Camp David

CAMP DAVID DEC 2012: DANCE ON THE VOLCANO

By • Dec 1st, 2012 •

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In 1969 Luchino Visconti caused an international sensation by promoting his lover, Helmut Berger, from the bedroom to the big screen in a tour-de-force turn performance as “Martin,” a sadistic, perverse character with a taste for very young girls, as well as a talent for impersonating Marlene Dietrich from THE BLUE ANGEL, in the operatic director’s epic meditation on the powerful Krupp family and their participation in the rise of the Third Reich. THE DAMNED became the last word in Nazi psychodrama. The striking image of Helmut Berger in drag became the poster art for the film as well as an icon for this era of moral and sexual ambiguity in the cinema.

THE DAMNED (originally titled GOTTERDAMMERUNG, literally “The Fall of the Gods”) was successful enough in the world film market to launch a renewed interest in this rather dark period of human history, and so we would see within less than five years several variations of a soon-overworked cliche of the sexually perverse cross-dressing Nazi with films like THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) and finally SALON KITTY in 1975. While Visconti and Liliana Cavani received whatever critical kudos were granted at the time, the truth of the matter is simply KITTY’s director, Tinto Brass, made a far less operatic film that was never boring, and years later he would venture again into Visconti territory with a somewhat updated SENSO, and once again made a more provocative and transcendent film using the same source material, creating the transgressive BLACK ANGEL / SENSO 45.

The 21st Century is ripe for film historians to reassess this much-maligned director whose cinematic output over the years was decidedly fetishistic regarding the female form, especially from behind. He has always managed this feat while maintaining his unique impressionistic style. In some ways Brass is really a feminist director at heart. This does not mean for one minute that I am overlooking his many forays into soft-core eroticism; even the successful ones like THE KEY remain faithful to the source, in this case Alberto Moravia. These films would make Tinto Brass Italy’s premier eroticist, and rightly so since he was the only director in a land dominated by Fellini, Visconti and Pasolini who remained decidedly heterosexual in his taste and style; and yet, to his credit, in both the films I now regard as his masterpieces, SALON KITTY and SENSO 45, the male form is never ignored; in fact both films celebrated it with full-frontal nudity, something even Visconti remained reluctant to do on screen, even during his homoerotic reenactment of the “Night of Long Knives” segment of THE DAMNED.

The fact that so many film critics chose to dismiss Tinto Brass as simply another pornographer making films was based entirely on the very negative reaction to CALIGULA. This is quite unjust since Brass had little say in what finally appeared on the screen and has actively disowned the result for many years now. If a case is really needed to justify Tinto Brass as an auteur then please look no further than SALON KITTY and make no mistake; this is a serious film, in fact a great film with many difficult scenes of unpleasantness (and in one case a scene that he could have done without, involving the slaughter of a pig). Now having said that the real issue here is what Brass has chosen to put on the screen. SALON KITTY is stunning to look at, especially with its set designs created by the brilliant Ken Adam, whose near-legendary work for Stanley Kubrick on BARRY LYNDON and DOCTOR STRANGELOVE speaks for itself, as well as the James Bond films for which Adam is justly famous.

Tinto even went so far as to hire two of the leads from the Visconti film for SALON KITTY, creating a very different dynamic from THE DAMNED, since Helmut Berger had played the wildly perverse son to Ingrid Thulin’s sleepwalking mother in that film. This time around Berger is the icy Nazi clothes horse Helmut Wallenberg, an officer with the SS whose job it becomes to create a decidedly different kindc of Brothel than the infamous Madam Kitty (played here by Ingrid Thulin) was used to running in Berlin, since this particular brothel was to be wiretapped. The sequences that depict just how the women are recruited for this and their “training” are handled with no regard for censorship. The film’s reputation for extreme sexuality, while decidedly soft-core, is more than justified as the prostitutes are required to service all manner of men and women. Helmut Berger told me in an interview I did with him for FILMS AND FILMING that he enjoyed making this film if for no other reason than his wardrobe was, in his words, “fantastic to wear,” and he also admired Tinto Brass as a director who “had a sharp eye for detail and knew exactly what he wanted in every shot.”

What elevates SALON KITTY from being solely a work of exploitation is the strong statement Brass is making regarding political outrage as he shows us what absolute power and corruption can do to a nation and its people. The layers of subtext in the film are remarkable; the human suffering is not shied away from and we see the wealthy indulging in vice as if they were born to it. The wickedness of Berlin is certainly as cinematic as that of the ancient Roman Empire and none of this is lost on Brass as he makes a clear case for why the Nazi ideal was doomed to fail almost from the start. SALON KITTY is without a doubt Brass’s masterpiece, especially in the genre of erotic cinema. There is nothing dry or academic about Brass’s approach to this material, which in another director’s hands could have been tiresome. Instead, Tinto Brass makes his case throughout the film while SALON KITTY fills the screen with sex and depravity; it is more than that. It is really an exercise in the decadence of excessive power the widespread abuse and exploitation of power.

Tinto Brass has managed to create, with SALON KITTY a masterful film about moral decay that, of course, was made to make money and create a bit of scandal. But it becomes far more than that because by his own admission the success of the film DEEP THROAT allowed filmmakers all over the world to sit up and take notice that pornography could be mainstream and was not just for the grindhouse to show or the raincoat crowd to watch; after all, DEEP THROAT was screened at the Nixon White house with Vice-President Agnew in attendance as well. I remember seeing SALON KITTY at the time at a screening room in Beverly Hills with critic Kevin Thomas. If one keeps in mind the attitude and era in which this was made it was no surprise that no one expected to see such a stunning-looking film, while it dealt with themes that had been left untouched until then. Kevin Thomas was laughing at the fact that the screening itself had been set up to make sure critics saw SALON KITTY in time for Academy Award consideration, as there were only three days left before all nominations were closed. Thomas was nearly speechless when the film was over, as were we all in that tiny screening room. The images were powerful enough without the sex, and it should have at least won an Oscar for Ken Adam and those remarkable sets and costumes.

Gabriel Garko

I never forgot watching SALON KITTY for the first time that afternoon at that Beverly Hills screening room, and it would be my loss that it took another two decades before I rekindled my interest in this accomplished auteur once again—with yet another of Il Maestro’s meditations on the moral collapse of the Nazis and more importantly a more mature pacing in his psychological observations of his characters. SENSO 45 is Tinto Brass’s homage to Luchino Visconti’s 1954 SENSO, which took place in the late 19th century, while Brass updated his version to Venice in late 1945. The two filmmakers both reference certain key works of art in their interpretations: for Visconti it would be Il Bacio (The Kiss) by Francensco Hayez , naturally the more romantic imagery, while Brass chose to follow George Grasz and his erotic drawings as well as Pornocrates by Felicien Rops. It is interesting to notice how Brass also references key moments in the iconography of Italian cinema, especially OPEN CITY and the neo-realists like Rossellini and De Sica. The irony here of course is that Visconti disliked SALON KITTY on principal because his protege and lover (Berger) made it without his approval. It is a shame that the two filmmakers could not have had a connection since they both shared an interest in art and culture in spite of Brass’s reputation.

SENSO 45 is a revelation for those of us that remained transfixed with the sheer audacity of SALON KITTY. Here, once again, we have a character in Lt. Helmut Schultz, a sexual predator with a god-like physique and sex-drive that catapults him into a situation where he can rise to the top of the heap in Nazi Germany, only to fall as swiftly by his own hubris. As played by Gabriel Garko it is like seeing a younger, more buff version of Helmut Berger, even down to dying Garko’s hair to a straw-colored blonde (which is not always effective since it is so obviously not his natural color). Anna Galiena is stunning as well. Even though she is meant to be an older woman she still looks amazing in the buff as photographed with style by Daniele Nannuzzi, who creates a stunning palette for the film’s period of Art Deco elegance. Brass does not shy away from full-frontal male nudity and even Visconti did not allow the lens to gloat over the frame of his lover, Helmut Berger, as effectively as Brass does here with Garko. His hold over Galiena is always sexual since the film is centered in her obsession with him above all else. It is one of the dramatic conceits that she does not fully grasp what is going on around her because of her sexual addiction to this man, which makes her final decision all the more profound.

Gabriel Garko

If Tinto Brass is to be remembered for anything it will be these two films. However, it is important to note that this man has worked in almost every genre and done so with style and intelligence. It is time to reappraise his many contributions to the cinema since he began his career as a impressionistic documentarian and then became overwhelmed by the counter-culture movement—so much so that he made several Pop Art phantasmagorias like THE HOWL in 1968, which was well ahead of its time, and prior to that (in 1967) another avant-garde film that somewhat answered the call by Godard and BREATHLESS (in fact, it was a rebuttal to Godard) – DEADLY SWEET, which also starred a French film sensation of the time, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and the actress Ewa Aulin just before her title role in the infamous CANDY. These films place Tinto Brass in the moment as a transgressive artist whose output reflected the times in which he lived just as much as many of the more famous directors who got their starts at the very same time. Tinto Brass has withstood the test of time to become a very special filmmaker in his own right.

I noticed a quote from him very recently, discussing the reemergence of his two masterworks, SALON KITTY and SENSO 45. He began by saying that both those films reflect the historical situation whereby the Nazis were dazzled by their moment in time: “When power reaches its zenith with impending doom our protagonists dance on the figurative volcano blissfully unaware that it will all blow up in their faces.” Tinto Brass has always danced towards a fiery vista and perhaps now it will explode in his favor, allowing film history to finally acknowledge the lightshow his career has long reflected in the night sky of cinema.

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One Response »

  1. Another sterling Camp David from the maestro. Having seen Salon Kitty only once, this article piques my interest enough for a second viewing. As far as Senso 45, I have never seen this, but want to now. The original Senso with Farley Granger and Alida Valli ranks as one of my top 10 favorite films. This reimagining sounds intriguing. Once again David Del Valle has done what writers are meant to do – make one think and stir one to action.

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