I Know It When I See It
From motorcycle gangs to skinheads, Chile’s Ciudad Dignidad to Britain’s younger prince, S&M to the torture chamber video of Sir Oswald Mosley’s son Max, Nazi leather paraphernalia exerts a sexual draw, the starting point for Israeli Ari Libsker’s Stalags. The documentary is being shown with dual-national fellow countryman Roee Rosen’s sixteen-minute Two Women and a Man, with which it shares not only a sexual and gender-bender thread, but also a confusion of poorly differentiated talking heads and a too late revelation of central ideas.
In its defense, the short is a put-on of sorts, a faux study of “real outcast” Jewish Surrealist artist-writer-pornographer Justine Frank, whose identity is veiled until a lingering end close-up. Dealing for the bulk of its sixty-three minutes with what is billed as a cultural lightning rod in puritanical Israel, Stalags cuts too quickly from one person to another in its consideration of the early ‘60s phenomenon of luridly illustrated paperbacks set in POW camps known here from Wilder’s Stalag 17 and Hogan’s Heroes’s 13.
The half-sized color comics were written by local hacks assuming Anglo noms de plume, e.g., Eli Keider as Mike Bade, and, inserting grammatical warts as evidence of “authenticity,” masqueraded as translations into Hebrew. Invariably the stories displayed booted bosomy female SS guards in second-skin uniforms sadistically/sexually mistreating hunkily built downed U.S. and U.K. pilots with chests scored by whip-welts in First Blood fashion.
The statuesque stylized Brünnhildes turned Allied he-men into abject objects, quivering jellies, but only for a titillating time, the worm mostly turning for male victims to exact macho revenge. Sociological interpretations are advanced but undercut by other interviewees’ admissions that these chapbooks simply fueled their first pubescent fantasies a half-century ago, and a father is shown catching his nubile daughter reading one in a popular TV series.
The grandson of Holocaust survivors but born after that ‘60s generation, Libsker shuffles a couple of cards, first of which is the traumatic 1961 trial of Gestapo Jewish Section chief Adolf Eichmann, which aired for the first time memories of surviving concentration camp prisoners and, perversely, propelled the initial Stalag 13 and others into eighty-thousand-copy bestsellerdom, a million adjusted to today.
One white-suited yarmulked trial witness is Yehiel Feiner De-Nur, whose filmed faint looks strange enough to have been staged. More importantly, as K. Tzetnik (shortened from “camp inmate” in German) he had been among the earliest to write about Auschwitz in Hebrew, an admired author whose successful 1952 Doll’s House supposedly was based on a sister forced to serve the SS sexually in the camp’s “Pleasure Block” 24. Whether, as indicated, the work of this deceased author was picked up a decade later by the several illustrated-novel writers, and however much the Eichmann trial and his testimony there influenced the Stalag series, is moot.
When possible the series was confiscated by authorities and, its publishers judged guilty of printing obscene material, copies went underground as collectors’ items. The phenomenon is of limited, purely local interest. However, the film here introduces two concerns of broader interest, too late for the fuller consideration they deserve.
One is the inadequately realized debate, not about pornography but about the fidelity of such records and their implications. The bestiality of the Holocaust obviating any need to imagine additional obscenities, some Israeli experts denounce the assertion of forced Jewish prostitution and dismiss Tzetnik’s account. Yet others defend both as factual, and Doll’s House figures in national secondary school reading, as the film records a teacher reading from it while she guides her class on an Auschwitz tour. Speakers argue for one side or the other, but the film refuses to confront firmly the fine line at which individual or collective memory cannot distinguish myth from reality and fictions and factoids pass into gospel.
The truths of yesterday mold today’s reality, especially so in a relatively new nation forging identity out of unspeakable past persecution and a poly-sourced population. This film raises another too brief, too late concern, rendered more difficult and poignant by survivors’ horror of returning to memory. That is, the issue of how people survived that terror, how much an individual might have traded of him- or herself in return for whatever slightly favored treatment.
Reluctance or indignation on the part of the now dying-out survivors makes a full assessment unlikely. On the level of Stalags concerns brought up but not developed, fiction gets higher marks: condemned as sleazy in its day but now cult kink, The Night Porter gets more of a grip on whips, boots, barbed wire and babes, the eroticism of domination and submission, slave and master.
(Released by Heymann Brothers Films; not rated by MPAA.)