Salon Kitty/Madam Kitty (1976/1977) **½
The boundary between the worlds of art film and exploitation film has long been a porous one. In the 1950’s, when the big Hollywood studios began concentrating their production resources into fewer, costlier movies, and the owners of many small, struggling American theaters began running subtitled prints of European imports simply in order to have something new up on the screen during the other twenty weeks of the year, it didn’t take those exhibitors long to notice that they sold the most tickets when the foreign film in question occasionally put a bare ass or two on display. By 1960 or thereabouts, the very term “art film” had taken on connotations of euphemistic salaciousness in American parlance. Meanwhile, in the countries where such movies were being produced, filmmakers at every level of seriousness seemed to be getting it into their heads that all routes to artistic growth bottlenecked at having the cast strip off and climb into bed. Before the decade was out, nudity and sex of varying degrees of explicitness were turning up in even the dourest and most dismal products of Europe’s cinematic avant-garde, but it was during the 1970’s that “Art or smut?” really became a challenging question to answer.
Italy’s Tinto Brass has made an entire career out of posing that question, and he’s consistently managed to finagle larger sums of studio money with which to do it than practically anybody. In this country, he’s probably best remembered for directing Bob Guccione’s monumental X-rated ego-trip, Caligula. What brought Brass to the Penthouse publisher’s attention was Salon Kitty, his contribution to the Italian vogue for Nazi-themed sexploitation movies brought on by the success of The Night Porter in 1974. In much the same manner that Guccione envisioned for his Imperial Roman sleaze epic, Salon Kitty put up arthouse wallpaper on the theme of absolute power corrupting absolutely all over what was really just an excuse to wallow for two hours and change in elaborate portrayals of twisted sexual decadence. Like so many of its Euro-trash contemporaries, Salon Kitty makes a big show of trying to say something serious, but its actual message seems to be “Tinto Brass really likes taking pictures of naked girls— and of naked guys, too, for that matter.”
Germany, summer of 1939. SS Obergruppenführer Biondo (John Steiner, of Shock and Yor: The Hunter from the Future) summons his subordinate, Untergruppenführer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger, from Faceless and The Secret of Dorian Gray), to charge him with a curious mission. Wallenberg is to recruit about twenty girls from all over the country. They must be beautiful, intelligent, and charming, but most of all, they must be utterly committed Nazis. Now that’s strange enough, but wait ‘til you hear why Biondo wants these girls recruited. Wallenberg is supposed to train them all to be whores! (What? No, Frank Miller had nothing to do with this movie— why do you ask?) And this being an SS project, they’re not supposed to become just any whores, but rather Aryan super-whores, willing and able to meet any sexual challenge for the glory of the Fatherland. Wallenberg doesn’t quite get it, either, but a mission is a mission. He and his adjutant, Rauss (Dan Van Husen, from Tender and Perverse Emanuelle and Killer Barbys vs. Dracula), set off at once to comb the length and breadth of Germany in search of young women to fit Biondo’s bill. Once a group of likely candidates has been assembled, Wallenberg puts them all through their paces (“Coitus! Anal coitus! Masturbation! Fellatio!”) in a weirdly balletic orgy with a platoon of soldiers. Then comes a more strenuous test meant to discover the girls’ limits for obedience in the face of “perversion.” Are they willing to have sex with other women? With amputees? With hunchbacked dwarves? With Sal Baccaro? What about with Jews and Gypsies? (As you might gather, that last one is a trick question. Wallenberg is looking for the Meatloaf response: I’ll do anything for the Reich, but I won’t do that.) Finally, Wallenberg winnows the initial pool down to only the very best, the most notable of whom, for our purposes and his alike, is a haughty teenaged idealist by the name of Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy, of Caligula and Bambina). Wallenberg knew Margherita already; in fact, he tried to date her a couple of years ago, but she would not have him. No one, I expect, will be surprised to see that Wallenberg tries to exploit his new position of power over the girl for all it’s worth now that he’s her pimp by order of Heinrich Himmler.
Meanwhile, in Berlin, at a brothel/cabaret called Salon Kitty, proprietress Kitty Kellerman (Ingrid Thulin, from The Damned and Short Night of the Glass Dolls) clings desperately to the free-wheeling Weimar spirit, six year after the Weimar Republic effectively voted itself out of existence by electing Hitler chancellor. Kitty has no interest in politics, one way or the other; so long as she’s free to go on being Berlin’s most beloved singing, dancing madam, she’d be equally happy to have her girls entertain Nazis, democrats, communists, monarchists, or anarchists. She must be pretty successful in catering to all tastes, too, because business hasn’t slacked off any with the change of regime. In fact, every single member of the Nazi high command (except for that fat slob, Göring— I wonder what his problem is?) has been known to pay a visit to Salon Kitty from time to time. But then a couple of Gestapo agents drop in, and turn Kitty’s world upside down with a single “Come with us, please.” The Gestapo men were sent by Wallenberg. He wants the brothel closed down at once, and the girls deported. (Kitty prefers to employ foreigners, for the sake of her club’s exotic image.) He further insists that Kitty herself enter the Schutzstaffel’s employ, plying her trade for the military’s benefit at a luxurious villa out in the countryside. I guess we know now where Wallenberg’s SS Überhuren are going to be working, huh?
And now, at last, we learn why the SS has gotten into the pimping business in the first place. The rest of the world remains in ignorance of this, of course, but Hitler has been gearing the country up for an invasion of Poland. The Poles themselves should be no contest, and the secret treaty Ribbentrop just signed with the Russians should take care of that potential hassle, too. However, Poland is also theoretically under British protection, with a not-remotely-secret treaty guaranteeing that no foreign army will cross its oft-violated borders unless they’re prepared to take on John Bull too. Granted, the way Neville Chamberlain bent over and spread ‘em at Munich last year suggests otherwise, but there’s still just the slightest chance that invading Poland will mean war with Great Britain. Consequently, the Reich has great need just now to be certain of its armed forces, and what better way to root out cowards, traitors, deserters, and defectors than to eavesdrop on the pillow-talk of soldiers who have been rotated back on leave? That’s why the SS wants direct command of the brothel; that’s why Kitty was relocated to a building Biondo’s men have had time to rig with hidden recording devices; that’s why only committed National Socialists were considered in recruiting the stable. Margherita and all the others are to be the eyes and ears of the Party, uncovering crimes and conspiracies in a way that no ordinary ring of informers or agents provocateur could match. And if the hunt for malfeasance should give Wallenberg something to use against his superiors as well, then so much the better for him.
Note, however, that this scheme takes no account of the sympathies of Kitty Kellerman— in fact, she’s being kept in the dark about the whole thing. Nor does it take into account the possibility of changes of heart among the spying hookers, such as might come about if a kind-hearted soldier like Hauptmann Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu) and an especially sheltered and unworldly agent like Margherita should happen to fall in love. Finally, there are the small matters of Margherita’s bitter personal loathing for Wallenberg, and of Kitty’s longstanding international connections. When your master plan revolves around a woman who counts among her friends an Italian diplomat (Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s Sefano Satta Flores) and an American secret service agent (John Ireland, from The House of Seven Corpses and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat), it probably doesn’t pay to piss her off.
So which is it, then— art or smut? I personally am siding with the latter. I don’t say so pejoratively, however, for there is such a thing as good porn, and Salon Kitty makes a fairly close approach to that status. The trick, I think, is to have just enough artistic pretension to believe that a sex movie can be about more than sex alone, but not so much as to lose sight of the fact that the film still needs to be sexy. If an art-porn flick is to succeed, it must succeed as porn first— then you can worry about the art side of the equation. In specific regard to Salon Kitty, Brass’s porn-cred is secure. Mind you, fetishists will have more fun than vanilla types (but then, we usually do), and it helps to have, shall we say, ecumenical tastes. (This is the sort of movie in which your stance on the issue of men in drag doing can-can routines with their junk hanging out becomes a distinctly relevant consideration.) Brass’s striving after art, however, is compromised by the fact that almost nothing he has to say about Nazi Germany hasn’t already been said 10,000 times before, and far more cogently and intelligently than he manages here. Who, by 1976, could have failed to grasp the irony of a political party rising to power at least partly on the strength of a campaign against “decadence,” and then immediately transforming all of society into an expression of their leaders’ unleashed collective id? In putting frilly, pink panties on a Wehrmacht general, Brass isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know. Salon Kitty also has a pronounced tendency to wander, and would have benefited from some pretty ruthless editing. For instance, we really don’t need to see four (or maybe it was five— they start to blur together eventually) of Kitty Kellerman’s cabaret performances in their entirety; one or two from beginning to end, and then snippets of the rest, would have been fine. In any case, I can’t imagine that there was ever a sexploitation movie made that gained anything from a running time in excess of two hours. (Exactly how much in excess of two hours depends on the edit, of course.)
What Salon Kitty does right is to display a considerable breadth of imagination in devising manifestations of depravity, and to present its slight story and threadbare themes from a novel and memorable perspective. There is a fine line between iconography and fetishism, and Brass proves himself as adept as anyone at nudging the paraphernalia of Nazism across it. It certainly doesn’t take a credentialed psychotherapist to find the sexual— and particularly homosexual— undercurrent in the Nazis’ cultish obsession with male physical perfection, but the bizarre ways in which Brass plays it up here are consistently both effective and entertaining. He’s even better at exaggerating the hothouse Weimar culture of which Salon Kitty represents the last dying gasp. The conventional wisdom has it that when the Kaiserreich fell after World War I, the German people let their newly established freedoms— political, social, and cultural— go to their heads. Perhaps there’s some truth to that, too, for Germany in the 1920’s was unquestionably on the cutting edge of almost everything conservatives the world over found horrifying. One might almost say that Germany went through the 1970’s half a century early. Brass makes clear that he’s going to play that notion to the hilt before the opening credits are even halfway through, too. Those credits roll over a scene of Kitty Kellerman up on stage, singing a song that would do any modern-day female impersonator proud. At the beginning of the first chorus, Kitty turns her other profile to reveal that she’s been performing in an outrageous costume that puts the left half of her body in male drag. (At this point, all the Go Nagai fans in the audience say to themselves, “So that’s what Baron Ashler did for a living before taking the job as Dr. Hell’s lackey…”) It was a smart move on Brass’s part to set Salon Kitty in such a place, and to make its proprietress and star attraction the film’s viewpoint character. Doing so puts the movie on a very different footing from all the scads of death-camp super-roughies on the Love Camp Seven model, and shifts its thematic perspective in a subtle but important way. With Kitty herself as the focal point, Salon Kitty winds up being less about the rise of Nazism (as seen through a thick prism of sleaze) than about the final extinguishment of the liberal dream of Weimar (again, as seen through a thick prism of sleaze). That’s a point on which Brass really can claim some originality.