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Private Bitches in Public Places: Stalags

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Private Bitches in Public Places: Stalags

At the end of Stalags, Ari Libsker’s engrossing documentary about the Israeli Nazi-themed porn paperbacks that became a bestselling phenomenon at the time of the Adolf Eichmann trial, a survivor declares that the genocide should be spoken about in the simplest terms since the grandest words and images couldn’t come close to approaching the true horror. And Libsker, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, takes this advice to heart through a deft combination of voiceover (lurid excerpts from the stalags read by a somber baritone), archival images of daily life in Israel (mirroring the disjunction between normal appearances and the corrosive truth lurking beneath the surface), and talking head experts—both consumers and creators of the “anti-Semitic porn”—shot in B&W, juxtaposed with cutaways to the stalags’ colorful cover art (perhaps the only sign of life in the “shadow of trauma” that defined the time, each image worth a thousand words and then some). Simply put, this film is a revelation. Like the best investigative journalists, Libsker patiently sifts through each and every contradiction to discover that something that would seem so horrifically paradoxical on its face proves ultimately inevitable beneath the surface. How could Israeli Nazi pornography even exist, let alone be a widespread phenomenon? Stalags answers, “How could it not?”

As one Auschwitz tour guide attests, sensationalizing can be a useful tool for making people pay attention, and Stalags is a prime example of that fact. The porn featuring buxom SS dominatrix guards raping and torturing American and British pilots who’d been shot down and captured—and always the plots are the same, placing the Jewish reader in the context of voyeur rather than victim, a rewriting of history—is merely a MacGuffin. The real subject for the director is the collectively traumatized Israeli psyche itself. Indeed, it took a grandson to make this film, to break the veil of silence, for the survivors didn’t talk, leaving their children forever steeped in an unmentionable but ever pervasive terror. That individuals, especially adolescents, embrace pain—sexualize it and transform it into pleasure—in order to deal with it should come as no surprise. So an entire nation made up of confused, traumatized individuals doing so seems only natural. (And it is these same children of survivors who were responsible for the stalags’ creation when they came of age.)

For the Eichmann trial, plus the culture of silence preceding it, created the perfect storm in which the stalags became fully part of the Israeli Zeitgeist. Indeed, even as the trial was taking place the stalags were selling out (including one that featured a bureaucrat protagonist resembling Eichmann), the publishers advertising in the backs of the very same newspapers that featured trial coverage on their covers. Libsker’s film flows nicely from the stock footage of the Eichmann spectacle to the talking head journalists and historians, authors and publishers, and uncovers some amazing admissions in the process. The first stalag, selling today’s equivalent of a million copies, started out as a covert means of coming to terms with the Holocaust, but the genre eventually blossomed into a get-rich-quick industry. Libsker’s subjects all identify the tipping point occurring with an episode of a famous Israeli TV series, which featured the lead character’s daughter being caught reading a stalag. Like the B-movie knockoffs that followed Jaws, the race for the next blockbuster was on. By the time the ante had been upped to cannibalism and incest (and charges of pornography were leveled against the publishers), the stalag, like the Eichmann trial, had neared its demise.

And yet the stalags still loom large in the Israeli consciousness. Libsker interviews two middle-aged men for whom the stalags were (are?) a fetish. One man says that, as a kid, he didn’t know about sex but everyone around him was reading the stalags so, “I read them to seem informed.” When offered an actual copy, his buddy takes it, sniffs it vociferously. “It doesn’t smell. Does it? They had that smell,” he reminisces. Another guy, face obscured, who discovered his first stalags under his father’s bed explains, “That whole sexual, emotional and warlike charge produces a strong sexual stimulation. You want to be there.” And what about those sadistic guards who always get their comeuppance in the end when their victims turn the tables, rape, and torture their gorgeous captors? “I saw them as females, not as Nazis,” the man shrugs. (Of course these men represent the “children of survivors” generation, while a much younger, former Israeli officer whose German girlfriend is the granddaughter of an SS man unabashedly announces to the camera that he likes to fuck her hard on behalf of the “six million”—and that she gets turned on, too. “I’m no pervert,” he says casually. “Just an Israeli enjoying life.”)

The yin-and-yang contradictions are both endless and illuminating. One author, raised by an erratic mother who’d lost her entire family, claims the stalags were just another writing gig to pay the bills. Even though the authors hid behind British and American pseudonyms (the books were marketed as actual first-person accounts by the downed pilots, having been “translated” into Hebrew) the alchemizing of pain into pleasure was real enough to convince the average reader that former P.O.W. “Mike Baden” did indeed exist. Or perhaps the notion that Israelis themselves, the children of Holocaust survivors, were penning Nazi porn that other children of survivors were masturbating to was just too great a reality to face. As was perhaps the most controversial aspect of a topic already teeming with controversy—that the “godfather” of the stalags was a man named K. Tzetnik, a pseudonym short for the German for concentration camper (a “Holocaust everyman”) who was the first author to translate Holocaust literature into Hebrew. His book The Dollhouse was supposedly the story of the author’s sister who served the SS as a sex slave in Auschwitz’s “Pleasure” Block 24. This highly eroticized account turned out to be fiction, though it is still treated as historical fact in Israel even today with inclusion in the high school curriculum. One publisher claims that Tzetnik “opened the door” for his stalags. A Holocaust survivor (real name Yehiel Feiner De-Nur), Tzetnik himself took the stand at Eichmann’s trial—where he infamously fainted. It doesn’t get much more melodramatic than this. Sometimes truth masquerading as fiction is stranger than the truth itself.

Though not any stranger than the stalag sub-genre “Israeli avengers in Germany” in which Jews hunt Nazis and have sex with Aryan women—spawned by the real life exploits of Israelis who went to Germany and participated in the sex and crime scenes there. Nor more bizarre than my now all-time-favorite book title, “I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch,” which led to a trial to rival Eichmann’s, the book being banned for pornography, the Israeli police destroying all copies, and the immediate publication of a stalag titled simply “Schultz’s Bitch.” An old newsreel describes the stalags as books “written by experts of sexual urges” while publishers of the time deemed their material “educational” and prosecutors shot back with charges of distributing anti-Semitic pornography. One publisher counters with the claim that his books were not nearly as bad as what actually happened during the genocide. This brings us back to the idea of metaphorical reality versus physical. Holocaust-related suppression went hand in hand with sexual repression for the children of survivors. Stalags offered both a physical and an emotional release. Was not the metaphorical truth underlying the fictional stalags—the only acknowledgment of the Holocaust for many—educational? One Holocaust survivor and writer even describes how many memoirists use Mengele as a symbol for every SS officer in Auschwitz. This is not literal fact, but symbolic memoir, she emphasizes. And in a sense the stalags did something similar. What is “truth” anyway?

For the stalags were nothing more than a phenomenon of the guilt-ridden children of Holocaust survivors, for whom Mengele represented strength, the Jews who were gassed weakness. One talking head says he remembers other youth his age going to the flea market to buy SS boots—a “symbol of virility.” Many “original” Israelis blamed the Jews themselves for not emigrating earlier and wondered what cruelties the survivors had committed to survive in the Darwinian atmosphere of the camps. Children of survivors grew up with the suspicion, “My mother must have been a whore” or “My father had to have been a capo.” Even as one historian proclaims, “There were no Jewish whores in the Holocaust” another everyday Joe tells of how his friend is convinced his mother prostituted herself to survive. Silence plus shame equals sexual perversion every time.

In the end, the stalags did come full circle to a queasy reality before they reached market saturation and expired, from American and British men serving as S&M sex toys for Aryan goddesses to “private bitches” (Jewish women being raped by Nazi officers). And, in a way, this mirrors the healing process itself. An artist airs the unmentionable through the sexual, the public consumes the “medicine” sprinkled with this sugar and embraces it, until it’s ready to face it straight on. And only then can that final step be taken: letting go.

~

Stalags is preceded in its Film Forum run by Israeli-American artist and writer Roee Rosen’s brilliant short Two Women and a Man in which Rosen, in drag, plays a scholar of “Justine Frank,” a Jewish-Belgian Surrealist painter and pornographer (who also happens to be Rosen’s fictive alter ego). Rosen’s character not only discusses “Justine Frank” but also attacks the man responsible for her recent revival from obscurity—the artist Roee Rosen—who she claims has blatantly stolen Frank’s style for his own work. Raising the issue of “art versus porn” and questioning the notion not just of Jewish/Israeli identity or gender identity, but of the very meaning of identity itself, Rosen hilariously renders all null and void. This film is the perfect appetizer to Libsker’s main course (and not least because Rosen took part in a group exhibition titled, “I Slept With Ari Libsker,” which made me wonder whether Israeli Nazi porn hadn’t in fact sprung from the mind of “Justine Frank”).

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a contributor to The Reeler.

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Watch: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Gets Teaser Trailer

When it rains, it pours.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

When it rains, it pours. Four days after Quentin Tarantino once more laid into John Ford in a piece written for his Beverly Cinema website that saw the filmmaker referring to Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as Tie a Yellow Ribbon, and two days after Columbia Pictures released poster art for QT’s ninth feature that wasn’t exactly of the highest order, the studio has released a teaser for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film was announced early last year, with Tarantino describing it as “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.”

Set on the eve of the Manson family murders, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to get involved in the film industry. The film also stars Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate), Al Pacino, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Bruce Dern in a part originally intended for the late Burt Reynolds.

See the teaser below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Scf8nIJCvs4

Columbia Pictures will release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on July 26.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Who Killed My Father Is Heartbreaking but Prone to Pat Sociological Analysis

Édouard Louis’s latest is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts.

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Who Killed My Father

Author Édouard Louis’s father has been an important figure in each of his previous works, even when he’s never seen or mostly at the periphery (as in The History of Violence). With his latest, Who Killed My Father, Louis finally turns to directly examining his most important, damaged relationship. Both in his previous books and interviews, Louis has repeatedly acknowledged this broken relationship, largely stemming from the author’s open homosexuality. Alongside this, Louis’s prior works have circled around a number of themes to which he returns here: the French political and working classes, the small-town prejudices that surrounded his upbringing and drove a closeted homosexual boy to escape to more cosmopolitan Paris, and the role of state power in producing social and physical illness.

With Who Killed My Father, Louis invites inevitable comparisons to Abdellah Taïa, another talented French writer who’s also gay and largely estranged from his place of origin, and also primarily an autobiographical novelist. Like Louis, Taïa incorporates his complicated relationship with a parent into several of his books. Taïa also connects that relationship, his writing, and his experience with the society he left behind in Morocco and the one he found in France. But what distinguishes his writing in, for example, Infidels or Salvation Army from that of Édouard Louis in Who Killed My Father is a strong sense of meaning. Taïa incorporates his relationship with his mother, M’Barka, to convey something more meaningful and developed.

Louis begins down this same road before clumsily inserting a political tract at the end of Who Killed My Father that doesn’t knit as effortlessly with parts one and two. The book situates Louis’s relationship with his father front and center as compared to his previous work. It’s clear that he’s exposing the painfulness of their relationship for the purpose of speaking about political power and its physical and social toll on those who don’t possess it, but Who Killed My Father stumbles in conveying its message adequately.

Louis’s account of his father’s suffering and violence toward those around him is both painful and sharp. Who Killed My Father is strongest when Louis is demonstrating his father’s most private acts of kindness, as when the father gives Louis a copy of Titanic for his birthday after trying to convince him to ask for a more “masculine” gift. After Louis realizes that his carefully planned tribute to the pop band Aqua at a family dinner has embarrassed his father, the man reassures Louis that “it’s nothing.” In the book’s first and strongest part, Louis expounds not only on the relationship with his father, but also excavates what might have made his father the man he grew up with. At one point, he recounts finding a photograph of his father in women’s clothes—undoubtedly some adolescent joke, but also inconceivable from the man who insisted to his son that men should never act like girls.

Regrettably, part one ends with a trite conclusion that says everything and nothing at the same time. In part two, the story attempts to braid together all the malignant threads of Louis’s family narrative. Louis recalls igniting a violent outburst between his father and older brother as a result of his mother shaming him for acting too much like a girl (“faggot” is what some others in the neighborhood more precisely call him). The insinuation hurts and angers him so much that he betrays his mother’s confidence on another family secret, setting loose a new wave of violence. Part two is short and important to moving Who Killed My Father toward some wider evaluation of the questions Louis begins the book with, but it ultimately fails to find its footing by pivoting in part three to an unearned polemic against the political classes.

Who Killed My Father is strong as a portrait of a family unable to communicate (except in brief moments of tenderness) through anything but volatile, toxic outbursts, but the book at its weakest when trying to ham-handedly force this narrative into some broad theorizing about power and society and structural violence. Part one aligned beautifully with a narrative of meaning more comparable to Taïa at his best. Unfortunately, the story quickly falls apart when Jacques Chirac is indicted for destroying Louis’s father’s body through changes in health care coverage. It’s not that the questions Louis ends with aren’t necessary and important ones; it’s that there’s so little threading the narrative together into anything cohesive. What was the point of the first two-thirds of the book? His father was cruel, occasionally loving, but never mind because the state is killing him? The life of the poor is one of abject powerlessness against an unremittingly powerful and callous “ruling class”?

Louis deserves credit for the attempt to tie it all together into some grander commentary on the political class and its ambivalence, but the conclusion is simultaneously glib and condescending. Perhaps Louis didn’t intend it, but the book’s conclusion drains away responsibility for the cruelty and bigotry of those like his father, and patronizes them as with a quick How could we expect any better of the noble, working poor? Is it the state’s or the ruling class’s subjugation of his father’s body that’s somehow also responsible for his inability to sympathize with gays or immigrants? Of course, the poor are subjugated by the rich and Louis has written more meaningfully about the implications of that relationship elsewhere. But in Who Killed My Father, he inadvertently demonstrates that the answer isn’t to sanctify them any more than it is to demonize them.

Édouard Louis’s Who Killed My Father is now available from New Directions.

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