Salon Kitty
Italy - France - Germany / 1975
Directed by Tinto Brass
Helmut Berger
Ingrid Thulin
Teresa Ann Savoy
Color / 133 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD 
(R0 - NTSC / 2-disc set)
Blue Underground
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2005 Single-disc edition

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Review by
Brian Lindsey
    10   10 = Highest Rating  
Beneath its public veneer of conservative morals and principals patriotism, nationalism, so-called 'family values' Hitler's Third Reich was not only evil but decadent and thoroughly corrupt. Every aspect of German society, from the clergy to the judiciary to the military, was compromised by its acceptance of National Socialism. But what of the sex industry? That, too, was suborned by the Nazis when it could be manipulated to serve the State. In this purportedly true story (very loosely based on real events), director Tinto Brass (Caligula) takes a prurient, highly stylized peek under Nazi Germany's skirt.
    It is 1939, in the months prior to the outbreak of World War II. Major Wallenberg (Helmut Berger), an up-and-coming SS officer, receives an unusual assignment from his superior: recruit a bevy of attractive young women, all faithful Nazis of impeccable Aryan stock, to serve as prostitutes for the Reich's elite. But satisfying libidos isn't the real objective. A political motive lies behind the scheme. Eavesdropping devices will be planted in the brothel to verify the loyalties of its clientele. The girls are to dutifully record the actions and statements of their customers in written reports. The potential for career-enhancing blackmail is not lost on the ambitious Wallenberg.
    Scouring Germany for potential
candidates, he tests the girls by subjecting them to an SS orgy and a series of 'experiments' that has them forced to copulate with lesbians, cripples, amputees, mental defectives, and even Jews. Those that can't hack it are swiftly culled for their lack of patriotic fervor. Once a sufficient number of girls are selected the plan proceeds to Phase Two. Wallenberg needs an expert in the flesh trade to supervise the bordello, one already known and trusted in the business. He turns to Kitty Kellermann (Ingrid Thulin), madam of the most exclusive whorehouse in Berlin, the Salon Kitty. He forces her under his control by closing down the Salon and discharging her stable of prostitutes, all by order of the State. Kitty can reopen for business but only if she takes under her wing Wallenberg's hand-picked girls and moves operations to a new location, an art deco edifice that's more "discreet". The place is riddled with bugging equipment but Kitty is not told about the surveillance nor of the 'mission' assigned the whores. She takes the deal.
    One of Wallenberg's most enthusiastic recruits is Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), the beautiful, headstrong daughter of an upper-class bourgeois family. A committed National Socialist, she's willing to cast off all her inhibitions in service to Hitler. The SS officer develops a perverse fascination with the girl, cultivating a twisted Pygmalion-style relationship with his "creation" in effect becoming a sort of Prof. Higgins in jackboots. But his creation rebels when she becomes involved with one of her johns, Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu), a Luftwaffe pilot who falls in love with her. With the war now underway, Reiter has grown disgusted by the Nazi regime, revealing to Margherita his intention to defect to the British. Not knowing the brothel is bugged she lies in the written reports about her lover, never mentioning his seditious statements. Wallenberg knows differently, of course, and has Reiter executed as a traitor. But such is his obsession that he shields Margherita from punishment. Wallenberg now believes he can do and get away with anything, privy as he is to the most intimate secrets and perversions of Germany's VIPs. Blackmail will pave his way to the very highest echelons of power. His Nazi ideals have become as meaningless to him as the lives he so callously manipulates and destroys just means to an end. Margherita, however, learns of Reiter's death and that the Salon is bugged. She tells Madam Kitty, who is outraged by Wallenberg's skullduggery. Together the two women plot revenge against him, each for their own reasons. He is to be hoisted on his own petard...
    Salon Kitty has pretensions of being an art film, one with a message about how, at its core, fascism is far less a political ideology than it is simple, institutionalized gangsterism. (Well, duh!) The Wallenberg character is symbolic of this, a supposedly committed National Socialist who's ultimately revealed as nothing more than a narcissistic, power-mad opportunist and a mentally unstable one at that. (Showing off to Margherita his private collection of ridiculously elaborate wardrobe ensembles, at one point he's seen posing before the mirror dressed in what can only be described as a Nazi Superman costume, complete with cape.) To my mind, however, Brass' deserved slam of fascism is partially undermined by his insistence on portraying the SS via a barrage of less-than-subtle homoerotic imagery. The dreaded Blackshirts Hitler's ruthless enforcers are more likely to be seen lounging together in the steam bath or performing gymnastics and skipping rope naked than doing what they truly excelled at: brutalizing and killing people. Now I don't believe Brass was consciously attempting to equate Nazism with homosexuality per se but a sequence early in the film, set in an SS gymnasium where Wallenberg receives orders from his commander (Tenebre's John Steiner, in a full-frontal nude shot!), would seem to preclude any other assertion. It's well known that the leadership of the Sturmabteilung, or SA (the "Brownshirts"), included many flagrant homosexuals, but that organization was violently purged by Hitler (partly for that very reason) in the infamous "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934. And it was the SS that did the killing. In the 'fraternity' of the SS which it should be noted murdered thousands of gays and lesbians for no other reason than their sexual orientation being identified as a homosexual was a death sentence. (Steiner's SS commander is clearly modeled on Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's right-hand man and one of the architects of the Holocaust. He was also a serial womanizer... So why is the character, and to a lesser extant that of Wallenberg, portrayed as so mincingly effete?) Interestingly enough, the one scene in the film that brings home the true horror of Nazism doesn't even involve the SS (nor is anyone naked). A little Jewish boy, identified thus by the yellow Star of David sewn on his jacket, drops a toy while touring an aquarium with his skittish parents. A member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (League of German Girls) steps up to him and then slowly crushes the child's toy underfoot, the ghost of a smile on her lips. The boy's parents stand helpless in fear and rage. Not a line of dialog is spoken. It's an undeniably powerful moment.
    Would that more of the film were along these lines. Instead we get a lot of gender-bending antics courtesy of Madam Kitty's cabaret performances at the brothel, oodles of sex and nudity (the majority of it very fetishistic) and the occasional eyebrow raiser, such as the real slaughter of a pig (disgusting and totally unnecessary), fully nude sex acts with a hunchbacked dwarf and legless amputee, and a Nazi bigwig performing fellatio on an edible dildo he orders one of the whores to hold between her legs. (The point being...?) Brass veers into almost surrealist territory on occasion; Goldfinger production designer Ken Adam's fabulous sets lend the proceedings an air of hyper-reality. Of the cast, Berger is effective as the reptilian Wallenberg though Ingrid Thulin completely steals the show as the flamboyant, larger than life Madam Kitty. The beautiful, innocent-looking Savoy spends a great deal of her screen time nude. The film certainly isn't boring, particularly if one has even a passing interest in the history and twisted culture of Nazi Germany. (Not to mention naked women and/or men and kinky sex. Salon Kitty, while not pornographic, contains the most nudity I think I've ever seen in a non hardcore flick.) But at 133 minutes it's simply too long the last two cabaret acts are pure filler that bring the movie to a screeching halt. And the direction, to me at least, becomes too stylized for the subject matter at numerous points.

Loaded with extras, Blue Underground's deluxe limited edition of Salon Kitty represents the first complete director's cut of the film to be seen in North America. The two-DVD set presents the film itself on Disc 1, along with the U.S. and European trailers and a text bio of director/co-writer Tinto Brass, while Disc 2 contains the majority of bonus features. A/V quality of the anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is very good. Some of the reintegrated scenes from Brass' cut don't look as good as the balance of the footage but all in all this is a first class presentation. In regards to audio, the viewer can choose between English the added scenes are in Italian with auto-enabled subtitles or watching the film entirely in Italian. (English subtitles for the entire Italian track are but a button push away.) Both language tracks are in digital mono, with the Italian one sounding somewhat fuller.
    Disc 2 allows one to wallow in the philosophy and artistry that went into making what must be the classiest "Nazisploitation" flick ever made. Two featurettes are included: a 15-minute interview with Brass, who dwells more on his concept of the film than the actual production, and a fascinating chat (18 min.) with designer Ken Adam, whose art deco sets are the real stars of the movie. (He goes into more detail about the film itself, and about working with Brass to bring their vision to life.) Complimenting the interviews are three substantial image galleries. One is of stills and promotional materials; the other two showcase Adams' conceptual sketches and the costume designs of Jost Jakob respectively. Topping all this off are three U.S. radio spots (the heavily edited version was retitled Madam Kitty here) and an illustrated, 74-page DVD-ROM supplement which delves into the real history of the notorious Berlin bordello. 6/28/03
UPDATE The 2-disc Limited Edition of Salon Kitty reviewed here went OOP in 2005. A single-disc version was released that same year. In November 2010 Blue Underground issued the film on Blu-ray, which includes the bonus materials described above.