Nazi role-playing and big-busted, blonde dominatrixes in boots and tight, revealing uniforms, brandishing whips over cowering male prisoners, have been an inexhaustible staple of a certain brand of sexual fantasy for years, as witness the recent scandal involving auto-racing honcho Max Mosley. Much of the modern-day iconography of these sexual fantasies stems from “stalags,” those early-1960s pornographic pulp novels, ironically written by Israeli writers, which are still sought after and treasured today by a small yet avid cult of both those who remember them and a younger generation eager to proclaim their post-modern relevance, just discovering these verboten works for the first time.
Ari Libsker’s documentary Stalags sheds light on this short-lived phenomenon, which, according to various interviewees, provided many young Israeli men with their first introduction to sex. The covert writers of these paperbacks used American pseudonyms (Mike Longshot, Ralph Butcher) and a sly style which purported to be translations from English targeted at an American readership, when, in fact, they were originally written in Hebrew and strictly aimed at a Jewish audience. The undeniable potency of the sexually charged pornography of victims eroticizing their oppressors is an inescapable psychological element which is addressed here. The 1961 trial of Nazi commandant Adolph Eichman, which first revealed the horrors of the concentration camps, is posited as a major inspiration for the stalags.
Amazingly, these once-shameful, dirty little literary secrets are now taught in classrooms, as examples of important concentration camp reportage and female empowerment, and we hear various feminists and academics sound off on their worth. We even see a dead-serious teacher quoting passages from one of them during a student field trip to Auschwitz, citing the desperation with which female prisoners used sex in exchange for survival. Tangential issues are also raised, like the suspicion that greeted the first Holocaust survivor immigrants to Israel, especially if they were women, single and attractive, the implication being that they had indeed traded sexual favors with their Nazi captors. There’s humor to be found, too, as when various euphemisms for “penis,” like “his pride,” are bandied about by old men recalling these souvenirs of sweaty adolescence.
It’s a big, muddled subject Libsker has tackled, and the film, while doubtlessly intriguing, jumps all over the place—as if it still can’t get over the naughtiness of it all. Stalags seems at once too short to truly delve into the themes it brings up, as well as too long, giving these trashy lowest-common-denominator paperbacks a weighty import one rather questions.