Blue Underground // 1976 // 133 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 15th, 2003
Tinto Brass's minor masterwork of "lurid glitter"
By now, the premise has become an overworked cliché. Oh, those decadent Nazis, so perverted and twisted in their abhorrent sexual appetites. While The Party made the trains run on time, waged war with the rest of Europe, and devised plans for the Final Solution of the Jewish "problem," their officers relaxed by biting the backsides of bawdy hausfraus and "experimenting" with poor unfortunate innocents in evil dens of inequity. Along with the deranged ramblings of one A. Hitler and the many "ways" they had of "making you talk," the National Socialists Party's rise and fall in Germany has stuffed cinemas with more depictions of crooked and corrupted creeps than ancient Rome and American high schools combined. No film about the Third Reich was or is complete without a panty wearing General, a closeted gay Minister of War, or a close confidant of the Fuhrer who also likes to keep company with a series of barnyard animals. From Amon Goeth to Christian Szell, a new standard for sadomasochistic depravity is set each time the cameras roll. And let's not forget Ilsa, rotten she-wolf of the S.S., a wicked death camp warden who puts a new spin on the idea of cruel and unusual punishment (in short, she's really in favor of it). The standard Nazi mantra was "I was only following orders." Apparently, the vast majority of those orders came from Bob Crane (how cosmically correct is it that this sexual spelunker would star as a hopped up Hogan in a comedy about German POW camps?) From its trappings and reputation, Madame Kitty and her famous brothel would seem just another slice of sick, exploitative drivel, filled with shocking images and an even more degenerate ideology. But surprisingly, Tinto Brass' 1975 art house epic of erotica Salon Kitty is more political than prurient. Amid the nudity and naughtiness is a disturbing, serious look at power and corruption.
Helmut Wallenberg is an officer with the SS ordered to carry out a devious plan. He must recruit and train middle class German girls as sexual spies, prostitutes to service the officers of the Reich. These young women must be versed in all manner of perversions and able to satisfy any and all customers. Once gathered and skilled, they will work for Madame Kitty Kellermann, famous Berlin madam (her brothel, the Salon Kitty, is well known amongst Nazi party members). But Wallenberg also needs to eavesdrop on the private meetings between whores and higher ups, so he closes Kitty's urban pleasure palace and sets up a new villa of ill repute on the outskirts of town. There, he has an elaborate series of microphones hidden in every room. The working girls are then instructed to report on every individual they entertain.
Margherita, a disgruntled child of privilege, turns her back on her family and in service to her country, joins the carnal corps. She soon catches the eye of Wallenberg. He makes her his mistress. During her work in the new Salon, Margherita meets and falls in love with Hans Reiter, a moody, depressed war hero. She learns he wants to defect to the other side. He is sick of killing for the Nazi ideology. Margherita does not report this treason, but Wallenberg learns of it and has Reiter executed. When Margherita learns this, she kills an SS officer and seeks Kitty's help in getting revenge on the twisted tyrant. Eventually, with the help of an American expatriate and an Italian spy, the entire wiretapping of the Salon is uncovered and the women of the Salon Kitty concoct a plan of their own: to undermine Wallenberg with his own devices.
It's really too bad that when the name Tinto Brass is mentioned, cinematic know-it-alls automatically jump to conclusions, scream "hack" and write him off as a sleazy pornographer. Certainly, the fact that he helmed Penthouse Magazine's infamous foray into Roman history, a less than perfect piece of hardcore pandering called Caligula, hasn't helped his standing in the world of film. Brass has made at least a dozen films since that horrendously edited Emperor's tale tainted movie screens across the world and seemingly sealed his reputation with its more skin flick than serious history lesson trappings. And even through the light of revisionism, where a new generation has started to warm to Guccione's folly, many still consider him to be a perverted old joke. What's even more intriguing is that just three years before, he helmed a minor masterpiece, a work of erotic cinema that actually has something profound to say about the subject it was dealing with. Every complaint hurled at the Italian idiocy of Caligula, from its horrible set design to poor direction and frame composition, is completely absent in the spellbinding and near brilliant Salon Kitty. Yes, there are (mostly) softcore acts of immorality depicted. And there is an uneasy tone violence and abuse. But more than any other film wanting to explore the now formulaic relationship between the Nazis and sexual perversion, Salon Kitty moves beyond its prurient intrigues to function as a strong statement of political outrage. It shows, very clearly, that a nation and its people are most corruptible when their every wish and desire is fulfilled, from law and order to the fruits of forbidden passion.
Brass creates captivating layers in Salon Kitty, working from the cliché backwards to strip the same old sleazy patina from this material. First, there is the standard stratum of pre-WWII German dance hall style decadence, a mixing of sexes and genders that turn class warfare into a struggle for sensual ambiguity. The wealthy here are depicted as indulgent in vice to the point of personal pride. They wear their seedy security on their soiled suits and party armbands. Milling about underneath are the secret police, their work a combination of national safekeeping and craven curiosity. They take a cold, clinical approach to everything from sex to spying. Humiliation and degradation is their main work, as it is part of the job of any police state. Otherwise, there cannot be persecution and oppression. Suspended between the victims of the espionage and those who would dare benefit from the secrets revealed are the working girls (and men), the manipulated and mistreated means to a questionable ends. Their stories are a mixed lot; from the high-minded middle class nationalist to the poverty stricken, struggling drug addict, they symbolize human suffering and sacrifice on a scale almost incomprehensible, the forfeiting of one's own physical being for a decidedly ambiguous, commanded goal. In Salon Kitty, Brass explores each of these stratum and moves between them effortlessly, painting a comprehensive portrait of personal pride and dignity sacrificed for the sake of leader, nation, life, and love. While the story here is still draped in the wickedness of Berlin before the Blitz, there is more here than mere sexual exploitation.
Don't misunderstand. Salon Kitty is not some overly somber work of political theorizing. This is a movie about sexual filth and defilement. It does contain sickening scenes of shocking unpleasantness. The first half of the film consists of SS officers observing potential recruits in all manner of borderline reprobate acts. But this film is not hardcore XXX penetration and ejaculation fare. Far from it. Brass here wants to introduce scenes of uncomfortable copulation to emphasize and underscore his thesis about policy, party associations, and clout. Salon Kitty is a film about the power of corruption and the corruption of power. In Brass' world, the indulgence of fantasy and abnormal sexuality results in a kind of self-satisfied sense of superiority, of being able to do what others only dare to dream. At the same time, Salon Kitty clearly shows that such uncontrolled excess leads to a moral abyss of dishonesty and cruelty. Much like the spoiled child, who throws a tantrum knowing that they will eventually get whatever they want or make those around them pay for not satisfying their whim, the characters in the film all want something they cannot easily obtain. For Madam Kitty Kellermann, it's a reputable house of ill repute, the seemingly incongruous respectable brothel. For Margherita it's service to the State in the name of love, of giving herself over to carnal desire in hopes of promoting Nazism and preserving her romantic soul. And for Wallenberg, it's the knowledge of secrets, the self-righteous feeling of understanding something clandestine about someone that they would sacrifice everything to keep undisclosed.
Brass too uses the exploitation format as his own underhanded ploy, an attempt to tell a serious story while providing the pulchritude many expect in a document about perverted Nazi decadence. Yet the sexuality is not gratuitous. There is never a Harry Novak style ten-minute storyline stopping fornication fest with two ancillary characters humping like Neanderthals for untold tedious minutes. There is the full frontal nudity from both sexes, and yet it's handled in a clinical, non-wanton manner. Brass gives equal time to both genders to establish that in this battle of the sexes, both sides played an equal and unequivocal part. The notion of Aryan perfection is also touched on, as is the horrible reality of birth defects and ethnic bias. Indeed, the Nazi ideal of the human form perfected by race is a major theme in Salon Kitty. Brass constantly refers to it, setting it up in shots of near pristine human bodies in various modes of function. But then he takes us behind the bedroom doors of the Salon, to witness the depravity and befouling these bodies must go through in service of the State. And he also shows us that, as we move higher up the chain of command, the idyllic is seemingly tossed out as the authoritative human specimens become, oddly, less "ideal." For all its near gratuitous leanings, Salon Kitty is one of the rare times where, without the sex, the resulting film would be a preachy, dull disaster. The carnality moves the story along, providing the internal monologue necessary to understand the characters, their motivation, and the circumstances they find themselves in as World War is careening uncontrollably around them.
Salon Kitty, cinematically, is as sumptuous as it is pseudo-sleazy. It's an amazing looking film, thanks to the Oscar recognition worthy sets and costumes. Reminiscent of Kubrick circa A Clockwork Orange or Dario Argento's Suspiria, the film's visual style accentuates the themes within the film and speaks volumes about the time and place being shown. Ken Adam, the famed award winning production designer responsible for the look of films ranging from Barry Lyndon (his first Academy Award) to the mad mod of early James Bond (Dr. No, Goldfinger) uses his Germanic heritage, with its expressionistic and gaudy gauche proclivities, to create a world of recognizable symbols mixed and modified into new forms and meaning. Opulent to the extent of glitz, but also obtuse in their geometric precision and form, Adam forces his designs to the forefront, turning them into as much a character in the film as the actors and extras create. His sets function as Greek chorus, expressing unspoken desires, dreams and deceptions that exist outside of the character's knowledge. It's a shame that the sexual nature of the film cheapened the brilliant work here. Adam's production scheme in Salon Kitty is as important to the success of the film and its philosophy as the Korova Milk Bar or the Frieburg Academy.
Brass understands the artistic images he has been given to work with and fills his widescreen shots with imaginative and sometimes brilliant compositions and framing. Mimicking the propaganda posters of the time and instructing his actors to virtually pose in telling tableaus, there is a uniformity and deliberateness to Brass' style that accentuates the nature of Nazism and the underlying ideals of power and corruption. Even in the bawdy dancehall numbers, expertly performed by Madam Kitty herself, the legendary actress Ingrid Thulin (Cries and Whispers), Brass utilizes a stylized musical number format, stressing careful choreography. Many of these scenes recall later works like All That Jazz and Pennies from Heaven in their decidedly decadent take on the standard Hollywood song and dance. But even in moments of intense drama, Brass makes sure than not a movement is wasted or performance uncontrolled. As his leads, Helmut Berger is dangerously aloof and disquietly unhinged as the tortured torturer Wallenberg. As the object of his misplaced miscreant affections, Teresa Ann Savoy at first seems outside of her league, a standard American girl next door type cast into a pool of distinctly European personas. But her Western ingénue begins to grow in power and pride and by the end of the film she is a treacherous equal to Berger's vile official. Along with the epic dramatics of Ms. Thulin and a convincing cast of ancillary accents, Salon Kitty sprawls across the screen in mad splashes of insane sexual paint.
Yet Brass is also not afraid to explore his cinematic canvas, to move in tight for a scandalous shot or to employ experimental color or film techniques to get his point across. One scene in particular exemplifies Brass' overall approach to this film. As her effeminate Official charge barks high voiced orders at her, a whore places this fey General's boots on her naked legs and goosesteps around her bedroom. The lights are struck and a single projector image crawls across the wall. Scenes from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will play out and as the General continues his demands, the prostitute lays on her bed and lets the black and white images of Hitler and his Aryan nation wash over her. She does a seductive, serpent like set of poses and then breaks into the Nazi salute. The entire time, Brass keeps his camera firmly in a medium shot, so we can see the monochrome images of insanity projected upon the naked flesh tones of the actress. The mixing of mediums matches the mixing of messages in Salon Kitty. This is one example of shocking sleazoid cinema that has something profound to say about its subject, and it's the overall benchmark set by this film. Brass may have gone on to misstep with his equally decadent but far less effective take on the fall of the Roman Empire, but in Salon Kitty he provides the clear blueprint for why the Nazi ideal failed.
Blue Underground has shown recently, with the release of films such as Quiet Days in Clichy and Vampyres, that they won't shy away from movies that mix the sick with the sexual. Salon Kitty is given a Limited Edition treatment, with only a purported 15,000 units of the two-disc set being produced (whether or not this will lead to a double-dip single DVD version is unknown). However, for the print and bonus content offered, anyone interested in this film should immediately rush out and purchase this version. The Big Blue U has done a fantastic job with the image of Salon Kitty. Preserving the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and striking the film from Tinto Brass' own private vault print, the movie looks marvelous. The colors are rich and saturated and there is a bare minimum of age or transfer defects. Sonically, Salon Kitty is presented in Mono only, but you have a choice of the original Italian soundtrack (with requisite English subtitles) or a fairly good English dub, featuring many of the actors' actual voices. The interesting aspect of this dual soundtrack is that each one presents a noticeably different version of the film. The English dubbing allows for a less literal, more slang oriented presentation of the dialogue and monologues between the characters. This version accentuates the sleazy, exploitation aspirations in the film. The original Italian with subtitles becomes a far more serious movie, with the casual line readings becoming telling statements of cinematic themes. Along with the musical numbers that cross Cabaret with (mostly) creative wordplay that complements the plot, the aural side of Salon Kitty is, while a tad discordant and not always crystal clear, a twist on the idea of how a dub can change a movie, compared against original language version's intent.
That intent becomes very clear in the excellent bonus material offered here. The trailers, both international and domestic, highlight the shocking nature of the film (and trust this critic when he says that people in 1975 could not have imagined some of the material in this movie) and sell it as a seedy slice of Euro-porn. Disc two also offers radio spots that caution the potential filmgoer to the movie's perversions. But it's the interviews with director Brass and designer Adam that are the most telling about the true purpose of this film. It's no surprise that Brass, an Italian, and Adam, a German Jew, have their issues with the Nazi regime and both go out of their way to explain why this film was a cathartic and pointed attempt at a little moral recompense. Brass in particular wants to undermine everything the National Socialist party stood for, stressing that this movie is about more than sex and depravity, but is in truth an exploration of power. Specifically, he wants to illuminate how the common people turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by officials representing them in their name. He notes that the film was cut to meet censor demands, but thankfully the print offered here is Brass' director's cut and features a couple of minutes of added sexual content (including a brutal whipping scene) to flesh out the misdeeds happening within Kellermann's wiretapped brothel. He also jokingly notes that the film didn't do very well in Germany. But that's not really a surprise. Brass' considers Salon Kitty to be his finest work, not only because of the sexual dynamics he explores, but also because of the biting, pointed political statement it makes.
Adam is subtler in his approach. After dishing the dirt on Stanley Kubrick (whose nitpicking perfectionism on Barry Lyndon drove Adam to a nervous breakdown), he settles in to describe how his childhood memories of Berlin before the war guided his production designs (an enclosed slide show gallery emphasizes his words). He also has an agenda, one that hopes to show the warmth within Germany that was destroyed by the sterile clinical nature of the Nazis. He praises Brass for giving him the freedom to exercise his personal demons, both at other filmmakers and at his homeland. In the enclosed DVD-ROM material, there is a further examination of Adam and his work in the film. The Story of Salon Kitty is a long out-of-print coffee table book highlighting the look and making of the film and apparently contains more depth about the influences and tricks used by the art and set designers to achieve Adam's goals (the DVD-ROM material was unavailable to this reviewer for further comment). A refined gentleman with a smooth British accent, Ken Adam adds a colorful touch to the bonus material, but he is equally as fierce as the bullish Brass when it comes to the subject. Neither wanted to make Salon Kitty a movie in celebration of the Third Reich, and each underscores how they went out of their way -- artistically, directorially, temperamentally, and philosophically -- to make a film that, while based on a true incident in the history of the Nazi regime, made a definitive statement about the miserable human scum who thought they could rule the world through brutal ethnic cleansing and blind nationalism. This is what makes Salon Kitty a true anomaly: a serious sex film with a potent message at its core.
It's not hard to see Brass' stamp of overstatement on Salon Kitty. As a matter of fact, this film hits you over the head, hard, with its anti-Nazi, pro-sleaze position. While the scenes of prostitutes in training may seem somewhat tame by today's standards, they still pack a perverted impact that has nothing to do with ideology and more to do with shock value and dollar signs. Obviously, if Brass made a film about the twisted sexual leanings of the National Socialist party while on the rise in Germany, and then cut out all the sex, there would be no motion picture, just a historical lecture. The scenes of debauchery may be integral to the telling of this tale, but they are far more important to the financiers' bottom line. Salon Kitty is a movie about making money, first and foremost. Any bonus political positioning is just icing on a naked cake. At least the men here get equal birthday suit treatment along with the ladies. There is more "pickles and beaver" here than in a boxcar full of Something Weird Videos. Indeed, Salon Kitty is just one actual act of sexual penetration (either oral or genital) away from being pornography, so close does it walk the X-rated borderline. While it may have all manner of highfaluting values and ideals to spit out, it does so in a very seedy, dirty fashion that will repulse more audience members than it converts. It's not a coincidence that Brass has taken a drubbing for his historically questionable Caligula. No matter what Guccione and Vidal wanted in this movie, it has a sullied stamp of lewdness all over it. Salon Kitty is no different, except perhaps its target is more reprehensible...and clear.
As the years have crawled by, the Nazis and their horrible notion of national law and order have been usurped, turned into stock villains in a million action movies, and pushed aside for the more potent (and important) Holocaust stories that illuminate the tragedy of World War II in near unspeakable acts of human immorality. Germany is no longer seen as a nation of potential perverts but as an already twisted nation of deviants ready to reassemble and screw their way back into white power. True, much of this is their own doing, since it's their recorded and recalled history that forms the basis for so much of the slander and salaciousness written and filmed about them. But perhaps there is something more karmic at work. Perhaps this is retribution, necessary alms for a blind populace who supported a deranged, Austrian Nero, cheering his mad fiddling while on the outskirts of his empire, an entire race burned in purposefully fabricated ovens. Frankly, for the unrelenting genocide alone, a film like Salon Kitty is too light a sentence, since it mixes skin with its sin to sell its anti-Nazism philosophy. But as a statement of the Third Reich's own internal infection, of the foul disease that crept through and absolutely captivated a nation in need of a new jingoistic identity, Tinto Brass' bold, brash look at authority and dishonesty is accurate. It shows the soiled underbelly and polluted proclivities involved, but also lays blame squarely at the feet of those who would serve -- or just ignore -- a madman. Salon Kitty is a sordid reminder that no statement has ever been truer than the famous one attributed to Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts, absolutely."
Salon Kitty is found not guilty of being a standard exploitation film and instead, is praised by the court for it unflinching depiction of moral decay within the Nazi party circa World War II. The court specifically commends director Tinto Brass and production designer Ken Adam for their magnificent and artistic work in this film. Blue Underground is also acquitted, proving once again it can release a lesser-known title with quality image, sound, and bonus content.
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Inside Salon Kitty -- Interview with Director Tinto Brass
* Designing Salon Kitty -- Interview with Production Designer Ken Adam
* Radio Spots
* Poster and Still Gallery
* Ken Adam's Production Designs
* Jost Jakob's Costume Designs
* The Story of Salon Kitty (DVD-ROM)
* Theatrical Trailers
* Tinto Brass Bio