Women's Camp 119

Certificate: 18
Running time: 97 mins
Director: Bruno Mattei
Starring: Ivano Staccioli, Ria De Simone, Nello RiviƩ
Genre: War, Drama, Exploitation
Country: Italy

Why does Naziploitation cinema and Italian directors walk so firmly hand in hand? This is a question that I’m sure a lot of newcomers to Exploitation cinema will have asked themselves on a number of occasions and I’m sure in no small part it’s to do with the Italian allegiances during the Second World War and a degree of guilt.  Those well versed in Italian cinema will know the name Bruno Mattei…even those who aren’t will have probably watched at least one of his films, most likely Strike Commando, as he directed under several alias’ like Vincent Dawn, Pierre le Blanc, Martin Miller, David Hunt, William Snyder, Michael Cardosa and Frank Klox to name but a few.

Women’s Camp 119 is a Nazi concentration camp were the SS Doctors are experimenting on the regeneration of dead soldiers, curing homosexual Jews and were the female population of the camp are involved in love trysts with one another, the guards and under the constant threat of abuse both from the Germans and a deranged Jewish prisoner named Kurt (Giovanni Attanasio) who has been driven insane by the Nazi’s treatment.

Even Shocked Kitty will remain poker faced at the statement that Naziploitation cinema is not for all, it’s very much an acquired taste and even in the most considerate of films there will be issues that a modern cinema audience will be extremely uncomfortable about confronting.  Mattei’s use of the opening sequence for the Nazi officer to deliver a monologue that informs the prisoners that even the dogs are their superiors has led to many querying his treatment of women in this film.  Though there are issues with regards to treatment of women in Women’s Camp 119, which will be looked at shortly, it’s seriously unfair to hold this scene and the narrative ethos against him.  If anything this monologue is accurate of the time and the treatment of women, especially Jewish women, and if it makes the audience uncomfortable then…good!  It should do.  A lot of people consider it poor taste to depict anything other than the sanitised Hollywood rendering of the Second World War, the fact of the matter is that a lot of the events depicted in WC119 are probably a lot tamer than what has been historically documented by survivors.  Like the treatment of women the derogatory nature in which they discuss and treat homosexual men is one that will raise issues with audiences but again it should.  The treatment of these characters, at one point forced to participate in an orgy in an effort to cure them, is not a million miles from the treatment methods practiced in the United States a decade later and sadly depicted in films documenting the aversion therapies and treatments like Tony Haynes’ Far From Heaven.  The film creates an amazing level of atmospheric tension that's obviously fitting but extremely underachieved in the sub genre.

Ivan Staccioli (as Wieker; the Camp Commander) is unnervingly dark, a black hole for emotion and unsettles every scene he’s in remarkably.  He has the level of severity required for the role and it’s unquestionably a soldier.  It’s clear that, although not directly channelling Staccioli’s performance, Dieter Laser has this “kind” of individual in mind when he donned the medical jacket for The Human Centipede [First Sequence]Ria De Simone (as Marta) and Nello RiviĆ© are the films love across the divide but the relationship is one based on power and control and De Simone’s Nazi Kapo is one that casually demands the sexual compliance of her female inmates is highly eroticised in a way that is difficult to defend.  This leads us on perfectly to Kurt who is portrayed extremely well by Giovanni Attanasio.  Kurt has been experimented on time and time again and has subsequently lost his mind and appears to be operating on a basic id level.  His manic gesturality and physical prowess make him not only a match for the other inmates but also the guards, as you would imagine not many of the Nazi soldiers would attempt to take him on unarmed or without backup.  His attacks on the women are heavily stylised and in parts slow motion which allow you to linger as he grasps at their bodies.  The erotic representation of abuse is something that has tainted not just Naziploitation but Exploitation cinema as a whole.  It’s extremely distasteful and rather difficult to even attempt to defend.  The one thing you can say for it is that it does make people uncomfortable, probably more uncomfortable than scenes or violence usually evoke when depicted in film.  Yet there’s the small proportion of people who will be aroused by it and it’s at this point were the erotic representation becomes dangerous and a stain on Exploitation.  The scenes in which the Nazi’s are attempting to regenerate dead soldiers by using the body heat from the female inmates to stir their “energy cores” is seriously dated.  One can’t help but think of films like Deep Throat and Olympic Fever not because there’s anything particularly hardcore about this scene but because the plot devices are equally as absurd.

Mattei’s Women’s Camp 119 ends with a round up of what happened to a lot of the Nazis after the world and you can’t help but think that there was a message contained with WC119 that has been overlooked because of the scenes that were more sexually charged.  The fact that so many of the ended up living in South America, North Africa or even in the United States free, well and having escaped the laws and justice of man is outrageous.  The more you consider the film the more you realise what Mattei has aiming for.  His film is yes typically exploitative and of the time, there’s a healthy amount of titillation and glorified violence and it’s aimed at a target audience that is expecting all of these things to be contained within their daily cinematic intake.  Bruno serves up his audience exactly what they have been expecting and right when you think he’s done he adds a dose of guilt, injustice, knowledge and education to an audience who might not have voluntarily obtained that knowledge.

As Naziploitation cinema goes Women’s Camp 119 is most certainly one of the better ones, there are some issues with the film but it’s evident that it and it’s director are trying to raise the film out of the confines of the genre and educate their audience and that can only ever be a good thing.


Alex Jowski said...

Great review! Big fan of Bruno Mattei's exploitation work and Women's Camp 119 is a step above a lot of the other nazisploitation of the time.

John Baxter said...

Thanks Alex, yeah there's a lot of issues brought to the genre that tars all the films but some of them are actually quality. I'm glad you liked it.

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