Nazisploitation! The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture

by DANIEL H. MAGILOW,KIRSTIN T. VANDER LUGT and ELIZABETH BRIDGES (eds.). New York/London, Continuum, 2011, viii+328 pp., illus., bibliography, filmography, index, $29.95 (paper)

Nazisploitation! is a book about the most love-hated and guilty-pleasured of all exploitation genres, and it comes out in a time when Nazism and Fascism, sometimes thinly disguised as formally democratic and therefore legitimate right-wing populism, is running rampant again in the Western world. Like many of these new populist parties that want to separate the ideology (which they like) from what happened during World War II (which they would like to forget), Nazisploitation offers a fantasy explanation of the Holocaust and other war crimes as the product of irrational evil and crazy individuals rather than a political system. Most films even sidestep the Holocaust to depict the Nazi camps as BDSM jamborees.

So, why not just dismiss these grades B to Z hybrids of grindhouse war films and porn off-hand as banal and ugly trash? Beyond the obvious answer that they exist and therefore must to be studied just as any other genre; there are interesting connections both to art-cinema and to modern popular culture. Is the Nazisploitation of Don Edmonds notorious Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1975) really that different from Liliana Cavani’s art-house Il Portiere di notte (The Night Porter, 1975) or Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones family fare? And what about the Nazi characters in video games and comic books?

These questions and many more are discussed in this interesting and long-overdue collection of essays edited by three associate professors of German in the United States. In his introduction to the book, Daniel H. Magilow quotes New York Times’ film critic Vincent Canby’s review of Ilsa to suggest that future historians might indeed see the ‘interests, values and attitudes’ of our time reflected here. Unfortunately, neither he nor any of the contributors take the current political situation and debate about the lack of a sense of history into consideration, although there are implications of this in several essays.

A particularly bizarre case is the Israeli phenomenon of Stalags during the Adolf Eichmann trial in the early 1960s. Stalags was the name of a pornographic literature genre about Allied war prisoners subjected to sexual abuse in the Nazi war prison camps (= Stalags). Though short-lived, the rape-and-revenge narrative from the books are very close to the Nazisploitation cinema and perhaps even served as a model: an allied soldier (usually male) is captured during a behind-the-lines mission and put in a prison camp ruled by deadly yet sexy Nazi women wardens and officers, who torture and rape him. Then the tables turn, for example by Allied bombings, so the hero can avenge himself by subjugating his torturers to the same treatment. Thus the readers/audience get to enjoy the sex and violence while also having the satisfaction of moral retribution.

As Ari Libsker shows in his documentary Stalags (2008), the guilty pleasures of the Jewish male consumers relied on a separation of these narratives from the real horrors of war, most specifically Holocaust. Therefore, they hardly make any references to the Nazi genocide or even to Jews. The heroes are usually American or British non-Jews and the stalags are nowhere near the death camps. This is also true of most Nazisploitation films of the Ilsa variety, thereby ensuring a ‘safe’ guilty pleasure for the young male grindhouse audience.

Highlighted by Claude Lanzmann’s denounciation of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), it has become important to separate ‘proper’ from ‘exploitative’ modes of representing Nazi history. Usually, the distinctions follow the high-versus-low-culture demarcation. But as several authors note, the art-cinema and family entertainment representations rely very much on the same stereotype characters and situations as the all-out exploitations films. Hence, they might even be more insidious. In her essay on Ilsa, the she-wolf of exploitation cinema, and Elsa, the she-wolf of mainstream Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Alicia Kozma show how director Steven Spielberg and scriptwriter Jeffrey Boam not only use the same BDSM sex pot stereotype, they also make her into a likeable ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ whose death Indy laments.

In his essay on sexual deviance in cinematic representations of Nazis, Michael D. Richardson is even more critical of the Stephen Daldry’s celebrated The Reader (2008), which got Kate Winslet an Academy Award for the title role of Hanna Schmitz, an illiterate ex-concentration camp warden’s love story with a teenage boy. Against the protests of the author of the novel, Bernhard Schlink, the film-makers decided not to show any imagery of Hanna’s war crimes. In the film, she therefore becomes more of a victim and her sexual seduction of the young boy less problematic. We can now both indulge in a rather common male fantasy of sex with older women and later stand on high moral ground to dismiss the whole affair.

I could go on for pages to discuss just about every essay in this thought-provoking and highly readable collection, which shines a light in all corners of a problematic cultural phenomenon. If Vincent Canby is right, then Nazisploitation, especially in high art and family entertainment, suggests that we have mythologized the Nazi past rather than tried to understand the ideology as part of a European history of ideas. The implications are unsettling. If not outright denying the Holocaust or justifying Nazi war crimes, like David Irving and other history revisionists, we accept a carefully edited scenario that smoothes over the horrors, paving the way for this criminal ideology to make a comeback.

© Michael Tapper, 2013. Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 176-178.