The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Movie Break: Stalags

I finally caught Stalags on the second-to-last day it was playing at the Film Forum. This is a documentary on the bizarre phenomenon of Israeli-produced, concentration camp fetish-porn paperbacks.

Gross? Yes. But completely fascinating.

According to interviewees in the film, because of the understandable hesitancy of survivors (and perpetrators) to talk about what went on in these camps in the immediate post-war period, rumor, fantasy, and just plain kink swept in to fill the void.

The earliest "Stalags" (as the genre is called because nearly all have the word in the title) took their cover illustrations from American men's magazines. The plots all followed a similar pattern: an American or British pilot is shot down behind German lines, he's imprisoned in a camp run by female Amazonian SS officers who rape and torture him. He eventually turns the tables, rapes and kills his captors, then escapes to tell the tale (the stalags all claim to be translations of first person accounts, though there were never any female officers in the SS).

The books were massive sellers and seemed to fill a basic need to reclaim the power role through fantasy while simultaneously capturing a curious self-loathing (sublimated by casting a rugged Allie pilot in the central role). They were advertised side by side with newspaper accounts of the Eichmann trial and were frequently the first erotica seen by Israeli adolescents. After a prolific two-year period, the books were judged obscene and banned from sale.

The second half of the film discusses a widely-translated book from the 50s (the title is eluding me but the author's last name begins with "tz") which offers a matter-of-fact account of female Jewish camp prisoners who were forced to act as prostitutes for the Nazi officers. According to the book these prisoners--while suffering a miserable, degraded existence--were kept in a separate bunker, given better rations and were more likely to make it out of the camps alive than others. Two different scholars in the film (Israeli women) state that there are no first hand accounts to support this arrangement but despite this, the book has been canonized and is a regular part of Israeli high school curriculum. One of the scholars claims that because of this book, single, attractive Jewish women were stigmatized after the war because people assumed they had whored their way through it. The film claims that this text planted the seed for the Stalags.

The comparison of the underground and overground dissemination of fetishized history is both instructive and disturbing. I highly recommend catching the film if it comes to a nearby arthouse.

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