Salon Kitty (1976)

Salon Kitty first published by Movie Gazette, April 2005

Berlin at the outbreak of World War II. Following orders from his superiors which he hopes to turn to his own political advantage, SS Officer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) establishes a brothel for use by Nazi officials and foreign dignitaries, and selects a group of twenty young Aryan women to service the most extravagant whims of these élite clients and then secretly report back to him on their intimate conduct. Wallenberg also has the entire villa bugged, unbeknownst to the girls or to Kitty (Ingrid Thulin), the hedonistic, apolitical chanteuse/madam who has been installed to keep the house in order. Like the other girls, Marguerite (Teresa Ann Savoy) is a committed National Socialist who regards her work as a patriotic duty – but her love affair with a disillusioned Wehrmacht pilot (Bekim Fehmiu), and his subsequent execution, make her realise that the supposedly high ideals espoused by the Nazi powerbrokers are lies designed to turn the entire German people into submissive whores – and so, with Kitty’s help, she turns the tables on Wallenberg.

Fascism and eroticism can be difficult enough subjects on their own – but bring the two together on the big screen and you have an incendiary mix requiring very delicate handling. On one end of the scale are Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò: 128 Days of Sodom (1976) – challenging and controversial films, no doubt, but also deeply serious attempts to examine the ideology of fascism through the power dynamics of sadomasochism. At the other extreme you have that most tasteless of subgenres, the SS-exploitation and ‘love camp’ films, which reduce horrific atrocities and abject human suffering to a sleazy variety of porn. Somewhere in between these two comes Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty.

Unlike the typical SS-exploitation film, Salon Kitty is not set in a concentration camp, and importantly its female characters are themselves Nazis and willing prostitutes rather than victims of rape, torture or worse. The brothel established by Wallenberg to spy on the Nazi cadre is based in historical fact, lending the film a veneer of credibility (although Marguerite and the ins and outs of her love affair with the pilot are pure fiction). And the film’s persistent focus on Kitty still singing and dancing as though the Weimar Republic never ended even as the Nazi wolves circle ever closer owes more to the respectable political allegory of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) than to, say, Don Edmond’s Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1975).

On the other hand, Tinto Brass, who went on to direct the even more challenging historical-sex-and-torture-fest Caligula three years later, gained a reputation in the Eighties and Nineties as a maker of ‘pure’ erotic films – and while his vision in Salon Kitty of happy (albeit increasingly politically disillusioned) hookers is an apt metaphor for Germany’s blind obedience to Nazi authority, it is difficult to escape the impression that at least some of his soft-focus scenes are designed to engage organs other than the mind. Then there is the ‘wacky’ Italian diplomat Dino (Stefano Satta Flores) and his ‘humorous’ dialogue, sitting rather uneasily with material as serious as this – and worst of all, there is the regrettable implication that it was merely the fraudulent conduct of the power-hungry party cadre, rather than the whole ideology of Nazism itself, which was to be condemned (although the film does allude with due gravity to the fate of Jews and Romani under the Third Reich).

Still, even if at its core Salon Kitty might be deemed trash, trash seldom looks so good. With sets designed by two-time Oscar winner Ken Adam (Barry Lyndon, The Madness of King George), the film stages its actions amidst an angular opulence that would have impressed Hitler’s architect Albert Speer himself.

Strap: Tinto Brass’ historically-based allegory of Germany as the deceived whore of her Nazi rulers stimulates the eyes and ears while challenging one’s taste.

© Anton Bitel