Reviewed Jun 17, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
In the mid-1970s, Italian film saw a distressing rise in explicit exploitation. In particular, there emerged three films which brought a troubling sexual intensity to depictions of Nazism. These films – Salon Kitty, The Night Porter and Salo: 120 Days of Sodom – launched what would be a virtual flood of Nazi sexploitation, controversially exploring the still-taboo realm of concentration camp erotica. Torture, sado-masochism and an assortment of violent and aberrant sexual perversions were suddenly prominent on screen, their explicitness legitimized in part by the legalization of hardcore pornography. Although many subsequent movies were cheap, shoddy emphases in gratuitous sadism, the three main films were truly distinguished works by important Italian directors and proceeded to garner much international attention. However, the boom in Nazi sexploitation proved brief, lasting only several years before again entering the realm of the taboo, but these three films would continue to mark their directors’ careers. Salon Kitty on its part elevated cult figure Tinto Brass to international prominence, from where he would eventually be considered one of Europe’s most provocative eroticists and it was reportedly on seeing Salon Kitty that led Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione to develop an interest in Brass that would eventually lead to their troubled collaboration on that visionary pinnacle of hardcore porn epics, Caligula.
Ostensibly inspired by a true story, Salon Kitty takes place in Berlin cabaret society circa 1939 and chronicles the effects of the outbreak of World War Two on the remnants of this culture. It begins happily, with a proud cabaret owner (Ingrid Thulin) thriving in decadence. A Nazi commander (John Steiner) announces to his subordinate (Helmut Berger) a plan to form a brothel to cater specifically to Nazi officers on leave. He intends this brothel to be stocked by the finest National Socialist girls available. Berger begins recruitment, and soon a young bourgeois woman (Teresa Ann Savoy) volunteers and is put through a regimen in a kind of sexual laboratory. As war breaks out, Thulin’s club is disbanded and she is put in charge of the title brothel. Soon it attracts officers from the German High Command; but unknown to Thulin, her clients’ sessions with the prostitutes are being recorded by Nazi spies under Berger’s control. Savoy does her duty but soon falls for one bitter and disillusioned officer (Bekim Fehmiu) who has expressed his disapproval of the Nazi war machine. From him she hears of the atrocities of war, slowly undermining her idealism. Berger is jealous of their developing relationship and seeks to win Savoy for himself, impressing her with his power. However, when she realizes Fehmiu’s fate she seeks revenge on Berger. To do so, she informs Thulin who enlists the help of a devoted patron (John Ireland).
Salon Kitty is a fascinating dissection of sexual power within a fascistic ideology, nicely chronicling the slide from the creative cultural decadence of German cabaret society to the rise of fascism, slyly insinuating Nazism as a sexual perversion of power. Thus, the selection process for the prostitutes parallels the obsession with racial purity. Into this, Savoy is a naïve innocent, a victim of Nazi ideology and ready to prostitute herself for her Fuhrer and for the much vaunted catch-cry of “National Socialism”. The politicization of decadence seems for Brass the function of sexual power in the Nazi era, yet such sexual power reveals only the basest, most insincere humanity: for Brass thus, a political ideology or ethos is measured (and represented best) by its approach to, and appropriation of, sexual power. The will to power is thus the essence of humankind’s base perversion, and Brass has an overwhelming contempt for fascist hypocrisy, hence his sustained joy in revealing Berger’s dilemma as a man of ostensible power yet tormented by his own feelings of sexual inadequacy. For Berger, power is simply, and trivially, about the restoration of a lost potency by a kind of monstrous overcompensation. By extension thus, Nazism in this film is the surrogate regimentation of sexual potency: to control sexual desire is be truly in power although to do so is to loose a paradoxical flux of repression and decadence.
Power brings with it the desire for sexual indulgence and a mad, megalomaniacal sense of superiority, even self-deification. Yet, amidst this examination of the machinations of power and sexual displacement in a seemingly sterile fascist order, Brass concentrates on Savoy’s dilemma and in so doing explores the facile stupidity of the Nazi ideal of self-sacrifice for a greater cause. Thus, instead of sacrifice and submission, Savoy learns manipulation, self-assertion and the vengeful use of sexual power as she prepares to humiliate Berger. Savoy’s triumph is that she refuses to surrender her personality to or be broken and humiliated by this Nazi (more than she already has been by her initial devotion to the cause) and rebels against patriarchal sexual control. The film’s extraordinary sense of grotesque sexuality is Brass’ ultimate joke on the concept of “degenerate art” and his contemptuous exposition of Nazi sexual immorality. Berger is a monster in this film, a petty officer who can only achieve satisfaction through the forcible humiliation and submission of others to his will – in his dilemma is found the sado-masochistic sexual essence of Nazism and the implied impetus behind the concentration camp as the madness of sexual power: as once loosed, sexual power is anarchy resented, desired and potentially beyond control. The fascination and repulsion for sexual power runs throughout Brass’ work.