Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Some Light Reading—a New Israeli Documentary Opens Wed.

What does a country’s pornography say about its people? That is one of the questions underlying, but never fully addressed by Ari Libsker’s new documentary Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel, opening in New York on Wednesday.

Stalags were dirty novels set in German POW camps (for which they came to be referred to), that were the rage on Israeli newsstands for a brief period in the early 1960’s. Featuring captured American or British officers tormented by corps of female guards, dressed in tight fitting uniforms with plunging necklines, they typically culminated with the protagonist turning the tables on his captors. According to on-screen experts, these novels were deliberately written in a style and syntax suggesting they had been translated from English.

Libsker’s film frames the stalag era between two high profile trials. The first trial was that of Adolf Eichmann, which is seen as corresponding with the rise of the genre’s popularity. The second was the obscenity trial of a particularly objectionable stalag, I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch, (which if you can’t figure out the nature of the complaint from the title, I can’t help you). Eventually Colonel Schultz was banned, bringing down the entire publishing program. Yet years later, Libsker evidently had no difficulty finding Israelis to fondly reminisce about the books (although at least one of them comes across pretty creepy).

Libsker treads on some delicate ground, as when Stalags associates the stalag genre with the writings of K. Tzetnik, a Holocaust survivor whose pseudonymous memoir’s accuracy has been questioned by many historians in recent years. The film makes vague comparisons between the subject matter of the stalags and scenes of sexual abuse in Tzetnik’s memoir, suggesting a possible source of inspiration.

Despite its subject matter, Stalags is not prurient and never features nudity (just some cleavage on book covers). While the film is quite provocative, at times linking pornography with responses to the horror of the Holocaust, it never ties it all together, or suggests what the phenomenon really meant. Obviously, an event like the Holocaust would have deep psychological ramifications, not just for survivors but also their children, who largely made up the stalag readership. It is probably safe to interpret the stalags in such a context, but the film never really pursues such questions.

At a running time of just over an hour, Stalags is preceded by Two Women and a Man, a thematically related short feature. A mock documentary about director Roee Rosen’s alter ego Justine Frank, it frankly lacks the sensitivity of Stalags. With Rosen appearing in drag as a Frank expert, it is just plain weird. Stalags is consistently interesting to watch, but its ultimate point remains unclear. It opens at Film Forum tomorrow.