“Stalags” were tawdry, best-selling Israeli paperbacks about whip-wielding, bosom-spilling female SS officers who torture and rape English and American captives, only to wind up getting raped and killed themselves by their table-turning victims. Hugely popular in the early ’60s, these pulps disappeared after being ruled pornographic. Unfortunately, Ari Libsker’s hour-plus docu on this potentially mind-boggling topic meanders disconnectedly, as various experts, collectors and storytellers kick around anecdotes and theories that tend to cancel each other out. Docu opened April 9 for two weeks at Gotham’s Film Forum.
Some historical aspects explored by Libsker delve deeply into the Israeli psyche. Thus, the link he establishes between the Stalags and the Eichmann trial (in which Israelis first heard testimony in Hebrew from Holocaust survivors), also serves to illuminate the prejudice of early Israeli settlers against those who had survived the concentration camps, it was assumed, by doing terrible things.
This discussion leads to the most famous witness at the trial, K. Tzetnik, whose accounts of Auschwitz have entered into the Israeli literary canon and are taught in schools, though they might be described as both largely apocryphal and quasi-pornographic — precursors, in fact, to the Stalags.
But other sociological aspects of these oddly Nazified penny-dreadfuls are completely avoided. At a time when Israeli women in the military repped almost the sole image of female warriors, the question of what the Stalags reveal about gender, fantasy and misogyny is hardly raised — even as dirty old men fondle hidden Stalag stashes and women prudishly protest the inclusion of Tzetnik’s prurient books in the school curriculum.
Pic never follows up on its provocative analyses of the ways in which the peculiar mix of “horror, sadism and pornography,” as embodied in popular literature, effectively helped perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, Libsker treats viewers to vaguely whimsical interviews with Edi Keider, the writer of the first Stalag, touching on the obscure scribe’s sadistic mother and his failure to capitalize on his invention. The dramatic unveiling of later, now-dead Stalag auteurs (all the Stalags, supposedly translated from American texts, were actually penned by Israelis) comes across as even more irrelevant.
Libsker’s freewheeling approach never controls its tonal fluctuations. The viewer, instead of being swept up in the whirlwind of intellectual speculation, feels led down one blind alley after another.
Tech credits are uninspired.