Wednesday 30 July 2008

Zombi Holocaust / Zombie Holocaust / Zombies unter kannibalen / Dr Butcher MD / La Regina dei cannibali

This is a film which offers a challenge to auteurism, an approach which I often take in attempting to bring out the stylistic and thematic continuities in the work of Italian filone directors generally recognised, if at all, as mere metteurs en scene.

For the driving force behind Zombie Holocaust is plainly producer and co-writer Fabrizio de Angelis who, having bankrolled Zombie a few months earlier, clearly hoped that lightning would strike twice with this rehash / remake that uses some of the same cast, crew, locations and even, on occasion, footage.

The idea being to make as much money as possible out of the zombie and cannibal filone before public interest waned

This wouldn't in itself necessarily be an issue but for the fact that de Angelis's motivations are clearly 100% financial, of the 'leave messages to Western Union' type, and that in selecting Frank Martin / Marino Girolami as director he has a journeyman helmsman concerned with nothing more than giving the audience what they want, in the form of Alexandra Delli Colli's frequent gratuitous nudity and plenty of crude, unconvincing gore, whilst getting the film in the can as quicky and efficiently as possible.

The first victim is disovered

A somewhat obviously latex human torso, curiously devoid of a ribcage

Put differently, it's filone cinema at worst, where hybridisation of ideas, most particularly from the post-Romero zombie and indigenous cannibal sub genres in particular, results less in progress than patchwork / pastiche / failed bricolage; the last term tying in with the film's dubious anthropological elements.

A pointless establishing shot of a car driving off

We opens in New York city, that frequent mecca for Italian filmmakers seeking to take advantage of US locations at the time, with what first appears as a series of unexplained corpse mutilations at a city hospital.

Another victim...

and a nurse's understandable reaction shot

Doctors Dreylock (Walter Patriarca, who also served as production designer) and Ridgeway (Alexandra Delli Colli) lay a trap for the perpetrator, catching an orderly as he is about to take a bite out of a freshly removed heart. Rather than be taken alive, the orderly then leaps out a window, leading to another one of those plummeting dummy moments we all so know and love, complete in this case with an arm flying off only to be reattached when we cut back to the actor lying in a pool of stage blood.

Dr Ridgeway notices a distinctive tattoo on the man's chest, which she recognises thanks to not only holding another degree in anthropology but also having spent her early years on the same islands, the Moloccas, as the man came from!

A static tableaux shot of Delli Colli undressing; the filmmakers don't bother making use of the mirrored surfaces in the room to add a bit of visual interest

The tattoo is the symbol if Kito, the name of a Moluccan island and its deity, whose cannibal cult was thought long extinct; even more coincidentally Ridgeway also has a sacrificial knife with the same symbol in her apartment, that is stolen soon thereafter by a burglar who suspiciously takes nothing else.

Note the detaching / reattaching limb and the mark of Kito on the man's chest

The two doctors learn that theirs was no isolated incident, with similar incidents at other hospitals. In each case the perpetrator was from the Moloccas and bore the mark of Kito.

In light of these discoveries Dr Chandler (Ian McCulloch) plans an expedition to the islands and invites Ridgeway along on the basis that her knowledge of the islanders and their culture will prove useful. Also accompanying them are Chandler's colleague George Harper and – in yet another contrivance – his girlfriend, Susan Kelly (Sherry Buchanan), a scoop-hungry newshound who has already gotten on Ridgeway's wrong side with her invasive approach.

A familiar image from Zombie

The plan, Chandler explains, is to first go to see Dr Obrero (Donald O'Brien), an old acquaintance who has spent the past five years in the islands with his medical mission. If anyone knows what is going on it will be Obrero, who should also then be able to provide the expedition with a boat and a guide to take them to the island of Kito itself.

On arrival in the archipelago they are treated courteously by Dr Obrero, though the placing of a severed human head in Ridgeway's bed serves as a reminder that this is hardly safe territory for the white (wo)man.

Obrero's servant Molotto (Dakar, who had performed a similar role in Zombie) is charged with guiding the expedition's boat to Kito.

Engine trouble forces a landing on a nearby island for the night with the plan being to continue on towards Kito come morning. An attack by the cannibalist natives and the discovery of Kito's mark soon indicate, however, that this island is Kito, suggesting that Molotto is either less than competent or has been instructed to try to lead the expedition astray.

More signs of Kito

A series of encounters with the cannibals then thin out the party's numbers faster than Ian McCulloch's hair, before the survivors are saved thanks to a timely intervention by the zombies – creatures created by a certain mad scientist who is also behind the natives' return to their old ways...

Zombi(e) Holocaust is one of those films that was released under an at times bewildering array of titles, including Zombies unter Kannibalen in German speaking territories; the alternate Italian AKA of La Regina dei cannibali; and, of course, the US Dr Butcher MD edit, which cannibalised some footage from yet another film, the aborted horror anthology Tales That'll Tear Your Heart Out. What's most significant here is the way in which these titles emphasise different aspects of the film, presumably to increase its appeal to audiences less interested in zombies than cannibals or mad scientists depending on what happened to be in vogue at any one point in circa 1980-82.

Some of the crude gore and zombie makeup effects

As further evidence of the film's derivativeness we also get the Mountain of the Cannibal God and Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals deus ex machina of the white / non-native woman as primitive goddess motif, allowing for yet more gratuitous nudity from Delli Colli, and composer Nico Fidenco actually reusing some cues from his Black Emanuelle scores.

Despite the title Zombie Holocaust is one of the less apocalyptic example of the filone, with the survivors apparently able to return home pretty much unscathed all things considered and the 'natural' order of things restored. As such the implicit message comes across as a less revolutionary, more reactionary one than most of its ilk, namely that some degree of western exploitation of the primitive is justified by our superiority, but that mad scientist type experiments in creating zombie labourers are going a little bit too far...

Delli Colli appears in the same pose in The New York Ripper

It's also worth noting here that 'obrero' means worker in Spanish. Were the good doctor's enterprising experiments thus a misguided attempt to pull himself into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, to establish himself as master rather than slave? Could there be a longer paper / essay on the Italian zombie film as proletarian revenge fantasy and / or expression of Nietzschean ressentiment or somesuch in this?

[The screengrabs here come from the UK Stonehaven DVD release]

Bees Join Hunt for Serial Killers

Or so reads the line on the BBC website:

Anyone else think of Phenomena here?

Tuesday 29 July 2008

Turkish Torso poster

There's also a nice little contextualisation of the Turkish movie industry of the 70s here, giving some ideas on how the likes of Seytan and Turkish Star Wars came about:

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly re-issue in UK

In case anyone in the UK isn't aware, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly is currently being digitally re-issued to cinemas in its extended form.

The other parts of the Dollars trilogy will follow over the next couple of months.

Zombi 2 / Zombie / Zombie Flesh Eaters / Gli Ultimi zombi / Island of the Flesh-Eaters / Island of the Living Dead / Woodoo

I can hazard a guess at what you might be thinking: another discussion of Zombie? Is there really a need? Well, perhaps not if truth be told, but here goes anyways...

The main issue, I think, is trying to see the film with fresh eyes and thereby recapture something of what it must have been like to have watched it as a first-time viewer back in 1979.

Would we have really expected to see an underwater zombie, never mind a fight between it and a shark?

Would we have anticipated the extremity of the spike in the eye sequence?

Asking these questions and answering them – a 'no' in both instances, except perhaps for those few individuals who had followed Fulci's career to that point and knew what he was capable of – helps emphasise the way in which Zombie works best, as a waking nightmare in which the worst can and will happen in Fulci's worst of all possible anti-Panglossian worlds, whereby the various plot contrivances, inconsistencies and illogicalities thus come to possess a perverse internal logic of their own.

We have come to eat you, travelling east to west and left to right

We open with a boat drifting into New York harbour, an arrival that brings death and disease in its wake like some modern-day version of Nosferatu. (It's always useful to be able to pair up a critically disreputably Italian horror film with a classic of art cinema, isn't it.)

Having nearly collided with the Staten Island Ferry a harbour patrol vessel boards the boat, an early indication of the Fulcean worldview comes across from the fact that two patrolmen are more interested in the potential bonus should the boat indeed be devoid of life than of what fate might have befallen its former occupants; yes, Elisa Briganti scripted the film, but the fact that Enzo Castellari passed on directing it and suggested Fuli as the man for the job is telling.

Where do the centipedes come from?

One of the patrolmen goes down below and is attacked by a monstrous figure who tears out his throat before moving up on deck.

The other patrolman empties his revolver into the creature, causing it to fall off the boat and sink beneath the water.

Note the way Fulci hangs on the image of the New York skyline for a moment after the zombie has been blasted into the bay

As news of the incident spreads reporter Peter West is assigned to cover the story by his paper, while Anne Bowles is questioned by the police, the boat having belonged to her father.

The two investigators soon meet and agree to work together.

A letter from Anne's father mentions a mysterious disease sweeping the Caribbean island of Matool, leading the two to fly out to the Domican Republic and to go in search of a boat they can character. As (bad) luck would have it another two Americans, Brian Hart and Susan Martell, are about to depart on a two-month cruise and agree to take Peter and Anne to the island.

This proves easier said than done, however, until a chance encounter with a shark – and, as already mentioned, another zombie – leaves the boat damaged, compelling the group to cast anchor off the nearest island.

Giving them what they want: breasts...

... shark ...

... zombie ...

... and zombie vs shark

Sure enough, it is Matool and, as a parallel narrative establishing Dr Menard's futile attempts to understand and control the spread of the mysterious plague rapidly spreading across the island has made clear, things are about to get a whole lot worse for all concerned...

Sometimes the zombies seem more interested in watching than flesh eating

As I've said before, Fulci was a better and more subtle director than he is often given credit for, with more to his films than their notorious splatter set pieces.

As evidence of this we can begin by noting the whip pans on the boat as Anne is interrogated by a pair of detectives, as an approach that demonstrates a willingness to experiment compared to the usual establishing shot and shot / reverse shot decoupage, and which also convey Anne's confused state and the detective's inability to summon up much in the way of sympathy for her.

More generally, Fulci again makes effective use of in-camera editing through pulling focus or moving his camera around the action rather than cutting, and displays a strong grasp of the mechanics of generating suspense and shock, using atmospheric build ups interrupted and concluded with dramatic zooms and / or cuts at the right moment.

On the downside some of the more expository scenes suffer from a lack of visual imagination, such as the classical shot-reverse shot pattern of the negotiations over the boat between Brian and Peter. Again, however, a case could also be made for even this scene, that Fulci is visually conveying the conflict between the two men over their conflicting goals – West's need to go to Matool against Brian's desire to preserve his holiday – followed by the formation of a single group of the two that had existed at the start of the scene through the subsequent reframing in the four shot.

Limited resources and retakes are also evident in the way in which the underwater zombie seems to lose, regrow and lose his arm in the course of the fight with the shark and the tendency of the molotov cocktails thrown by the survivors in the final showdown to produce a blast of flame that lasts but an instant – specifically until the next is thrown – and to never set anything except zombies ablaze.

Above all, however, it's about the gore effects and the set-pieces, as the things which really matter to the typical viewer and as the ones where Fulci and his collaborators really deliver the goods.

Who cares if the plotting is full of coincidences and contrivances or the direction seemingly plodding – though I could go in in attempting to justify the construction of many other scenes, I won't, in the hope that the point has been made – so long as there are throat-rippings, flesh chompings and head traumas aplenty and those jaw-dropping I-can't-believe-I-just-saw-that set pieces.

The defining moment of Fulci's career?

Here Fulci, make up and FX man Gino De Rossi and production designer Walter Patriarca also succeed in conveying the physicality of the zombies and the island in a way unparalleled in any other previous zombie film I can think of, with the stenches of flesh, blood, decay, alcohol, earth, sweat and medical chemicals and the feel of the heat and dust almost palpable.

Though there some exceptions to this cinesthesia – a portmanteau term coined by Vivien Sobchack to emphasise the way in which filmmakers can convey all the senses through the audio-visual channels available to them – most notably the way in which the discovery of Mrs Menard's fate and of the two non-feasting zombies in the scene are signalled by sight in another effective shot-reaction shot combination, these can also be taken as a further expression of Fulci's preference for cinematic over narrative logic and as a precursor of the absurdist approach that would become prominent in City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, where the (un)dead can and do appear and disappear at will.

Sound and music are also important, with the voodoo drums and droning zombie synth making a vital contribution to the film's overall effect, with another intertextual indication of this being the way in which many of Fabio Frizzi and Giorgio Tucci's cues would be recalled in City of the Living Dead.

Surprisingly, however, the film perhaps isn't as gory as it could have been, with a certain restraint showing in the way the dead patients have their heads covered and are not always shown receiving a bullet in the head, with the camera being equally prone to focus on Menard. Though budgetary constraints may have again contributed here, these images also tell us something about the doctor, that is he is fundamentally well-meaning and decent, as has not yet become so inured to the act of shooting his former patients that it has become in any way easier.

Menard and Lucas represent different approaches to the living dead

As with Romero's films, the filmmakers leave the zombie plague unexplained, along with their precise relationship with the unseen but near omnipresent voodoo-drumming natives. One thing that is clear, however, is that western science is unable to make sense of the zombies or to provide any answers. “Nothing fits,” as Menard despairingly remarks. More than this, his hubristic insistence on finding an explanation if anything more a hinderance than a help in the circumstances, especially when compared with some of the natives' more pragmatic if reluctant acceptance of the seemingly impossible:

Dr Menard: “Do you know what has caused all this? Is it voodoo?”

Lucas, the native assistant: “Lucas not know nothing. The father of my father always say – the dead, they will come back to suck the blood of the living.”

“That's nonsense! That's just a stupid superstition!”

“Yes, you are right doctor. You know many more things than Lucas.”

“I don't believe that voodoo can bring the dead back to life.”

“And Lucas not believe that the dead be dead.”

Had Menard and Bowles recognised their limits and left the island at the first sign of trouble, it's possible that nothing would have really happened – though then, of course, we wouldn't have had much of a film!

There's also a sense that voodoo may be being used by some of the islanders against the white man, that from a syncretic combination of African beliefs and Catholicism that could be useful to the slave master – as one who no longer really believed in magic but was quite happy to use the additional power it could grant him – it has now transformed into something with a more 'revolutionary' third worldist potential. (The famous “we are going to eat you” tagline, is suggestive in this regard in terms of the implied subject positions of third-world zombie and western world.)

Various members of the Dell'Aqua family as feature zombies

Following on from this, one of the film's weak points is often taken to be its ending. The delivery in the English dub here is somewhat ridiculous and the image of zombies shuffling across the bridge with the traffic below them flowing as normal despite the broadcaster's panicked final broadcast – they're everywhere! they're at the door! they're coming in! aaarrgggh! – not much better. However, the Italian dub is less hyperbolic and makes the more reasonable suggestion that the situation is deteriorating rapidly but not yet lost. Both also giving a neat symmetry to the film in terms of opening and closing words, which are heard over the radio, and images, of boats and New York-ness.

Perhaps the final indication of Zombie's accomplishment is that it is sufficiently rich that we can come back to the film again and, as I have hopefully indicated here, find something new we never really noticed or particularly thought about before.

Monday 28 July 2008

The Films of Sergio Leone

This 2008 volume from Scarecrow Press presents a revised, expanded and corrected edition of author Robert Cumbow's long unavailable 1987 original, made at a point when, as he notes, information on the auteur and his work was in relatively short supply.

The first chapter, the only one in the introductory section, provides an overview of Leone's life and career. Thought really given little more than the bare minimum – Leone was born in 1929, died in 1989 and made only a few films during his life, which tended to be more successful with audiences than critics – this is all that is needed insofar as Cumbow points the reader more interested in the man than the films to Christopher Frayling's exhaustive biography Something to do with Death whilst setting out his own approach as different yet complementary to Frayling's in his emphasis on the text.

The second chapter, beginning the second section of the book, on the films, also quite brief, is again new and discusses Leone's pre-western work and the continuities between the peplum and the western in terms of narrative conventions and character types, particularly in the mythic dimensions that they tended to assume. There is the odd factual error, like identifying the origin of the term peplum in lying with a type of sandal, and one might have liked to see a more thoroughgoing analysis of Leone's debut film, The Colossus of Rhodes, but the overall analysis is sound and establishes a solid basis for considering the director's better known, 'mature' films.

The third chapter discusses A Fistful of Dollars in more detail and begins to really establish Cumbow's way of working and its distinctive strengths, as he works his way through the film in an almost image by image and scene by scene way to bring out their underlying possibilities. What we see on screen and hear on the soundtrack is, that is to say, what really matters. Though clearly not averse to theory, insofar as he brings out the structural oppositions undergirding the film, thus establishing certain patterns whose continuities, discontinuities and developments he will chart across Leone's subsequent films, Cumbow refuses to put the cart before the horse in the way that most academic studies would by identifying their standpoint as explictly marxist, psychoanalytic, semiotic or whatever.

What he ultimately emerges as is thus an old school Cahiers du Cinema / Sarris / Movie type humanistic, auteurist, mise en scène critic, the kind who is well versed in cinema, culture and ideas in general and who uses his erudition in the first instance to help illuminate the films themselves and only then turns to wider questions; as the book goes on we get references to Nietzsche, Bergson, Jansenism, Bettelheim, Eliade and others, all justified rather than show-offish.

One key reference point in this regard are Chabrol and Rohmer's seminal early study of Hitchcock– a connection made explicit in the 16th and final chapter, where Cumbow concludes with an analysis of Leone as a specifically Catholic filmmaker whose work expressed and advanced a distinctive morality.

Another, more implicit than explicit, seems to be Wollen's influential Signs and Meanings in the Cinema, as one of the few more theoretical works mentioned in the bibliography and as a text which, according to the postscript interview in third edition between Wollen and his one-time alter-ego Lee Russell, questions of art and aesthetics are paramount. (This is something which Wollen's discussion of the usefulness of structural linguistics to the study of film in the main body of the text itself can all too easily make us forget by giving the work a more scientific seeming cast.)

I had the occasional difference of opinion when Cumbow moved away from the details of the films to the wider context, as with his analysis of how different Fistful really was, but found his analysis of the film itself enormously rich in ideas. (Cumbow argues, correctly in my opinion, that Leone's work has come to represent the entirety of the spaghetti western to the general audience for better or worse but I am less certain of his contention that Leone's work was less innovative and more conventional than is commonly thought. I would contend that what's needed here is a finer distinction between the pre-Leone Italian western, with its more imitative approach to the Hollywood western, and the large number of post-Leone westerns which took on board and attempted to imitate his distinctively Italian innovations.)

The remaining six chapters of this section subject For a Few Dollars More, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck you Sucker, My Name is Nobody and Once Upon a Time in America to similar close readings and are again highly impressive and compelling in the main. A recurring theme here, helping account for the inclusion of the Valerii directed / Leone scripted and supervised My Name is Nobody, itself an elegy for the end of the Leone-style western, is the gradual shift from myth to history.

Of the analyses here, I felt that of Once Upon a Time in America to be the weakest, perhaps because Cumbow does not subject the film's mythic images of the gangster film to the same depth of analysis as the westerns and instead tends to subsume them into their more general framework. It may be, of course, that the film is not a meta-gangster movie in the same way as Once Upon a Time in the West is a meta-western, but the importance of film cliché within Harry Grey's source novel The Hoods – which Cumbow is too quick in my opinion to dismiss as bearing almost no relation to the finished film, as per one of Leone's remarks – may suggest otherwise.

Certainly, I would have liked to have seen more of a discussion of the film and its intertexts, particularly given the strength of Cumbow's discussions of the relationship between Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars or the traces of past roles carried by the likes of Van Cleef and Fonda or by image after image in Once Upon a Time in the West. (Then again, maybe this gives other Leone scholars something to do ;-))

The third section of the book, titled The Company gives consideration to Leone's casts and crew and their importance in realising his vision. Though there are perhaps some omissions here – Once Upon a Time in the West comes across as a writing collaboration between Leone and Bertolucci, for example – the two chapters also serve to show that Cumbow is no crude auteurist unawares of the difference that a cinematographer, production designer or editor can make to their director.

The fourth section, entitled The Vision, recapitulates and recontextualises some of the key points made in the film-by-film analyses by presenting them in a more thematic form.

Chapter 12 explores what Cumbow identifies as “the moral geometry of Sergio Leone,” or the way in which his compositions, camera movements and editing are in the final analysis as much moral as aesthetic choices, much as per Godard's oft-cited remark that “Morality is a question of tracking shots.”

Chapter 13 provides a comprehensive lexicon of Leone themes and images from A (anonymity) through to V (violence), providing a useful checklist of key moments to rewatch for anyone interested in his use of and / or attitudes towards – to give a few other examples – musical instruments, timepieces and rape.

Chapter 14 discusses Leone's most important collaborative partnership, that with Morricone, on a theme-by-theme and motif-by-motif basis but without using or relying upon any familiarity with music theory. (There is a book by Charles Leinberger on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly's score for anyone who is interested in something more specific / specialised here, although I haven't read it myself.)

The following brief chapter discusses the issue of the operatic in relation to Leone's cinema beyond the Morricone leitmofit, making the provocative suggestions that had Leone lived 100 years earlier he might have worked in the opera, as the spectacular art form of that era, and that had Verdi lived 100 years later he might have been a filmmaker for the same reasons.

As already mentioned, the last chapter returns us to the moral by bringing out the conscious and accidental Christian iconography of Leone's films to conclude that, once upon a time, he was the redeemer of the western genre.

Appendices provide complete credits and synopses for the films, a bibliography and details of DVD and CD releases.

All told, a thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating read that, like all the best film books, leaves one wanting to watch the films again and, more importantly, anew.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Zombcom Fulci zombie figure

How cool is this? A limited edition 12" articulated figure based on the poster Zombie from Fulci's film, in a wooden coffin box lined with moss and containing a juju charm in a bag. Limited to 100 copies worldwide.

Le Lunghe notti della Gestapo / Red Nights of the Gestapo

This is one of the more unusual Nazisploitation entries to come out of Italy, with none of the otherwise de rigeur concentration camps and only a few sadistic experiments of dubious scientific value.

Instead what we get is a factually grounded narrative that, by virtue of being based on the book of the same name by Bertha Uhland, the wife of the protagonist, here named von Uhler, and a supporting character in her own right, aspires to be taken a bit more seriously as an exploration of the evils of the Third Reich.

The film begins and ends with intertitles, the former announcing Rudolf Hess's dramatic flight to the UK and the latter the beginning of the invasion of the USSR, with the event depicted in between predicated on the first of these and seemingly contributing in no small way to the latter.

A history lesson

As Hess's underling SS man Manfred von Uhler (Ezio Miani) knows that his loyalty will be called into question by his master's defection and is prepared to commit suicide to preserve his, his family's and the SS's honour when he is taken by other, still more sinister, members of the selfsame organisation.

Effective symmetrical shots that wouldn't be out of place in The Conformist; outwith the SS lair and as the film progresses such symmetry and control is carefully lost

They strip him of rank and go through the motions of preparing a firing squad, which Uhler stands before impassively, but unexpectedly then announce that the whole thing was a test, which Uhler has passed, and thus assign him a mission vital to the security of the Reich that, as an ex-SS man whose loyalty to the party may be doubted by all but Himmler's inner circle, he is now uniquely well equipped for.

Uhler is to sound out a number of important civilian elements on the idea of plotting a coup with certain members of the Wehrmacht, in order to weed out those whose devotion to the cause and the war is less than wholehearted. The challenge is that he only has two weeks to bring them all together and acquire the necessary evidence – evidence that, as the film progresses, would in fact seem to be already there and probably not needed given the SS's usually pro-active approach.

Uhler's old friend Helmut von Danzig (Fred Williams), a francophile with no particular enthusiasm for the Reich, provides him with an initial route in while the sexual perversions of most of his targets – one man is obsessed with a particular dancer and actress, another with sucking milk from his partners' breasts as if he were a baby and so on – make it easy to lure them into compromising situations.

Von Danzig's women, with their lesbian tendencies, could also be from Bertolucci's film

As might the child who plays with dangerous toys

It's at this point, as Uhler sets to work recruiting appropriate female company and then lets them loose that the film either begins to lose its way or ups the ante, depending on your tolerance for sleaze, plot holes and sheer repetitiveness – significantly the film runs a comparatively epic 110 minutes rather than the usual 80 to 90 – whether you are willing to credit the filmmakers with attempting to say something meaningful about the nature of fascism thereby, and how far you believe the events depicted are a adequate representation of the truth given that Bertha Uhland presumably could not have been party to them.

Von Uhland and the women he has recruited

The first problem is that it's difficult to get a handle on what Manfred von Uhler is supposed to represent and what we are meant to feel for him.

He isn't an out and out bad guy along the lines of his Salon Kitty counterpart Helmut Vallenberg, being neither power-mad nor much of a pervert but rather a devoted family man and Nazi.

If the tension between these two is never adequately resolved it could be argued that this is quite deliberate and, indeed, makes a point about a contradiction in Nazi ideology – had the issues been explored in a way that made it clear this was indeed the intention.

Similarly, though Uhler sometimes intimates that he has his own agenda he subsequently fails to act on it, despite having foolishly being caught saying this and taking actions that one would have expected to have forced his hand.

Put another way, if Bertha Uhland's goal in telling her husband's story was to exonerate him, she either did a very bad job of it or was misled and / or misused by the filmmakers.

The second major problem is the presentation of the putatively anti-Nazi forces within Germany. Initially they're referred to as prominent members of the intelligentsia, but when gathered at the schloss are presented as a more mixed and sometimes internally conflicted group with those representing of culture and business or new and old money not always seeing eye to eye. Then there is the sense that, as far as the more intellectual types are concerned, they're second-rate figures anyway, furthered by one characters' reference to all those who have left, including the likes of Einstein, Brecht and Mann.

Perhaps more damaging, however, is that the SS are proved right in their intelligence suggesting them to be perverts almost to a man – one is even implied to be a paedophile – such that we're left wondering why their silence and compliance couldn't have been achieved long ago through a spot of judicious blackmail, buying off or other, more permanent means.

The Great Dictator never did this

Certainly, there's little sense of these men being able to take the high moral ground or having the capacity providing any sort of genuinely effective opposition or alternative leadership and every possibility that the unsympathetic viewer will come to regard them as just as bad, perhaps even worse, than Uhler.

This in turn foregrounds the whole question of how far the situation depicted really reflects the truth of Nazi Germany at the time, given the strength of the regime's propaganda machine, the succession of easy victories that already been won and the elimination, imprisonment or exiling of most of Nazi's most obvious enemies, whether real or imagined, during the preceeding eight years – unless we credit the filmmakers with attempting to illustrate the kind of perverse logic by which the regime and / or factions within it needed to be generating new enemies out of a paradoxical self-destructive self-sustenance.

Technically the film is better than most of its ilk, with more convincing period costumes and settings than usual, with the direction and performances also good enough to avoid much in the way of unintentional laughter. Some of the music choices, most notably the SS theme with lyrics in Italian about the sleep of reason breeding monsters – a theme important enough to also appear as an intertitle, albeit mis-spelled in the English translation – and frequent references to the pleasures of the whip, are a bit doubtful.

Luciano Rossi as a bearded intellectual

Tom Felleghy appears sans moustache as the head of an asylum who has managed to condition sadistic, masochistic and nympomaniac female patients in the hope that they might prove useful to the Reich – it won't ruin anything to say that they do – while Luciano Rossi is cast against type not as a Nazi pervert but as a relatively upstanding anti-Nazi professor.

A genuine oddity that's worth a look for curiosity value alone.