Friday, 9 July 2010

Women's Camp 119 (1977)

On laundry day there was only one machine that didn't make
an annoying rattle. Sometimes things got ugly.

Bruno Mattei wasn't above much, certainly not using the sets, actors and costumes from one film to punch out another film on the cheap. He did this many times during his career (e.g. Violence in a Women's Prison versus Women's Prison Massacre, Caligula and Messalina versus Caligula Reincarnated as Nero) but if nothing else he was pretty good at giving each film a different tone and feel. This is particularly evident in his two Nazisploitation films, SS Girls and Women's Camp 119. While they were shot back-to-back with many of the same actors and costumes, the two films couldn't be any more different: SS Girls is bright, colourful and campy; Women's Camp 119 is harsh, grimy and miserable. Not the kind of film to take home to grandma. Or anyone, for that matter. This is the kind of film you watch by yourself in the middle of the night on a flickery old CRT television.

The film begins with a bunch of female prisoners rolling up to Rosenhaus concentration camp. Oberleutnant Otto Ohlendorff (Gabriele Carrara) tells them that "You'll wipe the asses of every one of us until you turn purple with fatigue". What, like 24-hour, round-the-clock asswiping? Maybe you should lay off the Mexican food. He also says that "our dogs are Corporals" and that the prisoners must salute them. Does this mean that lower-ranking enlisted men have to salute the dogs as well? Unfortunately the issue of canine NCOs is never brought up again. After a demonstration where three women are stripped naked and beaten, all the uggos are sent off to the gas chambers. Only hotties allowed in Hitler's Third Reich.

The camp is run by Commander Wieker (Ivano Staccioli), who is using the prisoners to conduct bizarre medical experiments aiming to increase the fertility of the master race. He likes to quote from Mein Kampf and blame his experimental failures on the "impurity" of his test subjects. A real asshole. Like in every one of these films his experiments are "the Fuhrer's top priority", so he enlists the help of one of the prisoners, a former doctor named Maria Black (Lorraine De Salle from Cannibal Ferox). She is forced to assist him in his experiments, though she tries to make it easy for her patients whenever she can.

You know, I don't know about the scientific validity of some of these experiments. For instance, in one experiment a man is frozen solid and then revived by the body heat of a hooker. A Polish priest is used as a test subject because his faith in god would be similar to a Luftwaffe pilot's faith in the Fuhrer. It's all very scientific. They try two Dutch hookers but that doesn't work so they have to bring out their secret weapon, some sort of French super-hooker they found in Versailles. It works, so I guess I don't know as much about science as I thought.

In another experiment they're trying to "cure" a couple of gay guys who just sit in a tastefully decorated room all day, knitting and sighing dramatically. Their treatment involves forcing them to view and eventually have sex with some naked female prostitutes. Apparently naked titties are to gay guys what crucifixes are to vampires because they freak out, covering their eyes and begging and pleading for mercy. The experiment was a failure for the Third Reich but a success at making me laugh.

Mattei treats everything with deadly seriousness, which might be funny if most of the other experiments were as ridiculous as these ones, but they aren't. There's all sorts of nasty vivisections, including a bloody uterus transplant and prisoners used to test the spread of infection in a wound. They aren't filmed with the campy grand guignol of a typical exploitation movie either, which makes them even more uncomfortable. In one scene Wieker's men find some poison bullets, so Wieker immediately loads them into his gun (handling them with his bare hands I might add) and shoots a prisoner in the leg, timing how long it takes her to die as she writhes around in agony. This isn't really a fun time at the movies.

Gabriele Carrara is the shining light of camp in what is generally a very grim and serious film, exhibiting the same crazy overacting here that he did in SS Girls. When Ohlendorff forces a girl to lick his boots Carrera makes sure you know he really, really likes it. The other campy touch is Ohlendorff's "pet", a bald, monobrowed simpleton named Kurt (Giovanni Attanasio). Ohlendorff uses Krazy Kurt to rape unruly prisoners but luckily he's a dedicated breast man, so usually he just roughly rubs and massages their boobs like he's kneading pizza dough. When Kurt's not on duty I guess he's free to roam the facility, because he attacks a girl named Cristina (Sonia Viviani) while she is inexplicably washing her hair in what appears to be a damp sewer. Luckily Cristina is saved by the requisite lesbian warden Marta (Ria De Simone). You can probably guess what Marta demands for repayment.

Most of this movie is just a bunch of unconnected scenes of women being tortured, raped etc, but somewhere about the 70 minute mark Mattei remembers that a movie is supposed to have a plot. Cristina, Maria and a doctor she is working with formulate an escape plan and execute it during an Allied bombing run. Despite a healthy head start the Nazis catch up to them, probably because Maria and the doctor decided to waste time by hiding in a cave and fucking. Soon after Cristina gets caught when she stupidly tries to steal some sausages from a platoon of Nazi soldiers in broad daylight, so the soldiers strip her naked and provide her with all the German sausage that she can handle (rape joke).

So, you'd expect Maria and the doctor to run away, the camp to get bombed out of existence and the movie to end, right? Wrong! Maria and the doctor get captured by Wieker, brought back to the camp and hanged. During the execution the rest of the assembled prisoners start singing in unison, so Wieker orders the prison guards to shoot them, which they do. Then Ohlendorff shoots the guards. Then Marta shoots Ohlendorff. Then Wieker shoots Marta. Wieker escapes the camp but is taken out several months later by a suicide bomber in a weird, abrupt epilogue. This is followed by some title cards telling us about a bunch of Nazi war criminals (who aren't in the movie) that were still roaming free back in '77. Way to bum us out, Mattei.

I got this film in the Grindhouse Experience boxed set, and the transfer is just terrible, obviously ripped from a VHS tape with burned-in Dutch subtitles. That's okay though, this isn't the kind of film that needs a Criterion Edition. If anything the grainy, washed-out picture quality adds to the experience. In all seriousness, I think this is one of Mattei's best attempts at making a "real" film. He takes everything very seriously (even a sexy naked catfight is shot and scored like it's Schindler's List), it's filmed well if criminally underlit, with great location shooting (wouldn't be surprised if it was a real concentration camp), very little stock footage and a moody, fittingly-depressing score by Alessandro Alessandroni. I'm put in a weird position here because I feel like I can't really recommend it to anybody in good conscience, even though I think it's one of Mattei's best. Oh well. One of Mattei's best. Do not watch.

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