Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS
by Jon Bastian
With a title that already sounds like a parody of itself, this 1970’s oddity treads a very uneasy line between anti-fascist polemic and sexploitation deluxe.
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Okay, first the disclaimer — and the title alone, Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, demands one. I was browsing the local video store, saw this tape in the bargain discount bin and figured what the hell, this is one of those infamous exploitation titles that everyone has heard of but very few people have actually seen, kind of on a par with such “classic” fare as Bloodsucking Freaks. That’s what led me to reviewing this curiosity — and you can only imagine what kind of reaction I got from the fifty-something female clerk behind the counter.
The second disclaimer comes with the film, which opens with a long title card, a printed statement from the producer, along the lines of, “Hey, this shit really happened and the Nazis were terrible people. We’re doing this to keep it from happening again.” This is called having your cake and bleeding all over it too, a tactic that’s totally reminiscent of the phrases they used to put all over 1950’s nudist films in order to avoid the censors and pretend they existed for something besides the onanistic pleasure of middle-aged, single men. “For medical professionals only.” “For educational purposes.” “Not to be taken internally…”
There’s a good term for this genre of filmmaking — Trainwrecksploitation — films that focus on grotesque, gory and nauseating bits of life, shoot them with slick style, then kill the villain at the end so the whole thing can be pawned off as a morality tale. Some films in this genre are actually quite good. Bob Guccione’s 1980 Caligula is one of my favorite guilty pleasures, a hardcore, ultra-violent and very funny star-studded Roman orgy that happens to be historically accurate, although toned down from reality. Another classic example — one that I have yet to nerve myself up to see — is Pasolini’s Salò: 120 Days of Sodom, released the same year as Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, and which, I’ve been told, is one of the most relentlessly intense, nihilistic and disgusting things ever committed to celluloid. At the same time, Salò is supposed to be a political metaphor, a cautionary tale against fascism, with at least some artistic intent behind it.
The producers of Ilsa seemed to have the same pretensions, but their results are hit-or-miss. A parade of frequently nude women passes before our eyes as they are tortured or murdered in exceedingly gory ways. However, the filmmakers were careful to include a handful of strong female characters who try to fight back and come across as real people instead of just props for the filmmakers’ twisted fantasies. There’s even a bit of a human side to the titular (and how!) Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne) to the extent that there’s even a twinge — though just a twinge — of sympathy right before she gets hers in a nicely ironic finale. The few “normal” sex scenes in the movie are actually pretty damn erotic and the pneumatically gifted Ilsa can throw an orgasm that won’t leave a dry seat in the house. I dare you not to get aroused by the humpy bits no matter what your gender or preference. The trouble is, with the Nazi plotline and the excessive violence against objectified women on display, the film comes off as nothing more than a fourteen year-old boy’s secretly written fascist-fetish erotic whackoff fantasy. Sure, we have one onscreen castration, one alluded-to castration and one man flogged to death, but all the other victims are women, usually naked and always bloody and screaming. It’s misogynistic porn of the highest (or lowest) order, and no disclaimers to the contrary can make it otherwise. On the surface, the purpose of all this mayhem would seem to be to make us hate the villainess, but, c’mon — she’s a fucking Nazi, what more reason do you need to root against her? And I’d be really afraid to meet the person who gets off on the torture here. Unfortunately, I know such persons do exist. They tend to show up on the news when the fifteen bodies are discovered in their basement, and their middle names are always Wayne.
Ilsa’s story is pretty simplistic. She’s the commandant of an SS camp that performs medical experiments on the female prisoners, has a penchant for schtupping the male inmates, and then lopping off their naughty bits when they inevitably fail to satisfy her. This all changes when German-born American stud Wolfe (Gregory Knoph) arrives. He can best be described as utterly cocksure, largely thanks to his ability to withhold orgasm — and therefore his ability to bang the living daylights out of Ilsa, thereby preserving his manhood. It’s the archetypal male fantasy of the super-woman who can be tamed with a super-penis, and it’s certainly turned up in more legitimate fare. Just think of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger, who gives up being a bad girl as soon as she gets a taste of ol’ 007’s Walther PPK. But, before Wolfe works his magic, Ilsa and her ice-blonde Teutonic sidekick gals, a pair of kittens with whips, torture their patients while Ilsa makes grandiose statements of intent. She’s going to prove that women are superior to men because they have a higher tolerance for pain. Of course, when part of that experimentation involves a gigantic electrified dildo, it’s hard to take such statements as anything but a lame attempt to mollify any feminists watching (as if) in a very backhand way. To provide the moral to this tale, the women patients and the male workers eventually conspire to escape from the camp, the attempt made easier by the hungover state of the guards and the fucked-senseless state of Ilsa.
If you examine any of this too closely, it all falls apart, starting with the concept that the Nazis would have put a woman in charge of anything like a death camp — or that a woman who had gotten to such a position of power would be stupid enough to let a POW tie her spread-eagle to a bed. There also seem to be remarkably few prisoners in this place, and the always-carousing soldiers and nurses must have forgotten that, in wartime, duty calls 24/7.
Dyanne Thorne does turn in a notable performance as Ilsa, which she repeated in two sequels, Ilsa, Harem-Keeper to the Oil Sheiks and Ilsa, Tigress of Siberia. I haven’t seen either of those masterpieces, and I’m not sure I want to. I don’t know if the absence of Nazi villains would make this kind of pic better or worse. I also don’t know why Dyanne Thorne isn’t more well known as an exploitation star, along the lines of Kitten Natividad or Betty Page. She certainly has the body, personality and rack for such fame, and does throw herself into this role with complete conviction. Her collective work includes such classics as The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio, Eager Beavers and Chesty Anderson, USN — the kind of titles that, if they didn’t exist, would have been made up anyway as exemplars in another film of some poor schmuck’s porno collection. Reportedly, Ms. Thorne is currently starring in a Vegas review called Sex Over Fifty. I don’t know the venue, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the Bellagio.
Ilsa is a very slick, well-produced film. The editing and cinematography are decent and the make-up and gore effects work, even if the bright red blood by the gallon is a bit unrealistic, but that’s probably all for the better. The whole thing has a strange kind of artsy mood to it, with the feel of a European film, the American hero being the only giveaway to the flick’s true origins. The film was shot on the leftover sets from the TV show Hogan’s Heroes, which was Nazi porn of a whole different kind. (But don’t get me started on that subject. Whoever thought a sitcom with loveable Nazis was a good idea, a mere twenty years after the war ended — hell, twenty thousand years after — was a supreme moron. I don’t know who to blame, but the show aired on CBS and was a product of Bing Crosby Productions — a man who, from all his USO work, should have known much, much better. Guess he was too busy taking a five iron to his son to notice).
But, I do digress. If you want porn with plot, check out Caligula or the Russ Meyer rack at the video store. If you want depravity and sadism, but with a dose of artistry behind it, check out anything by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS is interesting as a good example of a certain kind of filmmaking, but I can only recommend it with huge reservations. It’s not for everyone, and, to echo those disclaimers noted above, it should be viewed for educational purposes only. Or if you’re stuck with a date that you really, really want to get rid of. The trouble is, it’s not over the top enough to be laughable, but it’s not quite serious enough to be art. The end result is a pretty uncomfortable experience. Your results may vary, but if you watch this kind of thing and find any parts besides the plain vanilla fucking to be erotic, please turn yourself over to the authorities now.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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