jewish victims may have meant, as contributor Michael D Robinson suggests, that “they afforded audiences enough distance to enjoy them as pornography that indulged in forbidden sexual fantasies”. In addition, since the Stalags often ended with prisoners revolting and exacting bloody revenge on their tormentors, the appeal of the books may, Robinson says, have owed much to their status as “revenge narratives that enabled readers to symbolically punish the Nazis”.
Ilsa’s appropriation of Stalag conventions, cinematically repacked for an American audience, may have proved inflammatory, but in terms of misogyny, misanthropy and sadomasochism, many of the Italian “sadiconazista” films of the 1970s went further still. As Marcus Stiglegger argues, in his contribution Cinema Beyond Good and Evil?, the “phenomenon of mingling politics and sadomasochistic sexuality” was a well established one in Italian pulp fiction, where “sexuality, cruelty and fascist politics mingled in exploitative and pornographic” ways.
Aside from the Italian pulp fiction tradition, a more direct influence was the scandalous success enjoyed by “arthouse” elaborations on fascist sexuality, such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò(1975) and Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter(1974). Yet while notorious “sadiconazista” films such as SS Experiment Camp(1976) and The Gestapo’s Last Orgy(1977) may have eschewed the political commentary of those influences in favour of outrageous spectacle – and gained some trash-culture cachet through their inclusion on the “video nasty” list in the UK – they largely failed to make anything like the commercial impact of the seminal Ilsa.
Although the book casts its net wide, with chapters on, among other things, Tarantino’s big-budget Nazisploitation pastiche Inglourious Basterds and Nazi “mad science”, it is at its most compelling when detailing how a link between the political deviancy of Nazism and “deviant” sexuality has become a default assumption in popular culture. Far from being the sole preserve of “low culture”, the stereotype of the sexualised Nazi torturer has, Stiglegger suggests, even found its way into films as avowedly non-exploitative and prestigious as Schindler’s List– in the shape of Ralph Fiennes’s “sexually attractive yet cruel and cynical SS officer” Amon Goeth.
While the “deviant” sexuality of Nazisploitation villains is clearly intended to be transgressively shocking and titillating, the films can, as numerous contributors argue, function in surprisingly reactionary, conservative and regressive ways.
Although they afford audiences the vicarious thrill of bearing witness to taboo sexual acts, they also frequently imply that female sexual aggression and homosexuality, in particular, are somehow inherently compatible with fascism. A notion that is, of course, patently absurd given the violent homophobia and sexism of Nazi ideology.
Such an implied connection points to a key question, posed by Susan Sontag in her essay Fascinating Fascism. Namely, how exactly did a society as sexually repressive as Nazi Germany become a signifier of far-out sex and erotic adventurism? Although this book ultimately struggles to provide a definitive answer, perhaps because the question is unanswerable, it does, over the course of some 300 pages, prove how potent and enduing the conventions of Nazisploitation have become. Like the Nazi zombie monsters of the recent Norwegian opus Dead Snow, it is a phenomenon that has proved itself all-but unkillable.