Borderline Cinema

ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE S.S. (Don Edmonds)

As far as titles go, it’s difficult to think of one more calculated to ruffle the sensibilities of censors & bleeding-heart liberals alike, promising as it does sex, violence & very dodgy politics. On the other hand, it’s acquired total cult status among fans of weird movies, so which view is right? Is it an unjustifiable exercise in sadism or an classic example of sheer, black, humour?

The story-line, such as there is, goes as follows : Ilsa is the commandant in charge of a Nazi prison camp, in the last days of WW II. She has a theory that women are better able to stand pain than men, and spends her time attempting to prove this by the simple method of being very nasty to a lot of people while also carrying out her ‘official’ work – other, equally unpleasant, medical experiments. Her prisoners attempt to stage a revolt and very nearly succeed before both sides are killed by Nazi High Command, who’ve decided the camp is not the sort of thing they want the Allies to find. Two prisoners survive, to tell the story to the world…

I believe two things prevent this movie from slipping beyond the limits of the acceptable. Firstly, the directorial stance is unashamedly exploitative. Though it purports to be a ‘dramatised reconstruction’, this is about as plausible as the voice-over at the start of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’, which claims that all the events THERE really took place.

This warning at the start also provides the makers with their ‘justification’; they’re only depicting these things to stop them from ever happening again. Not that this, or the fact that Ilsa gets her head blown apart at the end ( Gee! I’ve given away the plot ), stopped them from making two sequels, when they saw how successful this one was! These follow-ups, which are much gentler, and to be honest, more entertaining, prove there was never any intention of glorifying the Nazi regime – they demonstrate their political impartiality by setting “Ilsa: Tigress of Siberia” in a Russian labour camp though needless to say, they weren’t accused of glorifying Stalin’s purges…

In fact, the death-camp setting is totally irrelevant. ‘Jew’ is not a word ever mentioned in the film – indeed, the prisoners include an American. It’s just a handy ( and cheap ) back-drop, an excuse for some eye-watering violence and softish-core sex. No doubt if they were being made today, we’d have “Ilsa: Dragon of Tian-ne-min Square” or “Ilsa: Springbok of the South African Secret Police”.

The second barrier to it being considered beyond the pale is Dyanne Thorne, the actress who plays Ilsa. Now, whatever her attributes, and they are considerable ( if you know what I mean, and I think you do, to borrow a phrase ), they do not make her an appropriate figure to play an evil, sadistic Nazi in a pseudo-documentary. She is simply not credible – her attempts at a German accent leave her sounding more like Avengers girl Honor Blackman than Mrs. Joseph Mengele. She would fit in perfectly to either of those other paragons of good taste, “‘Allo, ‘Allo” and “Reform School Girls”, and the whole film seems to me to be a bizarre hybrid of the two.

Despite this, she’s still highly watchable. In fact, her presence is the main thing that drags this picture out of the category of short-term novelty to the status of underground cult movie. Whether being nasty in the name of medicine, urinating on a visiting general, or just noisily having an orgasm courtesy of the aforementioned American prisoner, Dyanne Thorne is compelling. It’s just that I find it a little difficult to believe that Nazi officers went around with the top four buttons of their tunics undone, flashing copious cleavage to all and sundry.

I can certainly understand why not everyone likes it. There are some nasty scenes – it’s like a cinematic assault course and sometimes it does go a little far in it’s wanderings along the border between acceptable bad taste and offensiveness. However, there are so many ludicrous moments, ideas & characters ( the ‘German’ guard whose entire vocabulary is ‘Los!’ & ‘Schnell!’ with the odd ‘Achtung!’ for variety ) that the overall result is quite surreal. Like “The Toxic Avenger”, this movie patently sets out to shock, trash taboos and be generally controversial, which leaves me just as certain not to let it offend me! All of which carefully sidesteps the issue of ‘good taste’. Such a nebulous concept is so personal as to be nearly useless. Perhaps ANY use of a concentration camp as a setting for ANY form of entertainment is hard to justify, but I found the comic book ‘Maus’, with anthropomorphic animals playing Nazis & Jews, far more repellent than ‘Ilsa’, which was completely impossible to take seriously.

Thus, while I don’t think we can look forward to an early showing of the film on British TV, I do feel that it doesn’t deserve the reputation it has gained ( mainly among those who haven’t seen it ) for being THE sadistic outrage of the century. It does deserve A reputation – that of being one of the most outrageous examples of exploitation yet made.

“Of course, certain people are very offended by the language. When you have a 16- year-old blonde teen queen say “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw”, alarms go off in a lot of people’s heads…”

Michael Lehmann, director of “Heathers”.

**** 1. “Wake up – time to die!!”