Friday, August 15, 2014

SALON KITTY 1976

The controversial Italia-Franco-German production, Salon Kitty, was released in the United States in 1977 under the title, Madam Kitty (because we Yanks do need to have things spelled out for us), but I honestly, have no direct memory of its release and can’t recall ever reading anything about it at the time. Which is really weird given: a) It stars dreamboat  #1, Helmut Berger, going full-frontal (why hadn’t my friends told me about this?!!?); b) It’s an X-rated, European art-house flick, which, if you knew me in my film-school days, was practically catnip; c) It’s a semi-musical with Ingmar Bergman star, Ingrid Thulin, channeling Cabaret and doing her best Sally Bowles impersonation as the singing proprietress of a decadent, high-class Berlin bordello in 1939; e) It reunites the stars of Luchino Visconti’s 1969 opus, The Damned (Thulin & Berger) in an over-the-top, trash/camp vision of Nazi Germany that is worthy of Ken Russell in being a film of almost operatic poor taste and visual excess.

With so much about Salon Kitty so perfectly suited to my oddball tastes, I really am at a loss for understanding how this film failed to capture my attention back in 1977. Except to note that when I Googled the original US release poster researching this essay, what I found was a poster so tacky and cheap-looking, with "X-rated" plastered all over it, there's a pretty good chance that I mistook Madam Kitty (Salon Kitty) for a run-of-the-mill porn film back in 1977 and never even bothered to read the credits. In the end, perhaps it was all for the best because, as I understand, the US version was severely edited, and I'm happy that my first exposure to Salon Kitty (just last month!) was through the restored director's edit (Italian director Tinto Brass, of Caligula infamy) currently available on DVD.
Helmut Berger as Helmut Wallenberg
Ingrid Thulin as Madame Kitty Kellerman
Teresa Ann Savoy as Margherita
Bekim Fehmiu as Hans Reiter
John Ireland (!) as Cliff
Inspired by a true story (movie-speak for “outside of the basic premise, we essentially made everything up”) Salon Kitty is about an apolitical madam (Thulin) who runs the most popular whorehouse in Berlin during the early days of WW II. Salon Kitty is a luxurious bordello/nightclub democratically catering to an international clientele of foreign dignitaries and high-ranking members of the Nazi Party (“Himmler…Von Ribbentrop…they are all my clients!”).

Under the orders of icy SS General Biondo (John Steiner), ambitious secret security officer Helmut Wallenberg (Berger) closes down Kitty’s Berlin brothel and sets up her up in a new location in the more remote Grünewald district, only instead of keeping her multi-ethnic whores (who are deported, killed, or sent to prison camps), she is obliged to accept and train a specially-selected all-German cadre of prostitutes-in-training chosen for their devout National Socialist loyalty. Kitty thinks she is doing her part for the morale of the German army, but unbeknownst to her, each of the rooms of her new bordello has been outfitted with bugging devices intended to secure information leaked by German military officers during pillow-talk which might prove useful for blackmail purposes or the unearthing of treasonous behavior.

What happens when Kitty discovers she is being used as a pawn in Nazi espionage, or what revenge is plotted when an otherwise reprehensibly unsympathetic recruit (Teresa Ann Savoy) falls in love with a disillusioned Luftwaffe Lieutenant (Yugoslav heartthrob Bekim Fehmiu, whose US career sank without a trace after appearing in the flop Harold Robbins sudser The Adventurers in 1970), serve as mere backdrop for Salon Kitty's most pressing concerns: the wholesale depiction of sexual depravity, the display of naked male and female flesh as often as possible, and allowing for Helmut Berger to strut around like Norma Shearer in one outlandish fetish uniform after another.
Does this swastika make me look fat?
Although it all sounds positively loony in synopsis, as stated, Salon Kitty is based on actual events culled from a 1972 book by Peter Norden about a madam (Kitty Schmidt, name changed to Kellerman for the film) whose brothel was indeed used for the purpose of spying by SS agents. The chief difference being that in real-life, Kitty was aware of the wiretapping but was threatened with cooperating or being sent to a POW camp. But in a Tinto Brass film, the prurient always takes precedence over the political, so, much like one of Ken Russell’s fervently overheated biographies of famous composers (The Music Lovers, Lisztomania), Salon Kitty is less a look at civilian-coerced Nazi espionage than a full-tilt wallow in the kind of “divine decadence” that Cabaret could only hint at.
The controversial "recruitment" scene
Salon Kitty was recommended to me by Netflix on the strength of the 5-star rating I gave Visconti’s The Damned when I watched it for the first time last year. I’m not a big fan of films about Nazi Germany; in fact, I tend to go out of my way to avoid them. but Visconti’s film was like The Godfather to me: a nihilistic epic of evil couched in a cutthroat family saga. I liked its scope and visual opulence, and I particularly liked Visconti’s artful way of distilling an epoch of unspeakable inhumanity down to an emotional scale that didn’t give the watchful observer the easy-out of being able to say, “That could never happen here.”

Alas, while Salon Kitty feels and looks on the surface like a companion-piece to Visconti’s The Damned, in truth it’s more a well-heeled example of a (mercifully) short-lived cinematic sub-genre known as Il Sadiconazista (or Nazi exploitation film). These were films that, in the wake of controversial arthouse successes, The Night Porter (1974) and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), sought to capitalize more on the sensationalistic depiction of the sexual/sadomasochistic side of Nazism with only superficial, contextual attention paid to the political.  
SS Commander Biondo leads Wallenberg through a gymnasium of bottomless fencing students
Salon Kitty attempts to dramatize the rise of National Socialism in Germany by equating the decadent conduct of aristocratic culture with the gradual erosion of individual morality that was at the center of the dehumanizing, sadomasochistic recruitment practices of the SS. It shows, rather effectively, that the only way to turn people into obedient drones is through the dismantling of self. And undeniably, much of what is on display is in accord with what we’ve come to learn about the controlling, brainwashing techniques of cults, religions, and extremist groups.

But in placing so much emphasis on all things sexual and in taking events so far over the top as to appear stylized, Italian director Brass not only weakens the seriousness of these themes, but makes it all too easy to focus exclusively on the downright bizarre set-pieces and often hilariously bad dialog (“A soldier also wants to shoot his bullets, not just those the army gives him!”  or, Wallenberg: “You have to close your nightclub.”  Kitty: “What a pain in the ass!”). What, for example, is the appropriate response to a scene in which a prostitute literally goes mad and starts foaming at the mouth after a German official, upon placing a loaf of bread shaped like an enormous phallus between her thighs, bites off its head?
One of Madam Kitty's girls with a client
In The Damned, a character attributed the following quote to Hitler: “Personal morals are dead. We are an elite society where everything is permissible.” I have no idea if Hitler actually said this, but if the wall-to-wall debauchery depicted in Salon Kitty could be said to exist in service of anything beyond cheap exploitation, I’d say it serves to decry the basic criminal degeneracy of the Nazi movement and the moral decay fueling their particular brand of fascism. Too bad you have to stop giggling long enough to get that point.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
People (myself included) often use the phrase, “Only in the 70s” when referring to a certain unbridled, anything-goes lunacy characteristic of movies of that decade. In most instances it’s said in a pejorative way; but when I say it it’s with an almost proprietary, boastful pride. I’m happy to have discovered film in an era when filmmakers, giddy with the new-found freedom of relaxed censorship and permissiveness, took chances and were allowed to cater to adult tastes, not required to pander to adolescent fads.
John Steiner as Commander Biondo
Far from a work of art, a film of such questionable taste as Salon Kitty gets a major thumbs-up for me simply because, in light of the corporate, committee-sanctioned analgesics passing for movies today, I can’t help but admire a film that pushes boundaries. Wholly independent of whether or not I approve of the boundaries being pushed.
Fascism as Fetish
PERFORMANCES
While I tend to be of a mind to say a bad performance is a bad performance in any language; European films with international casts pose a unique problem, what with the widespread practice of post-production dubbing. In Salon Kitty I can’t tell if the often disembodied-sounding voices are due to dubbing or poor sound recording (as I recognize several of the actor’s real voices), but let’s suffice it to say that, outside of the leads (and just what is Joan Crawford's Queen Bee and I Saw What You Did co-star, John Ireland [fully clothed, thankfully] doing here?), I think it’s fair to say that most of the cast was selected for their willingness to  appear in various states of undress first, for their acting ability second.

The beauteous Helmut Berger is certainly easy on the eyes, but I’ve always considered to be more a presence than an actor. He has a kind of brittle intensity that I like, but mostly I just regard him as a kind of male Garbo…just looking is enough. By far, the best and most entertaining performance in Salon Kitty is given by Kitty herself, Swedish actress Ingrid Thulin. (Thulin began her career as a star in several Ingmar Bergman films. The same year Salon Kitty was released in the US, Bergman's own Nazi-themed film, The Serpent's Egg was also released.)
Kitty & Wallenberg attempt to make beautiful Teutonic music together
 As the resilient, pragmatic whorehouse madam, Thulin is like a character out of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. With her expressive, wry mouth, and that magnificent face that can look both masculine and feminine at the same time, Thulin plays her role to the hilt, cannily never really letting on whether she’s playing it straight or playing to the camp, melodramatic heights of the material. The earthy zeal with which she attacks the role breathes vibrant life into Salon Kitty's austere, unerotic eroticism.
Life is a cabaret at Salon Kitty

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
While Salon Kitty at times makes a pretty persuasive case against the perils of fascism and the abuse of power, I have to say, after sitting through the entire 133-minute director’s cut, the strongest images I come away with are those depicting decorous depravity, and those highlighting the visual splendor of the sumptuous art nouveau décor and the eye-catching costumes.
Not since the excesses of Lucille Ball's Mame (1974) has the drag queen aesthetic
been given such full rein in costume design. Credit Jost Jacob & Ugo Percoli
Always dressed for the occasion, Kitty attempts to enlist the aid of a client (Stefano Satta Flores)
 in a plot to turn the tables on Wallenberg
You know it's a high-class whorehouse when the girls wear gowns inspired by Hollywood designer, Adrian. In this instance, a black and white number worn by Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton (1932)

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Salon Kitty features scenes of orgies, whippings, sadomasochism, lesbianism, homoeroticism, voyeurism, animal slaughter, and some things I could only look at through the bars of the fingers covering my eyes. Although unpleasant at times, none of it ever feels purposeless. Indeed, when Salon Kitty is at its best as a film to be taken seriously, the explicit barbarism depicted feels calculated to prevent us from ever slipping into “enjoying” the film’s eroticism independent of its monstrous context of impending death camps and genocide.
Humanity Reclaimed
"Man belongs to mankind...not to a country, or to a race or religion."
But for all the baroque displays of violence, degeneracy, and depravity, Salon Kitty’s most chilling moment and most powerful anti-Nazi indictment comes in a quiet sequence that takes place in an aquarium. A Jewish family encounters a group of Hitler Youth girls, and as the family attempts to avoid a confrontation, their small son accidentally drops a small wind-up toy at the feet of one of the girls. A tense moment transpires as the child stares innocently into the face of one of the sternest girls (later to become one of Wallenberg’s recruits) who proceeds to methodically crush the toy under her foot without once breaking her gaze from the child’s confused eyes.
This scene, played without dialog, packs a serious wallop and should clue those who would dismiss this film out of hand for its excesses, that there is perhaps a method to Tinto Brass' madness, and the whole of Salon Kitty is likely greater than the sum of its outrageous parts.
Salon Kitty bid you Willkommen
Copyright © Ken Anderson

14 comments:

  1. OMG This is another one of those films which I could go on and on about! But I'll only mention one small moment: when Madame Kitty inexplicably has two very different eyebrows. Gets me every time!!

    Great post, as always! Danke!!

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    1. Thanks,Thom
      I should have known you'd be familiar with this movie. I'm a little late at the party, but I'm glad I came across it. There's a kind of loony genius to films like this that is becoming rarer and rarer.
      And oh, Ingrid Thulin...she is so great in this. I'm not sure if this is the scene you are referring to, but I was actually going to use a screencap from the "makeover" montage of the girls where Kitty is drawing this positively insane penciled-in eyebrow on a character and hers are wonky as a geometry graph.
      I'm so happy I found the film and love that it is a long-time fave of yours. As John Waters would say, you have such good taste when it comes to bad taste!

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  2. Thanks so much for this! I had no idea Salon Kitty had been restored. I saw it back in the early 80s, the cut version and a very scratchy print at that, on a double bill with (what else?) The Night Porter. Now I can see Bekim Fehmiu the way he was meant to be seen. This went on my Netflix queue so fast I can't tell you...

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    1. Hi Max
      Ha! Someone who knows (and appreciates) Bekim Fehmiu!!
      From what I hear, if you liked the film at all in it's US edit, you'll be amazed at the restoration job. So much footage it sounds like.
      I actually watched this back to back with a rewatch of The Damned the other day, and as I told a friend, I should have followed that with The Sound of Music just to remind myself that things turned out better. The perfect dramatic arc!
      Glad to hear from someone else who like this film I had no awareness of, and hope you enjoy seeing it again. Thanks, Max!

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  3. Nice catch on the Adrian dress. Here's a (to my taste) better pic of it:
    http://jacksonupperco.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/joan_crawford_nickname_01.jpg
    thought perhaps you picked the picture you did to make the correspondence clearer.

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    1. Hi Allen
      Yes, the pic chosen is primarily to show off the dress design as clearly as possible (and that's a pretty dynamic pose at the same time), but I like the very dramatic one in your link as well. looks like a George Hurrell. Thanks for the addition!

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  4. Ken, I was so dazzled the first time I saw this film a few years back, I bought it immediately and have watched it many times since. It really is a visual feast depicting "decorous depravity," as you put it so deliciously...and Helmut Berger is one of the most physically attractive men I've ever laid eyes on...he will always be Visconti's boy and Dorian Gray to me!

    It was Salon Kitty that led me ultimately to The Damned, which of course is a far better film by miles...so I have this movie to thank for becoming aware of the Visconti...

    Speaking of Tinto Brass, I showed my best friend the uncut Caligula recently--he had never seen it before, and was shocked/appalled/titillated and totally fascinated. He has asked to see Salon Kitty next time, and I know he will share our mixed/but mostly positive feelings for it. I love films that take risks and go right for the jugular in their approach...and this is one of them.

    Ken, I so so appreciate your taste in film and the artistry you display in writing about it and curating the lush photos in your marvelous blog. Vive Le Cinema Dreams, as always!!
    -Chris

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    1. Hi Chris
      Happy to hear you are another late-bloomer fan of "Salon Kitty"! Whatever order they are seen, "The Damned" begs a look at "Salon Kitty" and vice-versa (accent on the vice). i don't know about you, but I sense all of this would have been a bit overwhelming on a big screen, I'm happy to have discovered it in restored HD and scaled down to flatscreen size. (Although i wouldn't balk at a larger-than-life Helmut Berger.)
      Because I saw "Caligula" the day it opened back in 1979 and haven't seen it since. I am intrigued to perhaps give it another look-see now (it's available uncut on YouTube). maybe the advanced years have rendered me unshockable, but back then it was pretty heady stuff.

      As you said, I find myself intrigued by films that take risks. Not goofy, anything-for-a-reaction risks, but ones that shake us out of our complacency as filmgoers. "Salon Kitty" is clever and audacious enough to fill that bill for me.
      I'm ever pleased that you enjoy my blog and I'm gratified by your words. From a writer I admire so much, yours are compliments I take to heart. Thank you so much, Chris!

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  5. This is another one of those films I've always wanted to see, but never have. I have nearly purchased it time and again and then backed off. This post will probably cause me to take the plunge. It looks irresistible! (Your post on "Dinah East" resulted in me finding a new favorite, though - in a shocking turn of events - "Dorian Gray" didn't really knock me out. I'm going to give it another try later to see if I warm to it more.) I do enjoy "The Damned" so I bet I'll like this. As for "Caligula," I saw that on cable as a youth and it freaked me out! It actually haunted me in some ways for a long time. But I bought the deluxe DVD a few years ago and enjoyed watching it a lot. The creation of the film is fascinating in itself what with O'Toole, Gielgud and Mirren taking part in what emerged as a semi-hardcore movie in the end. Thanks, as always, for another great look at a movie!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      Your reticence to check this film out mirrors my own feelings about "The Damned." I was always intrigued by it but never took the plunge until recently, and it became a favorite. Salon Kitty was just weirdly off my radar.
      I think that you will like it if and when you do get around to seeing it. It's such a great companion piece to Visconti's film (perhaps more in body than in brain). Caligula I have to take another look at. It didn't grab me back when it came out, but I'm so jaded now it might be right up my alley.
      Too bad about that "shocking turn of events (Ha!) it's odd when a film you "should" like doesn't turn out to be a film you do. I have a long list of those, but Cukor's "The Women" comes to mind.
      Thank you for commenting!

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  6. I've always avoided the genre of Nazi sexploitation - but Helmet Berger nude scenes can only be a good thing! (Gee, what *did* Luchino Visconti see in him?!). And Ingrid Thulin such a powerful Dietrich-like screen presence. I've added Salon Kitty to my LOVEFiLM wish list!

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    1. I know what you mean. Happily, "Salon Kitty" is more in lne with a Visconti film. And like you I feel a nude Helmut Berger can't really be a bad thing.
      Hope you getting around to seeing this sometime. It's certainly has a great deal to recommend it, and Thulin and her wardrobe are work the price alone.

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  7. Bonjour Ken. I had never seen Salon Kitty up to tonight (your post that I recently read got me ordering the Blue Undergroung Blu Ray right away). While I felt the film was way too long running at almost 2h15m, I enjoyed it tremendously. It's not as nasty and stupid as the Ilsa films and there's a lot to catch the eye indeed, from furniture to flesh. But the best was the presence of Ingrid Thulin : how she made her way from Bergman to Queen of Kink is just sensational. So thanks for the kick. TP

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    1. Hello Tom
      I love that you took a chance on this rather odd-sounding film and enjoyed it! Love your observation: "Ingrid Thulin : how she made her way from Bergman to Queen of Kink is just sensational."
      I couldn't agree more. Merci beaucoup...je suis flatte!

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