Beyond Good and Evil?
Sadomasochism and politics in the cinema of the 1970ies Paper held February 9th, 2007, at FU Berlin conference ‘Performing and Queering Sadomasochism’
1. The 1970ies proved to be an extremely productive decade for many nation’s cinemas: the seed of former revolutionary years began to grow and brought forth astounding film productions in America (New Hollywood), Germany (New German Film) and in Japan (New Wave). Together with this new progressive tendency and the simultaneous relaxing of censorship came an enormous wave of exploitation films, which began to push the boundaries of the portrayable in the direction of sensationalist entertainment. This exploitative trend did not even shy away from the holocaust theme: The pornographers Robert Lee Frost and Don Edmonds brought the so called Sadiconazista-films to the cinema with the Canadian productions Love Camp 7 (1969) and Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974). These films which, following a trivial structure, take a voyeuristic look into the concentration camp brothel and a pseudo-medical experimentation centre. Although this exploitative use of holocaust motifs caused a huge scandal, these films are still extremely successful in the form of home media. The Ilsa film starring playboy model Dyanne Thorn even gave birth to a number of direct and indirect sequels. Italian cinema did also experiment with the connections between sexuality, politics and history, albeit on an artistically higher level. In her psychodrama The Night Porter (1973) the former documentary filmmaker Liliana Cavani further develops some realisations from her previous documentary series on the third Reich, and tells the story of the fatal reunion of a SS man (Dirk Bogard) and his former victim (Charlotte Rampling) in the form of an amour fou. As the couple re-start the destructive relationship under now different circumstances, they land on the execution list of a group of SS veterans, who wish to remove all witnesses to un-pleasantries, in order to erase the past and, in so doing, their own guilt. Cavani’s film is both the representation of the continuing Nazi mentality, even after the war was finished and (arguably) an attempt at a psycho-sexual adaptation of the concentration camp system. Lina Wertmüller’s Pasqualino Settebellezze / Seven Beauties (1975) takes a more satirical slant: a Sicilian macho man falls into the hands of an female SS-thug, who makes him her ‘sex toy’. The split level narrative in Wertmüller’s film takes it to a level well above that of the Sadiconazista-motifs, and it develops through its fragmented montage a kind of ‘baroque world theatre’ on the screen. Although Pier Paolo Pasolini’s modernised Marquis-de-Sade adaptation Salò/120 Days of Sodom (1975) is rather a film about the fascist tendencies in Italy of the present day – as Pasolini stated –, it is still true that in this apocalyptic scenario the filmmaker has constructed an oppressive microcosm of the concentration camp system, which was only really understood for the first time when the film was recently re-shown in cinemas. Here the mechanisms of power and production have liberated themselves and are running amok in the collapsing fascist republic of Salò. The scandalous success of these three films also inspired the production of a series of concentration camp sex-films in Italy. It seems evident that all films mentioned in one way or the other develop a sadomasochistic model based on the principles of totalitarian politics and hierarchies. At first sight they seem to take the simple and wrong equation of sadomasochism and fascistic politics as a fact.
2. This phenomenon of mingling politics and sadomasochistic sexuality has sometimes been referred to as ‚il sadiconazista’. This term derives from the Italian pulp fiction of the 1960ies, where sexuality, cruelty and politics mingled to an exploitative and pornographic entertainment fare. It seems useful to transfer this term to the medium film, especially as the exploitative films in the wake of The Night Porter expanded on the unhistorical equation of sadomasochism and totalitarian politics. This also marks the huge difference between the reflected arthouse film of Cavani, Wertmüller, and Pasolini compared to the exploitation films of Sergio Garrone, Cesare Canevari, Bruno Mattei and the like. These exploitation films cash in on the same basic model to simply skip the reflective aspect of the forerunners. The English term exploitation already marks this technique of simply ‘exploiting’ a serious topic such as the holocaust, the inquisition, the slavery system, the prostitution or simply life in prison to reduce it to its sexual and violent content. Especially in the late 1960ies – when the rules of censorship were handled more liberally worldwide – there was a wave of exploitative films, many of them combining sexuality and violence in a way in which they provided a semi-sadomasochistic psychodrama. In many cases we can find a very popular and honourable forerunner being copied afterwards on a cheaper production level. Between 1968 and 1982 not only certain film directors specialized in making exploitation films, but production companies focussed on the ever growing market: Fulvia and S.E.F.I. Cinematografica in Italy, Eurocine in France and Erwin C. Dietrich in Swizerland, to name a few. All of them became involved in making women-in-prison movies, sometimes also dealing with Sadiconazista-elements. Most of the Sadiconazista-exploitation-films were not shown in cinema or on video in Germany, but some of them turned up as main examples in the British video-nasties-debate of the early 1980ies. In Phil Hardys ‘Encyclopedia of Horror films’ (1992, S. 315) he takes Sergio Garrone’s SS Camp 5 – Women’s Hell / Lager SS 5- l’inferno delle donne as a stand in for all the Sadiconazista-films of the time: ‘The box-office-success of Liliana Cavani’s picture about the pleasures of being tortured in a Nazi concentration camp, The Night Porter (1974) and, in America, the repulsively adolescent and racist torture-camp movies of Don Edmonds (Ilsa – She-Wolf of the SS, 1974), triggered the nostalgic fantasies of explicit as well as crypto fascists, spawning a filmic equivalent of the established literary porn sub-genre, ‘il sadiconazista’. Garrone contributed two filmic atrocities to this variation on the woman’s prison movies, SS Experiment Camp / Lager SSadi Kastrat Kommandantur (1976) and the one from 1974 which simply exploits ‘entertaining’ thrills such as Jewish women being undressed and divided into prostitutes and victims of medical atrocities. There is the obligatory Nazi lesbian, a crude abortion scene and a hefty smattering of assorted tortures. […]’.
3. The term ‚pornographic’ is a problematic one – especially in this context, on the borderline between exploitation and hardcore cinema. It seems more accurate call most of the Sadiconazista-films ‘sexploitation’, while a serious film like Saló is actually closer to Susan Sontag’s definition of pornography as a convention within the arts, which she outlined in her essay ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ (1969). Films and novels ‘qualify as pornographic texts insofar as their theme is an all-engrossing sexual quest that annihilates every consideration of persons extraneous to their roles in the sexual dramaturgy, and the fulfillment of this quest is depicted graphically.’ As in Georges Bataille’s transgressive prose (like ‘The Story of the Eye’ / ‘Histore de l’oeil’) – Sontag stresses out – the true obscene in artistic pornography will always show an affection towards death. In this sense she points out the special meaning of sacred rituals, the rite of passage and the sacrifice within pornographical contexts. Pornography therefor has a ritualistic structure. Concerning the exploitative Sadiconazista-phenomenon one can state that these films neither carry a political message nor do they represent real pornography or even violent pornography – therefor I think Phil Hardy is going too far in his opinion on the target audience. These films simply try to reduce their artistic forerunners The Night Porter, Seven Beauties, Salò, and Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) to a sadomasochistic fantasy in order to gain entertainment out of a pure imaginative destruction drive. Historical elements as well as true sadomasochistic dialectics are abused here and transformed for this aim.
4. Susan Sontag has also reflected extensively on the fetishising of Nazi symbolism and iconography in sadomasochistic rituals in her essay ‘Fascinating Fascism II’: ‘In pornographic literature, films, and gadgetry throughout the world, especially in the United States, England, France, Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, and Germany, the SS has become a referent of sexual adventurism. Much of the imagery of far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism. Boots, leather, chains, Iron Crosses on gleaming torsos, swastikas, along with meat hooks and heavy motorcycles, have become the secret and most lucrative paraphernalia of eroticism. […] But why? Why has Nazi Germany, which was a sexually repressive society, become erotic?’ Sontag writes this – taking in consideration a militaria book called ‘SS-Regalia’ – to reflect further on the erotic attraction of the SS uniform. It is a well-known fact that military uniforms are handled as a sexual fetish. In her book ‘Fetish’ (1996) Valerie Steele states: ‘Military Uniforms are probably the most popular prototype for the fetishist uniform because they signify hierarchy (some command, others obey), as well as membership in what was traditionally an all-male group whose function involves the legitimate use of physical violence.’ The uniform seems to be an abstraction of the martial in the form of fashion. It symbolizes the belonging to an elite and embodies dominance and attraction. Especially the black service tunic of the SS can be seen as the ambitious trial to combine eccentric chic, elitist elegance, and death symbolism. But as Susan Sontag remarks: ‘[…] uniforms are not the same thing as photographs of uniforms – which are erotic material and photographs of SS uniforms are the units of a particularly powerful and widespread sexual fantasy.’ Although her essay discusses a military antiques fact-book this idea is also true for the appearance of SS-uniforms in the cinema of the 1970ies. In the context of entertainment the presence of SS-uniforms in fiction films has its own rules of reception – in contrast to the documentary for example. Sontag suspects that the dramatic pathos of the SS-uniform serves as the basis of this presumed effect: ‘SS uniforms were stylish, well-cut, with a touch (but not too much) of eccentricity’. Not only Sadiconazista-films refer to the dramatic effect of the SS-uniform. There are also plenty examples of different genres making use of the sexually charged appeal of these elements: Star Wars (1976) by George Lucas, Ken Russell’s biopic Mahler (1976), Alan Parkers Pink Floyd – The Wall (1981), Richard Loncraines film of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1995), Paul Verhoeven’s SciFi-Satire Starship Troopers (1997) or the Casablanca-parody Barb Wire (1995) by David Hogan, to name a few.
5. The works within the Sadiconazista-complex can be divided by their motivations into various directions: – films that try to create some basic assumptions about fascist systems; – films that chose the totalitarian compulsory system as a radical and frightening historical background, on which rather interpersonal obsessions are played out: In Night Porter by Liliana Cavanis the director tells the story of a passionate relationship, marged by dominance and repression, this relationship is emotionally charged by the historical background, heavily loaded by the recipient’s knowledge; – films that push forward the totalitarian compulsory system as a dramaturgical justification, in order to wallow in widely acted sadomasochistic excesses: Sergio Garrone, the Italian old hand director of Lager SS 5 has stated in an interview that it is only possible to justify the drasticality of the pictured cruelty if one is basing it on that historical background (the national socialism). What all films have in common is the connection between sexual contexts and stereotyped pictures of the national socialism. The relationship between the executioner and the victim is being sadomasochistically transfigured and transferred on a level of sexual passion. The result is a cultivation of un-politicizing and un-historizing the phenomenon of national socialism. It is therefore possible to turn the picture of national socialism by laws of popculture into a toy of popaesthetics. What especially strikes here is the annihilation of time-levels in some of the discussed works: Lina Wertmüllers Seven Beauties as well as Cavanis The Night Porter and her later film The Berlin Affair (1985) are told in intricate convoluted flashbacks; the historical component is being transferred to the subjective and therefore “obtional” world of remembrance of the single protagonist, thus it reaches a nearly mythical quality which doesn’t allow an approach towards the historical phenomenon anymore. The concentration camps in Seven Beauties and The Night Porter look like dantesque limbos, filled with existential and sexual nightmares. As far away as the exploitative scenarios of the Sadiconazisto-Genre may be from the National socialist reality, it may still be possible to recognize a sequence of standardized situations based on the documented scenes of that time, this can be found in all thematically relevant films: the arrival of the concentration camp prisoners and the selection on the platform; the roll call out on the free places between the barracks; the actions in the brothel camps; the disastrous punishments and tortures (it is here where some critics observe the sadomasochistic appeal); executions; medical experiments; the massacre. By a comparative study it seems astounding that those elements appear as well in artistic ambitious as in exploitative films.
6. I would like to prove these theses by using Cavanis The Night Porter: When the young wife of a conductor , Lucia, recognizes the night porter Max as a SS-officer to whom she was a slave to back in the concentration camp, this incident breaks up her marriage. Her husband leaves for Frankfurt and she rebounds with Max after some agitated doubts. Because some other former Nazis recognize in her a cumbrous witness from the past, they force Max to kill Lucia, an order which he refuses to follow. Instead he withdraws with her to the loneliness of his small apartment and they turn in isolation from the environment. His former comrades besiege the house and threaten Lucia. After a time full of privation the as-good-as-dead-couple leaves the apartment and they are shot at dawn on a Donau bridge. It seems that the way of lovers can only lead up to their common death, just following the tradition of amour fou, this unconditional crazy love which has a long history in the conventions of European cinema – and both of them devote themselves in complete stylisation (him in his black fancy uniform, her in her childhoodlike-dress). It is the place of death – a lonely steelbridge at dawn – which bears the characterization as a rite of passage. Cavani seems to suggest that there is a world for lovers, but it it’s not ours. It is also the camera that departs from the action, right at that moment. The place of action turns into something stage-like, the protagonists to small figures who fit right into the outlines of their surroundings. It seems less important to the director to develop a political microcosm as to design a plausible mechanism for an unconditional desire. Every step of the encounter between Max and Lucia takes the role of a key scene, and far more drastical than usual in the genre of melodrama. Many actions and incidents grow to be allegoric and mythisized. It’s the desire that seems to be unconditional and, in the end, brings the surrender. It seems consequent that even destructive acts of love serve as loving proof, the best example being the split up between Lucia and her husband, when she recognises the hopelessness of her desire. Only one experience of pain seems to be appropriate when it comes to the intensity of her feelings: When Max enters the hotel room for the first time, he slaps Lucia in the face, the coming-to-be-love-nest full of broken glass is just a drastic symbolization for their frenzy. When Max visits his former lover Bert, who is gay, this meeting culminates into a strange sort of ballet at the beginning of the film. Max – using a single haunting spotlight – is lighting up the silent gestures of the dancer, who – although grown old by now – still seems fragile and even kind of young. Whereas Max acts like a puppeteer, spooky surrounded by the shadows, it is Bert who seems to dedicate all of his elegant gestures devotedly to him. This homoerotic ballet seems to take the same position as we can find in a comparable scene of vision in a portrait of Nietzsche which Cavani made in 1976, Beyond Good and Evil, in which Nietzsche is watching a homoerotic ballet of two persons. We also find here the clear isolation of characters, who can only embody their own cosmos. It is an isolation of characters based on relativisation of their social relationships; they are – even in The Night Porter – reduced to pragmatical relationships (mainly professional) and they lack an emotional ground which is then violently claimed back within the amour fou. The relationship between Max and Bert, the homosexual, is also affected by a vague gentle compassion which contrasts the established circumstances and can therefore only flourish secretly. When those relationships come out in the open the result is a chain reaction which can only bring a downfall. The film gives a hint that Bert may shoot the couple simply out of jealousy.
7. To sum it up it can be said that the Italian Exploitationfilm of the Seventies is the one which prosecuted and boosted up the stereotyping of pictures from national socialism and the Holocaust, even when it only got lukewarm support. The American film Ilsa – She Wolf of the SS became emblematic for the Sadiconazista-Genre. It fulfils all formerly described categories, has been released on DVD and is even to be distributed as a print on a T-Shirt. There is no debate whether or not those stereotypes have made an impact, because they certainly did: I have formerly been saying that even Steven Spielberg has pointed out to these mechanisms in Schindler’s List. So Sadiconazista may be – as a drift – a curiosity out of the off-limiting Seventies but the sexualisation of the picture of the Nazi-torturer has positioned itself deeply within the contemporary and popcultural consciousness in Europe, Japan and America. To conclude I want to use a polemic comment by Michèl Foucault in 1976 about the Sadiconazista-phenomenon: “This is a massive misapprehension about history. Nazism was not brought upon by the crazy folk of Eros in the 20th century, instead it was brought upon by those bourgeois people, and by that I mean the nastiest, stiffest and most disgusting ones that one can imagine. Himmler was some sort of a farmer who married a nurse. One has to considerate that the idea of the concentration camps was a result from the fantasies of the shared illusions of a nurse and a hen-breeder. Millions of people have been killed there, so I’m not saying that in order to devitalise the accuses which have to be made against this operation but rather to disenchant it from its erotic values one combines it with.” Or, as Martin Büsser is saying: “The occidental society has taken de Sade in by such an amount that they can only imagine it now as the last form of lose sexual freedom in the form of the faschistic tortures und murders. How indigent is our supply on education!” On the other hand there are few films depicting sadomasochistic sexuality which manage to be so fatally convincing in creating such a microcosm besides Liliana Cavanis The Night Porter. After its scandal is long forgotten it may be the right time to re-discover this great and multilayered melodrama, a film truly located ‘beyond good and evil’. Translation: Kathrin Zeitz