In a lifetime of reviewing movies, there have been some titles I generally try to avoid. With a few exceptions, Biblical epics aren't my thing, nor is anything with "Adam Sandler" above the title. One retro-based film I've tried studiously to avoid is "Ilsa: She Wolf of the S.S." I've got a pretty liberal attitude when it comes to watching distasteful movies, but the idea of blending Nazi concentration camp horrors with eroticism was too much. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the 1975 film, shot for $150,000 in sets left over from "Hogan's Heroes" (I kid you not!), was a boxoffice smash on the grindhouse circuit back in the day. Recently, I received a review DVD of the film from a company I won't identify, not only because the transfer was lousy but primarily because it apparently isn't available any longer. (The movie is now in the public domain and there are apparently a wide range of releases of varying quality). I decided to finally take the plunge and judge the film as objectively as I could. I've heard that there are very good transfers of the film on the market. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. The plot centers on a Teutonic goddess named Ilsa, who is the de facto commandant of a Nazi prison camp. Her primary obsession is conducting gruesome medical experiments on inmates in order to prove a bizarre theory that women can withstand more pain than men. (Exactly what scientific value of such research would be is never explained, but real life Nazi quacks such as Dr. Josef Mengele did indeed conduct hideous experiments on helpless people.) As played by Dyanne Thorne, an Amazonian, blonde ex-show girl, Ilsa is indeed an imposing presence. She has the run of the camp and is feared by inmates and guards alike. Ilsa takes special delight in mixing sexual perversions with her daily grind. She has a loyal staff of female soldiers who parade around topless and excel at whipping and torturing female prisoners. Men receive special treatment. If Ilsa finds a male inmate attractive, she treats him to a night of passionate S&M sex, ironically with her playing the submissive role. Yet, there is a bit of a downside. The day after making love to Ilsa, these men are routinely castrated so that they can never have sex with another woman.
Ilsa meets her match when she meets a hunky prisoner named Wolfe (Gregory Knoph), who is cunning enough to make his services indispensable to Ilsa, while secretly organizing inmates to attempt to take over the camp. In the interim, viewers are treated to all sorts of depravities. If these were limited to sex, it would be bad enough (historically, sexual manipulation was indeed an everyday part of life in a concentration camp with certain female inmates allowed special treatment if they served in bordellos.). However, director Don Edmonds indulges in stomach turning sequences of men and women being systematically flogged and butchered under the most heinous circumstances imaginable. In one particularly awful sequence, a beautiful young woman has a noose tied around her neck and she is placed atop a block of melting ice so that she is slowly strangled to death. The fact that she is dying while standing atop a dinner table where Nazi officers dine and laugh in amusement make it almost unbearable to watch- precisely because such "creative" tortures were implemented in the camps.The film culminates in a limply-staged battle between guards and inmates in which the bad guys get their comeuppance.
There are legions of fans of this movie who argue it represents genuine eroticism. There are also legions of people who think it's cool to wear T shirts with Charles Manson's image on them. I can't understand either point of view. Yes, sexual fantasies are just that-fantasies. If you dream of being flogged by an Amazon woman, good for you. However, blending sexual fantasies with real life horror of the Holocaust makes me wonder how anyone can find this film a turn-on. The fact that it was released during an era when there were still millions of survivors of concentration camps still alive makes the subject matter all the more atrocious. There certainly is a place for artistic expression of sexual content in films that push the envelope. (The Night Porter comes to mind, but at least it was a quality film with an intelligent viewpoint beyond shameless exploitation.)
The film was so successful that it spawned two sequels, though they dropped the Nazi angle. I guess that says all we need to know about what passes for entertainment in some quarters.
I suppose there is an audience for anything and I don't argue the producers had every right to release and profit from this claptrap. You just have to wonder how anyone can derive sexual pleasure from seeing screaming women being disemboweled and hapless men being castrated. Call me old-fashioned, but I would personally rather watch "Hogan's Heroes."
Click here to view trailer and judge for yourself (Warning! X-rated and not for the squeamish.)
Click here to order Prime Time DVD (illustrated above) from Amazon, but please note: this is not the DVD we actually reviewed, though it is said to be of superior quality.