Tasteless, gratuitous smut or challenging cult classics? In the late-1960s and 1970s a clutch of art-house films by Italian directors found new, confrontational ways to explore the rise of fascism.
The stage was set by Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), followed a year later by Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970). 1974 saw the release of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter and Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, with Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1976) bringing down the curtain.
Sex and power – sex as a metaphor for tyranny
These are great, if controversial, films with intriguing plots, extravagant drama, superb actors, gorgeous sets and stylish costumes. But their tone is dark and pessimistic, their subject matter grim, transgressive and voyeuristic. They make for thrillingly uncomfortable viewing.
They portray the Nazi regime as evil incarnate. Against a broader historical backdrop, they chart its ascendancy and consequences for individuals, relationships and the body politic. The underlying narrative seems to run something like this…
- Capitalism is corrupt and corrupting.
- It leads inexorably to power plays, tyranny and repression at every level of society, from the family to the state.
- Along with all of this come a range of other perverse behaviours such as duplicity, betrayal and sexual deviance.
- Capitalism, tyranny and perversion create a death spiral of paranoia and destruction from which escape, let alone redemption, is all but impossible.
- This toxic cocktail finds its ultimate expression in the sado-masochistic excesses of Nazism.
The most striking characteristic of these films is that they equate sexual deviance with tyranny, or “totalitarianism”, to use a word that was much in vogue at the time. Sexual domination is a metaphor for political domination; non-heterosexual desires are a symptom of political depravity. This is troubling, not least for a contemporary audience with a less binary attitude towards sexuality.
Sex and power – products of their time
These films are palpably products of their time and in their own way feel just as dated now as the films noir of the 1940s and the musicals of the 1950s.
They emerged from a period of social and political turmoil in Italy that ran from the late-1960s to the early-1980s and was marked by a wave of left-wing and right-wing terrorist incidents. During the period, nearly 2,000 murders were attributed to political violence in the form of bombings, assassinations and street warfare between rival militant factions.
The films’ political message is rooted in the socialist / communist ideology that had gained currency (particularly in academic and artistic circles) during the 1960s and had erupted on the streets of Paris in 1968 but was increasingly questioned during the 1970s. The Nazis provide the protagonists, costumes and settings for restaging and exploring in the present the historical failure of democracy.
Bear in mind too that for many in 1970 the end of World War II was recent history, just 25 years away – the equivalent for us would be looking back at the 1990s. Visconti, Cavani, Wertmüller and Pasolini had all lived through the war (Bertolucci was born during it) and their films may well have been in part at least a way of coming to terms with events they had witnessed. At the same time a new generation was coming of age who had not themselves lived through the war and its immediate aftermath.
At the same time, the permissiveness of the 1960s had loosened the moral code and opened the door for more explicit on-screen sex, torture and other forms of bad behaviour. A parallel development was that of the giallo, a genre of Italian pulp movie nicely characterized by Cheryl Eddie for Gizmodo:
Nearly all [the films] contain gushing gore, erotic themes, a heavy emphasis on visuals (with things like script coherence often taking a back seat), questionable / campy English dubbing, characters gripped by paranoia, gorgeous women in peril, and ruthlessly brutal masked killers fond of sharp objects, rope, and black leather gloves.
Significantly, it was in the mid-1970s that Susan Sontag published a piece on Fascinating Fascism. in which she noted the renewed interest in Nazism and its eroticization. She also observed that “Courses dealing with the history of fascism are, along with those on the occult (including vampirism), among the best attended these days on college campuses.” So clearly something was in the air.
Perhaps these films about the rise of fascism were also a reaction to the camp frivolity churned out of Cinecittà during the latter half of the 1960s – movies like Barbarella (1968) and Danger: Diabolik (1968).
Whatever the influences, this clutch of films was made possible commercially by the emergence during the 1960s of European art-house cinema as a force to be reckoned with thanks to work by the likes of Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Sex and power – the actresses
These films showcase the talents of some of the leading European actresses of the period. In fact a number of them keep reappearing in these and related films of the period.
Foremost among them is Charlotte Rampling, an English actress, who plays the female lead opposite Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter as well as having an important and very different role in The Damned. She worked as a model before capturing the attention of cinemagoers with her performance in Georgy Girl (1966). She continues to appear in films (not least François Ozon’s Swimming Pool), on TV and on the stage. Outside of the movie world, she features, posing naked on a table at the Hotel Nord Pinus in Arles, in one of Helmut Newton’s most celebrated photographs.
Alongside Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, Ingrid Thulin is regarded by many as Sweden’s female contribution to international cinema. She was one of Ingmar Bergman’s muses and appeared in seven of his films, beginning with Wild Strawberries (1957), for which she won best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival the following year. In The Damned, she is the cold-blooded Baroness Sophie Von Essenbeck, a cross between a latter-day Lady Macbeth and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. She also appears in Tinto Brass’s proto-Nazisploitation film, Salon Kitty (1976).
French actress Dominique Sanda was 18 years old when Bernardo Bertolucci asked her to play the part of Anna in The Conformist. The same year Vittorio De Sica cast her as Micòl Finzi Contini in his movie about the fate of a Jewish family in 1938 Italy, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). She was subsequently recruited by Luchino Visconti for an uncredited role in Conversation Piece (1974) and again by Bertolucci to play the ill-fated Ada in 1900. She won the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her performance in The Inheritance (1976).
Bernardo Bertolucci cast Stefania Sandrelli in the two great historical films about Italy that he made in the 1970s: The Conformist and 1900. Her breakthrough film was Divorce Italian Style (1961) – she was just 15 years old at the time. In the 1970s she worked with director Ettore Scola as well as Bernardo Bertolucci before, in the 1980s, making a name for herself as an erotic actress in Tinto Brass’s The Key (1983).
Sex and power – the reception
When these films were released, the savagery of the Nazi regime and the horrors of the Holocaust were still fresh in people’s minds, so the subject matter was always going to be controversial.
The Damned opened to worldwide acclaim and was the tenth most popular movie at the French box office in 1970. It received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay and was named Best Foreign Film by the National Board of Review, with Helmut Berger was singled out for particular praise.
The Conformist dropped quickly from sight after rave receptions at several film festivals. It got only a very, very limited run in the US after the likes of Francis Ford Coppola urged Paramount to release it. Nor was it a big hit in Italy because it provided audiences with an uncomfortable reminder of fascism’s comparatively recent popularity. It is now something of a cult movie and regarded by many as a masterpiece.
The Night Porter provoked mixed responses. Liliana Cavani was praised by some for having the courage to deal with the theme of sexual transgression but many couldn’t accept the Holocaust setting. Elite-critic Roger Ebert was far from alone when he called it “as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.”
Seven Beauties upset many with its graphic depiction of Nazi concentration camps as the context for a sick joke about its leading character’s survival. In spite of that, it did well in the US and was nominated for four Oscars, including best director.
Not surprisingly given its graphic portrayals of rape, torture, and murder, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was widely regarded as obscene and banned in several countries. In some the ban remains to this day. The film has never reached a mass audience but many critics now see it as an important work and required viewing for serious cinephiles.
Sex and power – the legacy
In the political arena, the message of these movies about the Nazis failed to make an impact. By the late-1970s / early-1980s the dominant ideologies were those of the free-marketeers (as personified by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) and the anarchists (as embodied by the punks).
Perhaps for all their sensationalism these films failed to appeal to a broad enough audience. More likely, they turned out to be a late flowering of 1960s thinking, and by the time they were released the pendulum had already begun to swing in another direction.
Ironically, in the cultural / artistic arena these films ended up spawning a whole sub-genre of exploitation movies – Nazisploitation. Nazisploitation films appropriated the lavish decadence of The Damned, the psychodrama of The Night Porter or the S&M of Salò to create a sensationalist cocktail of sex and violence. The most celebrated product of the genre is Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975). But there was clearly something in the air – Love Camp 7 (1969) was released the same year as The Damned.
In mainstream cinema, the most obvious progeny of these films about the Nazis is Cabaret (1972). In stills photography, Nazi chic is implicit or explicit in the work of Helmut Newton, Chris von Wangenheim and Bob Carlos Clarke. And, by extension, is it going to too far to discern a link between these films and the broad-shouldered, power dressing that took the fashion world by storm in the late-’70s?
Want to know more about sex and power?
A good starting point is Samm Deighan’s article for Diabolique magazine: Post-War Perversion in Italian Cinema: From Visconti to Pasolini, Part One and Part Two. To go deeper, take a look at Screen Nazis: Cinema, History, and Democracy by Sabine Hake or Nazisploitation!: The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture by Elizabeth Bridges.