Gary Couzens has reviewed the UK Region 0 release of Salon Kitty, Tinto Brass’s sleaze epic about a Nazi brothel in wartime Berlin. Argent’s DVD release of Brass’s full-length and uncensored version has average picture quality and includes an interview with the director.
Berlin, 1939, at the beginning of World War II, SS Officer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) is assigned to train twenty beautiful young Nazi women to work in a brothel which the soldiers visit for rest and recreation. In charge of the brothel is Madame Kitty (Ingrid Thulin). However, unknown to her, Wallenberg has installed bugging devices in every room of the brothel, intending to use information received for blackmail purposes…
Back in the days before home video, films often came back to your local cinema time and again, often in double bills. Salon Kitty was a mainstay of my local fleapit. Not old enough to see it, and there (then) being no prospect of a film this strong getting a TV version, I would wonder past and try to imagine what sort of depravity lay within. It was cut by the censor back then, and even now – watching the uncensored director’s cut on DVD – I’d tell my younger self not to worry. This is an exploitation film. It’s a very posh exploitation film, with a cast of known actors and some very impressive Ken Adam sets, but there’s not much else separating this from the likes of S.S. Experiment Camp. The latter, of course, didn’t play my local cinema: early in the following decade it came out on video and found itself on the Video Nasties list.
Tinto Brass is the kind of director championed for his “transgressiveness”. I’m not someone who immediately assumes that transgressive equals good. On all other aspects of filmmaking Brass sounds a bum note. He has no visual flair to speak of, being especially overfond of the zoom lens. Capable actors like Berger and Thulin are allowed to chew the scenery, while less talented unknowns give entirely blank performances. But if you want sex and violence, Brass gives you plenty of value for money. Hardly a quarter-hour goes by without some explicit goings-on or a Cabaret-style musical number, so much of it that the film regularly grinds to a halt. This director’s cut, with some twenty-one minutes added, only makes this worse. This extra footage was removed by the Italian producers as it was considered “too strong”. For example, during the early scene in the corridor where Wallenberg watches the prostitutes being trained to overcome their inhibitions, we see one making love to a hunchbacked dwarf and another to a man with both legs amputated.
Even in the transgressiveness stakes, Brass doesn’t pass muster. He’s certainly not shy of male nudity – in the first half hour or so, there are more full-frontal men than women – but with so many penises on display Brass can’t bring himself to show an erect one. (To be fair, he did do just this in his later work.) Paul Verhoeven, a far more intelligently subversive director, was at the same time pushing the boundaries of cinematic explicitness, particularly in Turkish Delight and Spetters. In the latter film, Verhoeven does show erections on screen, plus a brief shot of unsimulated fellatio. Even more so, Nagisa Oshima in Japan (with French funding) was showing hardcore sex on screen in The Empire of the Senses. Compared to these, there’s nothing very scandalous about Salon Kitty. See it as a curiosity of its era. Erotic it is not.
Salon Kitty is given an anamorphic transfer on DVD in a ratio of 1.78:1. I don’t know the original ratio for certain, but 1.85:1 is quite likely. The transfer is rather too soft and grainy. Blacks aren’t really black, but a slightly artefacted dark grey.
The soundtrack is mono. It has a somewhat hollow sound due to evident post-synchronisation of the dialogue. It’s a frequent practice on international coproductions like this to have all the actors speaking their lines in their own language, and dubbing according to the market. Berger and Thulin are clearly speaking their line in English, but others are just as obviously talking in in other languages. The extra “director’s cut” footage never got as far as an English version, so it is presented in Italian with English subtitles. The rest of the film on this DVD is in English.
There are no other subtitles, which is a regrettable decision on Argent’s part. There are eighteen chapter stops and the disc is encoded for all regions.
The main extra is an interview with Tinto Brass, which runs 23:47 and is shown in 4:3. Brass speaks with a thick Italian accent – subtitles would have been helpful. He talks about the true story that inspired the film and of the making of the film itself, in a straight-ahead fashion including clips from the film. There’s also a very long (3:36) trailer, which is shown anamorphically (oddly, in a ratio of 2.35:1). It ends “Coming to Shock You Soon on this Screen”. Promises, promises… Argent also provide trailers for two films in their “Forbidden Fruits” line (Lady of the Night and Dirty Love 2: The Love Games – “Intrigue”) and four of their western releases – Django and A Bullet for the General.
Time has not been kind to Salon Kitty. It no longer has shock value on its side – it was surpassed long ago – it all seems quite tame and frankly is more than a bit of a bore. If you do want to see it, then this DVD presents it well enough, though the picture quality could certainly be better.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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