Nazisploitation! The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture (2012)
By: Captain Red Eye on June 21, 2012  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
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Editers: Daniel H. Magilow, Kristin T. Vander Lugt and Elizabeth Bridges
Pages: 328
Publisher: Continuum Press
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Writing in 1978 at the apex of the Nazisploitation sub-genre, Times correspondent Richard Schickel trenchantly observed that Nazis make the perfect cinema villains. Undeniably menacing, frequently twisted, eliciting demented cackles or blithely informing their victims 've haff vays of making you speek,' devoid equally of scruple or moral compass and thoroughly impervious to pity, film Nazis are ready-made for hatin' and yet, like Hitler himself, exert a singular fascination on viewers precisely because of their seemingly limitless capacity for evil. They are, quite simply, the embodiment of everything dark and cruel in human nature, a quintessential bad guy archetype designed to be destroyed, on celluloid as in real life, by the forces of Right. Nazisploitation! puts it simply: 'The use of Nazis as villains is acceptable because historically they killed millions.' Slaughtering Nazis by pulling the trigger on a Wolfenstein-style first person shooter or revelling in their frequently gory on-screen demise thus provides a form of 'guilt-free catharsis,' the popularity of which shows no signs of abating.

Well before World War II had drawn to a close the West's obsession with the Third Reich had found repeated cinematic expression in the form of either parody (The Great Dictator, 1940), historical drama (Hangmen Also Die, 1943) or propagandist documentary (Prelude to War, 1942). And it wasn't long after the war's close that new sub-genres were exploited: the Nazi chase movie, as in Orson Welles The Stranger (1946), the POW film (The Captive Heart, 1946), the good German in search of redemption (Frieda, 1947), and so on.

But it wasn't until the 1970s that it became acceptable to admit that the Nazis, race hate and genocidal impulses notwithstanding, were just a little bit sexy. With their carefully shined jackboots, impeccable Hugo Boss-designed uniforms, death's heads and torchlit ceremonies and all-around Aryan chic, the SS in particular came to evoke filmically what Susan Sontag called 'the solemn eroticism of fascism.'

Both a celebration and, of course, an exploitation of all that is erotic in the fascist aesthetic, solemn or otherwise, Nazisploitation enjoyed a brief heyday during the mid to late 1970s, producing a handful of what might loosely be termed great works and many more not so great ones. Continuum Press's recent offering Nazisploitation! marks the first book-length work devoted to the topic, and its comprehensive, systematic and frequently fascinating collection of essays expertly dissects the genre co-editor Daniel Magilow archly describes as being characterised by a 'flagrant disregard for historical accuracy, pornographic tendencies, graphic violence, all-around tastelessness and lack of ethical sensitivity.'

Divided into three sections - 'Origins, Histories and Genealogies,' 'Bitches, Whores and Dominatrices' and 'Heroes, Villains and the Undead' - the book's contents include attempts to place Nazisploitation within its proper historical context, ruminations on stock characters like Nazi doctors and Nazi zombies, the appearance of Nazis in video games and other digital media and in-depth examinations of the genre's most popular progeny like Ilsa, Salon Kitty, The Damned and The Gestapo's Last Orgy as well as more recent thematic outings such as Inglourious Basterds and Downfall (Der Untergung). Despite the titular concession to its subject's unabashedly trashy status (even the exclamation mark would seem out of place on a work entitled, say, Film Noir! or German Expressionism!) the tone throughout is unremittingly scholarly, though thanks to a combination of clever editing, well-chosen contributors and subject matter which oscillates between sleazy and sensationalist the essays on offer are never dry. Of particular note are Michael D. Richardson's singularly adroit 'Sexual Deviance and the Naked Body in Cinematic Representations of Nazis,' a stunning dissection of the psychosexual dynamics of fascism, and 'Captain America Lives Again and So Do the Nazis: Nazisploitation in Comics After 9/11,' an exploration of the manner in which Nazis have frequently served as al-Qaeda surrogates in American comic book depictions of the past decade. By using the Nazis as 'coherent, surrogate enemies in lieu of an amorphous organisation of multinational terrorist cells,' author Craig This informs us, producers of comics could psychically re-enact the attacks on New York City in myriad ways, only this time letting the hero, the United States, win.

Nazisploitation thus serves many purposes. It allows to us to symbolically punish the Nazis for their misdeeds, to speculate on what might have happened had they actually won the war, to wallow in the degradation of the labour and extermination camps (momentarily wielding the whip or seeing the world through the doomed eyes of one destined for the gas chambers), to indulge in the theatrics of power, repair or explore psychological wounds or simply revel in 90-minutes' worth of fetishistic B-movie kitsch. Though the subject, as one essayist puts it, has previously been seen as a 'no-go zone for serious scholars,' the present work goes a long way towards exploding that notion.
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