In the relatively innocent early ’60s, West 42nd Street was a carnival of pinball parlors, freak shows, and, mainly, movie theaters. Some offered western triple bills for 40 cents. Others—smaller, shabbier, and forbidden to kids—featured Olga’s House of Shame. What my 13-year-old mind could not then grasp was why, along with amateur documentaries of “nudist-camp volleyball,” these theaters also showed atrocity footage of Nazi concentration camps—was it because there were naked women there, too?
That pornographic juxtaposition of horniness and horror is the subject of Ari Libsker’s Stalags—a dense account of the pulp novels that flourished in Israel around the time I was pondering 42nd Street marquees (and East Village artist Boris Lurie, himself a concentration-camp graduate, began collaging pinups with photos of liberated Buchenwald). Named for the German prison camps in which they were set, the “stalags” were soft-core s&m porn in which downed U.S. or British pilots were abused by lustful, bodacious “female SS brutes,” ultimately repaying their tormentors in kind.
Although supposedly written by Americans and translated into Hebrew, the stalags were completely indigenous. The first, by a son of Holocaust survivors, was published during the Adolf Eichmann trial. Many people, who were even then learning the details of the Holocaust for the first time, imagined it was an actual memoir. The mode flourished for only a few years, although, referenced in TV sitcoms and the nostalgic Israeli teen flicks of the ’70s and ’80s, it was never entirely forgotten. In addition to writers and scholars, Libsker interviews contemporary collectors stimulated by the idea of hate-sex with Nazi shiksas. (“I’m not a pervert—just an Israeli enjoying life,” says one, a former police official.) The craze ended when a writer varied the format with a female protagonist. Unlike the others, I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch was banned, and an obscenity trial resulted in the author’s conviction.
The stalags were evidently the only sort of erotica available in the puritanical Israel of the early ’60s, but they were not sui generis. Halfway through his film, Libsker shifts his attention to the pseudonymous Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (concentration-camp slang for “prisoner,” plus his Auschwitz number). Ka-Tzetnik’s 1953 novel House of Dolls was the first Israeli book to address the Holocaust—the fictionalized diary of a 14-year-old Jewish girl, supposedly the author’s sister, forced into sexual slavery and used as a feld-hure at Auschwitz.
House of Dolls was to Israel what The Diary of Anne Frank was for Americans, and Eli Wiesel’s Auschwitz memoir Night was in Western Europe. And as Wiesel would become, in Europe and America, both representative Holocaust survivor and official literary witness, so the anonymous Ka-Tzetnik assumed that role in Israel. (His identity was only revealed when he testified at the Eichmann trial, so emotionally overwrought that he passed out on the stand.)
For a nation then half composed of refugees from Nazi genocide, survivor guilt was unavoidable. House of Dolls objectified that guilt. On one hand, Ka-Tzetnik provided a painfully graphic tale of innocent martyrdom; on the other, he acknowledged the “sins” that, real or imagined and willingly or not, survivors may have committed in order to live. (While there might have been a “pleasure block” at Auschwitz, it’s by no means certain it was staffed with Jewish girls—who would’ve been far more likely to have been worked to death or sent to the gas chamber.)
To this day, House of Dolls is required reading for 12-year-old Israelis—providing their introduction to the Holocaust with a ghastly element of titillation. Libsker documents a student tour group at Auschwitz, with the teacher using Ka-Tzetnik’s novel as a guide. There is also an early-’80s TV interview with the writer, who, having undertaken LSD therapy, pushes the acid truism that “we’re all one” to its most horrifying limit, asserting that he had to accept that the unimaginable atrocities occurring at Auschwitz were not committed by “God or the SS or Mengele or Hitler,” but by himself!
If this tormented figure clearly deserves his own film, the whole issue of Holocaust porn deserves fuller treatment. Does a death trip of this magnitude necessarily call some sort of life force—no matter how sordid—into existence? Is there something inherently pornographic in the fascination that mass murder evokes? Far too short at 60 minutes, Stalags raises many more questions than it can possibly answer. The abrupt, inconclusive ending has the effect of throwing the problems inherent in teaching, dramatizing, or even representing the Holocaust back at the viewer. The least that can be said is that these issues are raised. However artless its presentation, Stalags imparts material that’s difficult to shake off and impossible to dismiss.
To complicate things further, Film Forum audaciously rounds out its bill with a provocation by Israeli artist Roee Rosen, whose illustrated story “Live and Die as Eva Braun” was a scandal within the scandal of the Jewish Museum’s 2002 Mirroring Evil, a show devoted to Nazi imagery in recent art. In essence, Rosen’s 16-minute Two Women and a Man (2005) is a nouveau stalag: The movie is a fake TV documentary about Rosen’s imaginary alter-ego—a Belgian-Jewish artist named Justine (sic) Frank (sic) who grossed out her fellow Surrealists with her anti-Semitic Sadean erotica and grotesquely sexualized paintings. A pariah in Europe, the artist relocated to Tel Aviv in 1934. There, aggressively anti-Zionist, she horrified idealistic settlers by creating a pornographic Hebrew alphabet, carrying on lesbian affairs, and physically attacking the Dadaist Marcel Janco. Schultz’s private bitch indeed. Could such a creature have really lived?
Rosen’s 20th-century Lilith articulates what Europeans called the Jewish Question (as well as the Woman Question) in the most explicit way imaginable. In a final conundrum, the filmmaker, who narrates in the guise of a female academic, accuses opportunistic Rosen of ripping off Frank. She was the authentic artist; he is bogus.
Israel is truly the place where mirages take on world-historical force. Raphaël Nadjari’s low-key philosophical thriller Tehilim, playing this week at MOMA, places its action “somewhere in Jerusalem today” and begins with a Talmudic disquisition on how to pray toward the Western Wall if one is blind or disoriented or lost in the desert.
“Lost” is the operative word; praying is but one option. Fifteen minutes into the movie, a man sets out to take his two young sons to school. He drives off the road, staging a desultory single-car accident, sends the older boy off for help, and vanishes. Tehilim concerns his abandoned family’s response to this inexplicable and ultimately existential disappearance. It’s a variation on Antonioni’s L’Avventura, in which the mystery is a given and the emphasis is on those left mystified.
Made on New York’s Lower East Side, Nadjari’s 2001 Super-8 production I Am Josh Polonski’s Brother was a kindred (if somewhat more sensational) metaphysical thriller with a similar vérité feel. Indifferently shot and only competently acted, Tehilim derives its emotional force from the inchoate spiritual torment that the older son suffers. While he engages in magical thinking, his more practical mother must cope with the bureaucratic implications of a missing husband. Studying these goings-on, the younger boy is doubly mystified.
Given its title—Hebrew for “The Book of Psalms”—and its religious milieu, one might reasonably expect Tehilim to be an allegory. But reason has nothing to do with the anti-miracle of the father’s disappearance. Prayer is only one of the ways that the confounded characters deal with this enigma; faith, the final shot suggests, is something akin to waiting for the bus in the hopes that it will finally come.