It’s a movie that stands as a perverse cultural landmark — a sort of awkward rite of passage for hardcore cineastes as well as curious, horny adolescent boys. And in our current moment, when Nazism is, unfortunately, back on the rise, it has returned to the public eye. But the cultural legacy of Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, one of the foundational Naziploitation movies of its era, has shifted in the 42 years since it first hit U.S. theaters. Few would claim this clumsy combo of sex, horror and concentration-camp drama is any good, but for feminists and fetishists alike, Ilsa retains its power.
Ilsa wasn’t the first film to sexualize the cruelty of the Nazis. As Nazisploitation! The Nazi Image in Low-Brow Cinema and Culture points out, the 1964 drama The Pawnbroker contained a flashback in which a woman is raped by SS guards. And 1969’s Love Camp 7 concerned undercover female officers infiltrating a Nazi camp. (The movie’s poster offered this tagline: “All the youthful beauties of Europe enslaved for the pleasure of the 3rd Reich.”) So there was already an audience for the kind of cheap exploitation picture that Ilsa was all-too-happy to capitalize on.
No wonder then that Ilsa was the brainchild of John Dunning, the man behind a Montreal production company called Cinepix Productions that had found success releasing Love Camp 7 and wanted to make more movies in that vein.
As Dunning recalled in his 2014 memoir, You’re Not Dead Until You’re Forgotten, the company initially took inspiration from historical records “about some crude medical experiments undertaken by the Nazis during the war … [b]ut then during a brainstorming session it dawned on us that perhaps the world was ready for a female villain.”
Teaming up with John Saxton, a writer who penned the Ilsa screenplay under the pseudonym Jonah Royston, Dunning moved forward on a story about a Nazi commandant named Ilsa who runs a concentration camp that featured orgies, torture, sexual humiliation and castration.
Looking for a model for Ilsa, they learned of Ilse Koch, who had tortured prisoners during World War II, earning the nickname “The Bitch of Buchenwald.” But the filmmakers wanted to give Koch’s brutal biography a twist. “The story was based on the theory that women could take pain and punishment better than men, because they were better equipped as a result of the birthing ordeal,” Dunning wrote, later adding, “[Saxton] gave Ilsa this kinky notion that the SS wasn’t accepting women because they were chauvinists. She, in turn, wanted to impress upon the Nazis that, since women could better bear up to the pressure than men, they should play an important role as spies in the SS. … Okay, Ilsa wasn’t exactly the first woman’s libber, but she was a pioneer of sorts.”
To play Ilsa, the creative team found Dyanne Thorne, an actress who had worked with the legendary teacher Stella Adler, who recommended Thorne for her first film, a 1965 short called Encounter, which also was Robert De Niro’s first onscreen credit. But by the mid-1970s, Thorne was struggling, forced to take a day job as a chauffeur. She was in her chauffeur’s get-up when she showed up for the Ilsa audition; she got the part two days later.
“When I read the original script I was appalled,” Thorne said in 2009. “It was just awful. But this was typical of the 1970s. Sometimes you’d just get a script outline, make yourself available and then everything would get filled in later. So I was a little worried initially signing on, but a friend at the time told me that he knew [director] Don Edmonds personally and that I shouldn’t worry ‘cause I would be in good hands.”
When Ilsa opened in New York in the fall of 1975, it was a massive hit. (Writing for the A.V. Club last year, critic Vadim Rizov points out that the film “played on 42nd Street for six months.”) This was a time when porn films like 1972’s Deep Throat were becoming mainstream sensations. Simultaneously, more artistic erotic endeavors, such as 1974’s The Night Porter, about a Holocaust survivor’s demented relationship with his former prisoner after the war, also were testing the boundaries of acceptability. (And let’s not forget that the notorious, hardcore study of sadism, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, had yet to reach American shores.) Still, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby was underwhelmed by Ilsa, walking out of the movie before it was over and declaring, “This could possibly be the worst softcore sex-and-violence film of the decade — and the funniest.”
Canby wasn’t being prudish: Ilsa is a cheesy, poorly acted sex drama that was made on the cheap. (The producers used the old Hogan’s Heroes sets before they were dismantled.) Despite its solemn disclaimer at the beginning about the story being “based upon documented fact” and that the producers were “[dedicating] this film with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again,” Ilsa means to milk the grim real-life scenario for maximum kinky escapism.
That said, Ilsa wasn’t an outlier in its tawdry approach. As Nazisploitation! explains, the movie “represent[s] the standard tropes, settings and narrative conceits of Nazisploitation cinema: sexually perverted, calculating and sadistic Nazi officers, prisoner-of-war and concentration camps, medical experimentation and prisoner rebellions. With its myriad continuity errors, profound tastelessness and historical inaccuracy, Ilsa also typifies the genre’s technical sloppiness and arguable lack of artistic quality.”
But as with many a movie franchise, Ilsa wasn’t going to be held back by some harrumphing critics. Even though Ilsa is killed at the end of She Wolf, Thorne (and the character) returned for three more sequels, including the imaginatively titled Ilsa: Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks and Ilsa: The Tigress of Siberia, which required the actress to do a Russian accent — until the producers decided to have her switch it up during production and go back to a German accent, only to finally decide that she should finish the shoot using no accent at all. (“They had told me that they were gonna reshoot those [earlier] scenes,” Thorne said in the 2009 interview, “but there was no money to do that by the time we finished. So the dialogue doesn’t match, and it makes it look like I screwed up, but that was what I was asked to do.”)
The series was over by 1980. (An idea for an Ilsa/Bruce Lee film was proposed and then quickly dropped.) But the franchise’s reputation grew among viewers seeking messed-up porn or beyond-the-pale curiosities like Faces of Death. No doubt Ilsa’s trashiness was part of the appeal, but the setting and subject matter captured the imagination as well. As Vox’s Tara Isabella Burton put it earlier this month, people have always had a thing for Nazi kink: “[W]e culturally fetishize both absolute power and our own apocalyptic destruction, and fascism capitalizes on that fetishism to win supporters.”
This was even true during the Third Reich, she adds, noting that “the success of Hitler’s own propaganda lay in part in the Nazis’ ability to harness that erotic undertone to gain support,” citing German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous 1938 documentary Olympia, which glamorized the beauty of the country’s muscular Olympians. In her essay, Burton notes, “If anything, the sheer taboo nature of Nazi imagery — how thoroughly outside the window of acceptable discourse it is — has, to its supporters, only added to its appeal. Its very transgressive nature has made it easy for propagandists to market it as ‘sexy’ and ‘forbidden.’”
This is not to say that viewers who get a thrill out of Ilsa are Nazis or fascists. But the sight of the buxom Ilsa humiliating concentration-camp prisoners possesses an undeniable sexual charge. It’s a turn-on because it’s so wrong.
Nor has Nazisploitation gone away since Ilsa. Arthouse offerings like The Reader, which won Kate Winslet a Best Actress Oscar, and Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book mix sexuality with Nazi subject matter. (Even the female villain of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the icy blonde portrayed by Alison Doody, plays into the “hot Nazi” trope.)
And Ilsa’s legacy has been preserved in the culture in ways both obvious and surprising. When Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino made their salute to pulp B-movies, 2007’s Grindhouse, they included trailers for fake exploitation films, including one titled Werewolf Women of the SS, which seems to be a clear homage to Ilsa and the Nazisploitation genre. (In Thorne’s 2009 interview, her husband claimed Tarantino’s office reached out to Thorne about maybe doing a cameo in Grindhouse.)
And then there’s The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans, a 2010 nonfiction book from journalist Mark Jacobson, who was intrigued by a lampshade found at a New Orleans garage sale that was said to be made out of “the skin of Jews” — which was reportedly Ilse Koch’s monstrous calling card. Jacobson’s quest to unravel the mystery of this lampshade brought him in contact with Thorne, whom he interviewed for his book.
Ilsa’s real-life counterpart also has been commemorated in song. The Yiddish roots band the Klezmatics included as a bonus track on their 2006 album Wonder Wheel their rendition of a Woody Guthrie tune he’d never recorded, “Ilsa Koch,” a mournful portrayal of the murderer.
If it’s true that Ilsa has never quite left the culture, then it’s also fair to say that its heroine’s meaning has morphed over time. In her book Super Bitches and Action Babes: The Female Hero in Popular Cinema, 1970–2006, Danish film scholar Rikke Schubart investigates Thorne’s character as a feminist action icon. “She is not a female hero in any ordinary sense,” Schubart writes, “yet she is a strong, active and aggressive protagonist who has become mythical in Western culture.”
In particular, she credits Ilsa with subverting the typical women-in-prison narrative, in which female characters are submissive to their male counterparts. Not Ilsa, who castrates men after having sex with them and runs the concentration camp with an iron fist, chafing at her sexist male superiors . At the same time, Schubart argues, Thorne flaunts the character’s sadomasochist allure: “The uniform, the beautiful and harsh appearance, the fierce pride and the cold cruelty are all features of the dominatrix, who is here, quite literally, a ‘castrating bitch.’ She is a hypersexual creature, fully devoted to her job, and always in search of satisfaction.”
All of which is why Ilsa still gets the occasional theatrical screening. In April 2015, Brooklyn’s volunteer-run screening space Spectacle featured midnight showings of Ilsa and two of its sequels. The program was put together by Twiggs Gorie, a 30-year-old artist and filmmaker with an affinity for horror and exploitation. Speaking with MEL, she recalls seeing Ilsa for the first time eight years ago on an old VHS copy. “To be honest, it took me two days to watch the whole movie,” she says, because she recoiled from the film’s violence. “I had to stop it midway — it was like a punch in the face. But from the first minute she came on-screen, I was so taken by Dyanne Thorne and her performance and her character.”
And, echoing the sentiments expressed by film scholars, Gorie soon saw the franchise as a feminist parable. “Can you imagine the balls it would take to live in this super-patriarchal [Nazi] society and turn around and tell her superior officers, ‘I want to prove to you that we are just as good as the men’? The whole ideology behind this government is, ‘Oh no, you’re a woman — all you have to do is spread your legs and pump out some kids.’”
“The more time passes,” she continues, “I see it as an empowerment film — a wonderful display of strong, confident women. That image is missing in 2017 — it’s missing from our cinema, it’s missing from everything. I was a teenager in the early 2000s, and I saw the advent of those illegal-looking, American Apparel, super-weak-looking girls — that’s what everybody wanted. Bondage came into the mainstream, but it was women being submissive, and I was sick of it. I want stronger female role models and stronger female imagery. And when I look at this movie, that’s what I see.”
With a laugh, she adds, “When I think about this series as a whole, it’s almost like the saga of women in the workplace. In every single movie, this chick is trying to do her job! She’s trying to be a harem-keeper. She’s trying to make it work. And in every film, she gets screwed over by some dude.”
Thorne, who continues to make public appearances at comics and horror conventions at 73, is equally resilient, even showing up at events in fascist-y costumes.
In 2011, Thorne reflected on the seemingly innocent times in which Ilsa was made. “In the 1970s, we had a feeling of safeness,” she said. “We really thought the horrors that Ilse Koch was part of were behind us.”
It appears, however, that they’re not. And neither is Ilsa.