Starring: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo, Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Boratto
“Sade had to make up his theater of punishment and delight from scratch, improvising the decor and costumes and blasphemous rites. Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.”
-Susan Sontag, Fascinating Fascism
In 1975 Pier Paolo Pasolini executed the final blow of his long career as an artist, intellectual, journalist, philosopher, poet, and filmmaker before himself being brutally murdered: Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma. Twenty-five years later, Saló remains one of the most loathed, banned, and unwatched films in history. A loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s seemingly unadaptable eighteenth century novel Les 120 journées de Sodome, Salò is set in a fictionalized fascist Italy, in a version of Mussolini’s Republic of Saló populated by libertines and Nazis, clouded by an unmistakable aura of the Holocaust. Immediately following his bawdy, erotic Trilogy of Life, Salò is the first film in an intended, but uncompleted Trilogy of Death. While Pasolini’s three previous films, The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and A Thousand and One Nights, are all celebrations of life and sexuality, Salò utterly and bitterly rejects these themes.
In Salò, four wealthy libertines (a bishop, president, duke, and judge) kidnap a group of teenage girls and boys and bring them to a picturesque, isolated villa to live out the rest of their days with violence, depravity, and torture. They are accompanied by equally sadistic guards a small group of aged prostitutes who spice up the events with depraved stories from their careers. The cycle continues until the libertines murder the remaining boys and girls in a gruesome, disgusting finale.
Though the most important, it is not the first or last film of its decade to explore themes of Nazism and fascism in conjunction with erotica. The first of these, Love Camp 7, and its more famous cousin, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, spawned ten years of mainly Italian produced Nazi-themed exploitation films and pornography that polluted the European grindhouse market. In some ways, Salò is a response to these films. While it is intellectually and artistically superior, it also outweighs its rivals by containing more horror and nastiness than any other Italian film of the decade. Salò rose above the squalor through technical brilliance and theoretical postulating, which its contemporaries and descendants lack. Though Salò both borrows from and influences the disreputable genre of Nazi exploitation, its inherent intellectualism and powerful anti-eroticism set it widely apart. Unlike other exploitation films or Pasolini’s earlier works, Saló allows for no release or resolution, whether physical or narrative. Amid a faded, detested sub-genre (and related pornographic films), it stands as a cinematic howl of rage and anguish that is “as glacial and opaque as marble, as pure and cutting as diamond” (Marcel Martin, July 1976).
In early April of 1961 began one of the most infamous civilian trials in Western history: SS-Obersturmbahnführer (roughly equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel) Adolf Eichmann, the individual responsible for the deportation of millions of Jews and political prisoners to ghettos and concentration camps. After almost fifteen years since the liberation of the camps, the bubble of silence that had settled around the subject of the Holocaust burst. With hundreds of new testimonies and evidence exhibits, death camps were back in the news and, soon after, found their way into entertainment periodicals. Oddly beginning in Israel, a series of pornographic pulp novels known as stalag fiction birthed the Nazi exploitation genre. (Stalag is the German abbreviation for prisoner of war camps, called stammlager.) These are commonly depicted in post-WWII film and fiction, most famously in The Great Escape and Hogan’s Heroes. The most famous stalag fiction, I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch, is a classical example of the genre: sexually aggressive, female SS officers brutalize camp prisoners until the prisoners eventually revolt, in turn raping and torturing their buxom captors. Soon banned for its pornographic and morally offensive content, the genre relocated halfway across the world to the pulp novels of Italy. Known as gialli, they began as cheap mystery and crime fiction and rose in popularity in the late ‘20s. They eventually became more violent and sexual in nature, until they bled over into the film market with Mario Bava’s seminal La ragazza che sappeva troppo (1963), which created a popular and prolific film genre of its own.
Due to temporarily relaxed censorship and a boom in the European film market, the exploitation genre grew by leaps and bounds. As a result, producers constantly sought new material to push the bounds of decency, eroticism and violence. European cinema in the late '60s and early '70s, beginning primarily with Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, forged a link between Nazism, decadence, and sexual perversion, though this went back as far as some of Roberto Rossellini’s films of the late '40s, such as Germany Year Zero. The Damned depicts various fascist characters involved with transvestitism, child molestation, incest and a homosexual orgy. It was only a matter of time before these themes would attract the notice of the exploitation racket. In 1969 American sleaze producer Bob Cresse teamed up with exploitation director Lee Frost to create Love Camp 7, the first official entry in the Nazi exploitation genre and - with Jess Franco’s 99 Women from the same year - the first women in prison film.
Two female British agents go undercover and infiltrate a Nazi camp to gain information and rescue a prisoner. They discover that the female prisoners are forced to serve as prostitutes for officers of the Reich and are tortured, humiliated and raped. In order to retrieve another prisoner from solitary confinement, one of the agents is forced to subject herself to extreme torture and punishment before they can stage their rescue mission, which results in a violent battle. In addition to soft-core sex, graphic torture and other violence, there is almost constant female frontal nudity. Though one of the first, Love Camp 7 is a fairly typical example of both the Nazi exploitation and the women in prison genre.
Unlike later women in prison films, which are based almost entirely in the realm of fantasy, early Nazi exploitation, Love Camp 7 and Salò included, take key elements from historical events. The medical experimentation depicted in films like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1974) was heavily documented in the Nuremberg trials and includes such horrors as testing human aptitudes for poison, gas, explosives, malaria, sterilization, transplants, temperature and altitude. The atrocities committed by Doctors Wirths, Mengele, Heim and others have forever changed medical ethics and the research, though ghastly, has been used by government agencies. The sexual slavery in Love Camp 7, Ilsa, and Salò is also based in fact. Most famous were the Lagerbordell or military brothels; at the height of Nazi occupation in Europe there were allegedly over five-hundred of these across France and Eastern Europe. There were also camp brothels meant to reward compliant prisoners, usually prisoners of war or political enemies of the state. There is documented evidence of this at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, among others. Known as the Freudenabteilung, or Joy Division, women were forced into sexual slavery and raped, abused and frequently tortured to death to be replaced by women of neighboring camps. This is explored in House of Dolls, a controversial novel by Yehiel De-Nur or Prisoner Ka-tzetnik 135633, who survived Auschwitz and spent the remainder of his life writing novels that straddle the line between memoir and exploitation. More factually, it is documented in Memory of the Camps, a documentary produced by the British Ministry of Information.
Though these factual elements are present in Nazi exploitation films, they are ultimately sexualized caricatures that cannot be placed inside an accurate historical context, which further problematizes an already troublesome genre. The powerful shadow of the Holocaust that falls over Salò is also filtered through this lens of fantasy and exploitation. Though Pasolini takes care to name and place Salò within the historical location of Mussolini’s Salò, these exploitation caricatures play a significant role in the visual and thematic context of the film. “Not only had Pasolini arrived at the conclusion that making sex the centerpiece of cinematic populism brings one closer to exploitation than to liberation, but he was also reacting to the exploitation of sex in the Nazi-porno films that were flooding the Italian market at that time. In Salò, the substitution of the Italian fascist establishment for the Nazi-porno caricatures of German war criminals became an important part of Pasolini’s cultural commentary” (Mira Liehm, Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, 291).
Instead of responding to the trauma of the Holocaust or factual political fascism, Pasolini constructed his cinematic world around a visual language partly inherited from exploitation and erotica. Like his Trilogy of Life a few years before, Salò exploited and anticipated a new wave of sexual commodification. When Pasolini completed The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights, directors and producers were pushing the ever widening envelope of taste, censorship, and acceptable visual representations of sexuality. With his trilogy, Pasolini was one of the first filmmakers to push mainstream and art cinema farther than it had previously been allowed to go in Italian film. As a result, a series of pornographic and exploitation films followed in its wake. Such titles as The Sexbury Tales, The Lusty Wives of Canterbury, The Other Canterbury Tales, Forbidden Decameron, Hot Nights of Decameron, and Decameron’s Sexy Kittens flooded the market (Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, Immoral Tales, 32-34). Immediately after Saló’s completion and release, this trend was echoed with Nazi exploitation films. Tinto Brass’s Salon Kitty (1976), Luigi Batzella’s SS Hell Camp (1977), Cesare Canevari’s Last Orgy of the Third Reich (1977), and Alain Payet’s Hitler’s Lust Train (1977) are a few of the more well-known titles in a cycle of films that came to be known as il sadiconazista.
Salò, despite its connection to this disreputable genre, rose above its exploitative brethren as a true work of art. With an icy, intellectual beauty, it manipulates the commodification of fascism, or what Susan Sontag called the “master scenario.” In his study Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, Saul Friedländer described a “new discourse” of Nazism, one where the Third Reich is no longer a symbol of pervasive, all-corrupting evil. Instead, it exists with a contradictory, dual function. Partly it is the kitschy shadow of a horror that is no longer possible in the current social and economic climate, a once indescribable trauma that is now explained over and over again, pinned down by language. Conversely, it lingers as a recurrent psychological hold for “a particular kind of bondage nourished by the simultaneous desires for absolute submission and total freedom” (19).
I believe Pasolini was responding to this new interpretation of fascism. His recreation of Mussolini’s Salò, like any good fantasy, is replete with accurate details, but otherwise removed from factual historical context. What began as a fantasy was quickly dashed against the rocks of intellectualism by Pasolini. He destroyed any notion that we are simply viewing a catalog of perversions, monstrosities, or erotic curios. He is quick to ensure that Salò is, if not an intellectual exercise, at least steeped in a rich tradition of literary scholarship and philosophy. Astoundingly, we are given a bibliografia essenziale or reading list at the end of the opening credits. He lists Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Simone De Beauvoir, Pierre Klossowski, and Phillipe Sollers as his co-conspirators, giving book and article titles as well as specific published editions. Though this indicates some sort of explanation, warning or possible apology for what we are about to experience, it makes an undigestible film more difficult to process. The lengthy scenes to come are difficult enough without Pasolini's challenge for us to understand them in an isolated, intellectual context.
Murder, suicide, ritual torture, and degradation are on the daily menu in the villa in Salò. There are a number of murders that punctuate the cyclical rhythm of the film, subverting and breaking the building loop of intensity that would otherwise end in climax, whether violent or sexual. In fact, the film begins with a murder that is cruel, casual, and separate from the libertines’ program of perversion and torture. It indicates to us, early on, the worth of human life and dramatic importance of extinguishing one: null. After the children are rounded up, introduced, and examined by the four libertines, they are shipped off to the villa at Salò in covered trucks. A young boy leaps out of the truck and escapes over the side of the road, running along the scenic riverside. The libertines laugh, barely notice, and joke about the number of boys in their possession. Once nine, now eight, like the fr”eight” in the trucks. The soldiers don’t bother to chase him, but stand at the overpass and shoot him with their machine guns until he falls down, riddled with bullets.
Salò’s complete disregard for death is one of its nastiest and most chilling elements. While the libertines will kill to punish, they really ascribe no value to human life. Even suicide, which Michel Foucault describes as having a certain power of its own, is also lost on them. "It is not surprising that suicide - once a crime, since it was a way to usurp the power of death which the sovereign alone, whether the one here or the Lord above, had the right to exercise - became, in the course of the nineteenth century, one of the first conducts to enter into the sphere of sociological analysis; it testified to the individual and private right to die, at the borders and in the interstices of power that was exercised over life" (Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, 138-139). However, the libertines give suicide — or death itself — no power of its own. No one is buried during the film and no funeral rites or rituals of mourning are enacted. Though there are a few characters who kill themselves in the course of the film, it is clear that this is not an act of freedom or liberation. It is a meaningless exercise that only serves to illustrate the valuelessness of human life in Salò.
Salò has an inherent, repeated denial of eroticism provides no release from its world of torment, humiliation, and ugliness. In his theoretical work, “The Cinema of Poetry,” Pasolini states that a director “chooses a series of objects, or things, or landscapes, or persons as syntagmas (signs of a symbolic language) which, while they have a grammatical history invented in that moment... do, however, have an already lengthy and intense pregrammatical history” (Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, 171). He purposefully chose a series of acts, both sexual and perverse, that have direct origin in de Sade and are explored in ’70s exploitation cinema. Through these, Pasolini intentionally and uncomfortably pushes us into new territory. The taboo, but familiar world of perverse sexuality is stripped of its eroticism, resulting in what critics have called the “funeral dirge” of eroticism or what Gilles Deleuze describes as a “theorem of death.” There is no escape from this inferno-like realm of torment. Saló never ends. It forces us to constantly relive past and present trauma without placing that trauma inside a historical framework. The specter of fascism is named, but never really exorcised as it is in other Nazi exploitation films of the era. Though the end of the film culminates in an orgy of violence, Pasolini simply focuses on the different libertines watching the scene through a window and binoculars, reminding us of our own voyeuristic complicity in the horror of sexual commodification.
One of the most important works of cinema, Salò is not something lightly recommended. It’s chock full of rape, torture, murder, coprophagia (shit eating for the uninitiated), and a further array of atrocities all captured with expert technical precision. If you are a cinephile and have not seen it, I think it deserves at least a single viewing. If you're a casual horror/exploitation fan, it could honestly go either way. Just know what you're getting yourself into. The Criterion Collection DVD is the only way to go.
Viva la muerte!