Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974) **
It may not be the first (that dubious honor would seem to belong to 1969’s Love Camp 7), but Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS is almost certainly the most notorious of the concentration camp porno-violence movies. You might think that certain things would be in such obviously bad taste that nobody would dare make an exploitation movie about them, and that the Holocaust would stand right at the top of that list. You’d be wrong. Love Camp 7 and its descendants shamelessly use the Final Solution as an excuse to show beautiful, naked girls being tortured to death by sexual sadists, and the most incredible thing about these movies is that— far from being a handful of isolated outbursts of grotesquerie— they constituted an entire genre, and were produced steadily and continuously for most of a decade. Sometimes, the emphasis is more on the sex, sometimes it’s more on the violence, and sometimes— as in Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS— it’s about a 50-50 split. What most of them have in common is that they tend to be pretty hard to watch.
Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS is almost totally devoid of plot. Ilsa (Dyanne Thorne, from Blood Sabbath and The Swinging Barmaids) is the commandant-doctor of Medical Camp 9, a concentration camp devoted to the sort of ghastly and pointless medical “experiments” made famous by Dr. Josef Mengele. In addition to her officially sanctioned work on epidemiology, the mass sterilization of the “inferior races,” and other similar enterprises, Ilsa uses the resources of Medical Camp 9 to conduct some private research of her own. It is her belief that women are far more resistant to pain than men (she’s right, incidentally), and that the Third Reich would be wise to start using female soldiers as shock troops. She means to prove her theories by torturing her female inmates to death, and making note of how much damage they can withstand before their nervous systems give out. (Dr. Science is going to have to pick this one up with tongs, but he’d like to point out how badly these experiments are designed. In order to test her hypothesis properly, Ilsa would need experimental subjects of both sexes. That she uses only women suggests that the filmmakers were making some especially ugly assumptions about the tastes of their audience, assumptions that are made even uglier by the fact that they’re almost certainly correct.) Meanwhile, her male inmates divide their time between slave labor during the day and sexual slavery by night. Every couple of days, Ilsa will call a man to her bedroom; those who fail to satisfy her (and that’s just about all of them) end up castrated, fully emasculated, or dead, depending on the thoroughness of their failure.
Shortly after all this is established, Medical Camp 9 receives two truckloads of fresh prisoners. The women are swiftly sorted into those who will be deliberately infected with diseases to serve as test subjects for experimental drugs, and those who will become guinea pigs in Ilsa’s pain research. The men are all inspected with an eye toward their suitability for her after-hours amusements. There is one new prisoner of each sex that catches Ilsa’s eye. The woman is named Kata (Nicole Riddell, from Blazing Stewardesses and High School Fantasies), and it is her toughness and defiance that leads the commandant to single her out; she seems a most promising subject for her pet project. The man is an American called Wolfe (Gregory Knoph) who, being of German descent, offers a change of pace from all the untermenschen she’s been schtupping since she was placed in charge of the camp. And wouldn’t you know it, Wolfe is (to steal a line from Predator) a goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus— he can go all night and make Ilsa come ‘til she can’t walk straight. Good old American Pioneer Spirit in action, eh?
Anyway, Wolfe pretty much has his ticket to ride because of his unique abilities, so he takes advantage of the commandant’s unwillingness to see anything bad happen to him, and begins plotting an insurrection with fellow inmate Mario (Tony Mumolo). (And incidentally, the scene in which Wolfe returns intact from his night with the commandant, and explains the secret of his success to Mario [who had already forfeited his balls to Ilsa’s sexual insatiability] is, in its way, one of the most unpleasant moments in this extremely unpleasant film.) Meanwhile, over in the women’s hut, a newly arrived prisoner named Anna (Maria Marx) has begun doing the same thing with Kata and a third girl called Rosette (this actress receives no credit, despite playing one of the movie’s more important characters). But Kata’s time is short, because Medical Camp 9 is scheduled to receive a visit from an SS general (Wolfgang Roehm, who would return as a different character in the subsequent Ilsa, Harem-Keeper of the Oil Sheiks), and Isla wants to make sure her special project has reached fruition by the time the general arrives. Kata is therefore hauled in by Ilsa’s gorgeous, blonde, lesbian sidekicks, and spends the rest of the movie having every ghastly thing you could possibly imagine done to her.
The general’s visit is a short one. He is impressed with Ilsa’s operation, and on behalf of Heinrich Himmler himself, presents the commandant with the Reichsführer Cross. He also thinks highly enough of the results Ilsa has obtained in her pain research to forward the evidence to the SS high command, though he chews her out at the same time for using Germany’s time and resources for her own private projects. Finally, after all the feasting and ceremony is finished, he has a little favor to ask of her: he wants her to piss on him while wearing her boots and the top half of her SS major’s uniform. Ilsa is clearly revolted by this request, but hey— he is a general, after all.
Oddly enough, the general’s golden shower triggers the final downfall of Ilsa and her camp. The next morning— the one on which the prisoners’ revolt is scheduled to take place— Ilsa sends for Wolfe; as she puts it, she needs “a real man” after her night with the general. Wolfe uses this opportunity to introduce the commandant to the joys of bondage, and once Ilsa is tied securely to her bed and gagged with one of her own stockings, Wolfe skips out to take part in the revolt. The outnumbered, leaderless Nazis are no match for the surprisingly well organized prisoners, and are overcome in short order. The question is, what is to be done with Ilsa, her lesbian sidekicks, and her research assistant, Binz (George “Buck” Flower, from Satan’s Lust and The Fog)? Wolfe and Rosette think the prisoners should flee the camp at once, and leave their Nazi captives to be picked up by the rapidly advancing allied armies. The broader consensus in the camp, however, is that the prisoners should deal with Ilsa and company themselves. Wolfe and Rosette want no part of the bloody revenge that they think must surely follow, so they head off into the surrounding forest, and are thus saved from an unexpected reverse: the general, well aware of how close the allied armies are to Medical Camp 9, has sent a commando team back to destroy it, exterminating prisoners, guards, and doctors alike in order to prevent the allies from ever learning what went on there. Thus, in an unexpected departure from the usual women’s prison formula (and what is the concentration camp movie if not merely an extreme mutation of that formula?), Ilsa gets hers not at the hands of her former victims, but is destroyed by the very system of which she was a part. It’s really a pretty satisfying resolution, when you think about it that way.
And it’s a good thing, too, because this is an unbelievably grotesque film, desperately in need of some kind of philosophical redemption, however feeble. Indeed, it’s scarcely surprising that Isla, She-Wolf of the SS should have proved so lethal to the careers of those who worked on it— most of the cast never acted again (a real cynic might say that they had never acted at all...), and of those who did, only Dyanne Thorne and George Flower could get subsequent work in anything other than hardcore porn or later Ilsa installments. Very little of the movie’s running time is spent telling the story; the great bulk of it is devoted instead to a remarkably disturbing catalogue of atrocities. It isn’t just the specific acts of violence that are depicted that are disturbing, either, but the fact that things very much like them actually were done on a systematic basis to literally millions of real people. What’s more, the production values here are high enough to give most of what the movie shows some real impact.
Then there’s the small matter of the Ilse Koch connection. In a sense, there really was an Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, although in real life, her unflattering nickname was “Die Hexe von Buchenwald” (“The Witch of Buchenwald,” which English-speaking journalists would later modify to the alliterative “The Bitch of Buchenwald”). Koch was the wife of SS Colonel Karl Koch, who was given the commandant’s position at Buchenwald when that camp opened in 1937. Both Kochs were corrupt power-junkies, even by Nazi standards, and Ilse was sexually depraved as well. They lived like pharaohs at Buchenwald, turning the slave labor of the camp as much to their own personal advantage as to the Third Reich’s, and it was that which ultimately got them into trouble. In 1941, Karl Koch was brought up on charges as a black marketeer, stripped of his command, and transferred to a much less prestigious concentration camp while the investigation proceeded. Ilse, meanwhile, stayed at Buchenwald, where she got cozy with its new boss, Dr. Waldemar Hoven. Finally, in 1943, Karl Koch was arrested, along with Ilse and Dr. Hoven; all three were charged with cruelty to prisoners, embezzlement, and forgery, while Karl and Hoven were also indicted for murder. The men were convicted and sentenced to death (Hoven’s sentence was commuted in light of the short supply of doctors in Germany by that time), but Ilse got off, and was soon back to her old tricks at Buchenwald. She wouldn’t be brought to justice until after the camp was liberated by the US Army in 1945. Obviously, this is a rather different story from what the movie depicts, and the cinematic Ilsa is much, much worse than the real woman on whom her character was based, but if you take Ilsa as a composite of Ilse, Karl, and Hoven, you come frighteningly close to what really happened.
All that makes for a film that even I can barely stomach. Sure, I have a history of deliberately seeking out movies that leave me feeling abused and sullied, but everyone has his limits, and the producers of this picture have found mine. I never thought I’d be the one to say this, but Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS really is too distasteful to be entertaining.