Though featuring the expected elements of sex, sleaze, sadism, shocks and showers, this 1977 Nazisploitation entry from Rino De Silvestro is unusual in other regards, evincing a comparatively serious and sombre tone at times and featuring a few scenes which hint at a challenge to the viewer's pleasure in watching the film.
De Silvestro makes his bid for authorship
Set in the dying days of the Third Reich, the film begins with the transportation of a mixed group of female prisoners by a filthy but perhaps surprisingly roomy cattle car.
Flashbacks establish our main protagonist, Tanya Nobel, an aristocrat of German extraction who has renounced the Reich and the Volk in favour of her Polish resistance lover; as is usually the case in the filone story takes priority over history.
Erna Schurer and John S
Tanya immediately earns the enmity of Trudy, who is determined to become a Kapo once they arrive at their destination. Trudy's character is more sketchily drawn, however. While there is an element of class resentment to her remarks – “Leave her alone” “Oh yeah! Just who the fuck do you think you are! Your aristocratic background doesn't mean shit here! You're up to your neck in it just like the rest of us!” – it isn't that clear why she is a prisoner rather than a Nazi in this regard beyond her lesbian proclivities, though I certainly suspect that she is something of an anti-social element who could not be relied upon to put the values of the Reich above her own gratifications rather than a leftist.
Whatever the case, it soon emerges that this is another one of those films where the activities of the Nazis themselves don't seem particularly geared towards the instrumentally rational goal of winning the war nor the value rational one of ridding the Reich of those they deem undesirable; while the two goals were perhaps not altogether incompatible when the war was going well by the time the film is set they almost certainly were in terms of suggesting conflicting deployments of men and material.
A Suspiria-style lightbulb shot and a row of less than happy campers
As the train pulls into the station, Tanya and another prisoner make a bid for freedom. Trudy notices and alerts the guards. Tanya is thus recaptured while the other woman is gunned down; again, students of Nazi crimes rather than their representation in the Nazisploitation filone might have cause for pause here as to the probability of this scene.
From the station, the prisoners are transferred to the camp, apparently located in an old castle. Trudy gets her wish to become a kapo and thus gets to dish out rather than receive the same humiliation and brutalisation as the others as they are processed and assigned new duties.
Tanya is earmarked to be a field whore serving in the Joy Division until the camp commander Erner notices her name on the roster. As another flashback explains, Erner is infatuated with Tanya, althought she had always refused his attentions.
Erner thus decides to keep Tanya in the camp and resolves to make her love him, resulting in a battle of wills between the two as the other inmates struggle to survive amidst the capricious wardens and kapos that all builds to a dramatic and suspenseful climax...
Kapo Trudy wielding her phallic baton
As is often the case in the filone, the reasons for the prisoners being in the camp – whether their 'crimes' are ethnic/religious, sexual, political or otherwise – are not specified with the exception of Tanya.
Unsurprisingly the incidence of homosexuality – as a 'perversion' – is presented as be far higher amongst the Nazis and their confederates than the prisoners, with two wardens getting into a catfight over their respective claims over one piece of live property:
“She's my whore”
“Oh yeah, fuck you. What are you going to do about it?”
“I'll show you! [slap]”
Far more surprising and interesting, however, is the scene of male homosexual activity between Erner and his devoted underling, Dobermann [sic] by virtue of giving the implied male heterosexual audience something they didn't expect or desire; as one IMBD reviewer remarks: “This was the last thing I was expecting to see [...] Needless to say, a big turn off.”
Ernst and Dobermann
Significantly this scene is also presaged by one of the battles of wills between Tanya and Erner, as she pointedly refuses to gaze at his humiliation of two other field whores by compelling them to make out with one another and then fellate him, before then moving to seduce Dobermann – a combination cumulatively suggesting a somewhat Sartean dynamic of looking and refusing to look that, while being about power, cannot be reduced to male / female, active looking / passive to be looked at ness. (“You have to look! You can't refuse my spectacle!,” as Erner screams at Tanya.)
Despite this difference, one of the problems with the Nazisploitation filone more generally that again emerges is that of scale. These low-budget films lacked the resources to convincingly depict a larger-scale camp with hundreds or thousands of prisoners, only ever being able to present small-scale and somewhat specialist facilities with only a couple dozen inmates at most at a time.
Their production design also tends to be that bit off, as when the rows of improbably comfortable looking beds and the showers with abundant hot water and soap for those long shower scenes come across as more appropriate to a prison, convent or girls' school – a lack of specificity which further highlights the ease with which the same basic stock scenario, situations and sets could so often be redressed by a simple substitution of mother superior for head warden or SS doctor.
Tanya refusing to gaze...
... making a defiant, resistant gaze of her own...
... and as the laughing woman...
On the plus side, the direction is more accomplished than many others of its kind, with some effective camera set ups and movements. Likewise although the inmates – including Stefanio D'Amario and Sara Sperati – are as usual that bit too healthy and well-fed looking to really convince as the real thing, they and the other performers – including Erna Schurer, Solvi Stubing and John Steiner amonst the Nazi contingent – are uniformly committed to their roles and, within the melodramatic, operatic and campy boundaries of the filone, more than adequate.
Stelvio Cipriani' score is another asset, although some of his cues are recognisable from elsewhere, such as the lush, romantic piano piece that build ups to the Countess's murder in Bay of Blood.