Sunday, 13 July 2008

Salon Kitty (1976)

Kitty Kellermann runs a high-class brothel called Salon Kitty in Berlin in the late 1930s. Kitty likes both her girls and her clients, and she looks after them. Life is good. Until the day the SS decides to take over her establishment. Salon Kitty will be stocked with beautiful Aryan women, the flower of German womanhood. They will not be recruited from among professional prostitutes, but from all walks of life. These girls must be not merely beautiful and racially pure, but also dedicated National Socialists. They will be serving their country. Their task will be to entertain the political and military elite of the Third Reich and to report any signs of disloyalty, disaffection or defeatism. They will be sexual spies for the Fatherland.

Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy) is a particularly zealous Nazi. She is proud to have the opportunity to serve the Reich. That is, until the day she realises she has fallen in love with one of her regular clients, and must choose between duty and love. This man is a Luftwaffe pilot, and he is sickened by the war. So disgusted and disillusioned is he that he confides to Margherita his intention to desert.

Tinto Brass’s 1976 film Salon Kitty is actually based, fairly loosely, on a true story. There really was a Salon Kitty, and the prostitutes really were used by the SS as intelligence gatherers.

I find this a very difficult movie to review. It represents so much of what I love about the movies of the 70s. It’s a political movie. It’s an art film. It’s a sexploitation film. Only in the 70s could those three elements co-exist without any contradictions. It’s also a visually stunning movie. The sets are gorgeous. The acting is superb. And Tinto Brass comes up with some truly inspired moments. The regimented orgy scene early on, with the company of trainee prostitutes and a company of SS soldiers marching off for a sexual training session really does capture the madness of fascism and militarism rather neatly.

I don’t have a problem with the sexploitation elements, and I don’t have a problem with Brass’s merciless satirising of fascism. What does make me very uncomfortable though is the way the movie links sexual deviance, and especially homosexuality, with Nazism. This is the element that also disturbed me in Visconti’s The Damned. It worries me not only because it’s dangerous, but because it seems to me to be such a distortion of history. After all, the Nazis were not exactly renowned for their tolerance of homosexuality. In 1934 they brutally purged one of their own organisations, the SA, the purge being justified by the fact that many members of the SA were homosexual. Quite apart from the fact that so many victims of the death camps were homosexual.

I admit I’m no expert on the sexual history of the Third Reich but I can’t help thinking that both Salon Kitty and The Damned are confusing the sexual openness and supposed decadence of the Weimar Republic in the 20s with the Nazi era.

In both Salon Kitty and his later Caligula Tinto Brass is obsessed with absolute power and what it does to people. Salon Kitty certainly boasts some fine acting. Helmut Berger is creepy as only Helmut Berger can be. Ingrid Thulin is wonderfully over-the-top as Kitty. The key role though is Margherita. She has to combine naïveté with political fanaticism while still remaining a sympathetic character, and the choice she makes between love and duty has to be convincing. She has to be sexy while retaining an odd innocence. She also has to be taken seriously while spending almost the entire movie naked. The relatively inexperienced Teresa Ann Savoy does a remarkably fine job.

Salon Kitty is definitely not for the faint-hearted. The slaughterhouse scenes with the pigs and the scenes involving the trainee prostitutes learning to lose their inhibitions by having sex with people with severe deformities are confronting and unpleasant. Whether they’re necessary or not is a moot point.

I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about this movie. This may be a somewhat heretical opinion, but I think Caligula is actually the better film.

No comments: