With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

The title Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS kind of says it all, but to be clear, it’s a softcore porno set against the background of the Holocaust. Released in 1975 to enormous success (it played on 42nd Street for six months), the original Ilsa was a genuine phenomenon, popular enough to prompt three sequels (sort of). The existence of an Ilsa franchise is theoretically fascinating, with four semi-significant pieces of softcore pop detritus, two of which use genocide as the prompt for copious gratuitous nudity, the other two of which have serious problems of their own. In practice, their existence is mostly tedious; as watching experiences, they’re at best dispensable garbage.

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The first Ilsa came about as the confluence of several cresting, concurrent film movements. A period of social liberalization following decades of conservative censorship coincided with porn’s increasing mainstream presence on the screen; in Quebec, they called it “maple syrup porn.” Distribution company Cinepix had distributed 1967’s Love Camp 7, arguably the first Nazisploitation film, and decided to start making their own. Enter Ivan Reitman—still most widely known for Ghostbusters, but then a mover and shaker in the still-nascent Canadian film industry. Reitman had worked with John Saxton, an English professor who moonlit as a documentarian and was keen to get into screenwriting, and who would write at least the first two Ilsas under different pseudonyms that were never used again; I’m guessing he also wrote the fourth one, credited to “Marven McGara,” another similarly one-off pseudonym. Saxton was tasked with using Les Medicines Maudits, a book about Nazi “medical experiments,” as a starting point, and the producers were delighted with the results.

Not so much Don Edmonds, the director responsible for the first two films in the franchise. Cinepix decided to shoot the film in Los Angeles rather than at home. Edmonds—at this point a veteran TV actor (Green Acres, Gidget)—had transitioned into softcore directing and was hanging around Los Angeles. As he recalled in an interview, “I hung out and I needed the money. And I just said, ‘This is the worst piece of shit I ever read.’ And [the producer] started peeling off money. Being the whore that I am, when he got down to $2,000, I kept going, ‘maybe I can find a socially significant reason.’”

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Admittedly excellent title aside, it’s very hard to defend Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The SS. The movie is sadistic in the most unpleasant way possible, prioritizing violence over very weak sex scenes. By sociology professor Lynn Rapaport’s count, there are 44 torture scenes but only five that actually feature sex. One of these is the first, introducing Ilsa with an anonymous lover. She tells him to wait, he can’t control himself, and she slumps over, muttering in a sort of monstrous Marlene Dietrich-meets-Bela Lugosi parody “You should heff vaited.” This dialect is a key feature of Dyanne Thorne’s performance in all the films, a sort of dinner-theater parody of menacing Teutonism that’s bewilderingly unlike anything real. Ilsa subsequently has the young concentration camp victim castrated, contributing his member to a museum designed to prove that his race is inferior in that anatomic respect as well.

The Nazism on display is strictly of the fetish/camp variety, with a heavy emphasis on form-fitting, top-button-open tops for Ilsa, whips and cat-o’-nine-tails for flogging, etc. It’s part of a general trend Susan Sontag noted in 1975: “the SS has become a reference of sexual adventurism […] in the sex shops, the baths, the leather bars, the brothels, people are dragging out their gear.” The fetish aspect is textbook and basically innocuous; the leering violence is something else. Ilsa’s catalogue of heavy-makeup sadism—deliberately infected women (stripped nude, naturally) having maggots introduced into their wounds, etc.—is close to Salo, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s litany of Nazi sex crimes committed against teenagers. The difference is that Salo clearly signals that no viewer should enjoy themselves, let alone get an erotic charge from the action on screen, whatever its fetishistic charge. Ilsa, by contrast, is for precisely the kind of person who enjoys combining staring at breasts while violence against women occurs.

With her castrating ways and literally murderous insatiability, Ilsa is a walking vagina dentata. Only a dreamboat named Wolfe can subdue her; as an improbably chiseled American POW, Gregory Knoph staggers through with brick-like self-confidence. It turns out he never needs to ejaculate; as he explains to camp buddy Mario (Tony Mumolo), he’s “a sort of human machine, a machine that can set its control to fast, slow, or never.” (“My god,” Mario solemnly replies.) When he returns from his first bedroom session, he re-enters the bunk to a “Yankee Doodle Dandy” drum-and-fife, drawing the link between virile American battlefield prowess and sexual macho.

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There are occasional moments of welcome camp dialogue. Viewing her experiments, a Nazi general asks Ilsa, “You use no anesthetic?” “One does not give caviar to guinea pigs,” she sneers, and you get the medical connotation of her choice of animal even as the line makes no sense. But the film is mostly nasty business, dwelling with relish on open sores and pain while fomenting a camp revolt through the power of one man’s penis to subdue a villainous woman. The other, not insignificant problem is that the film is very, very badly made. It’s often simultaneously as boring as it is unpleasant, which is some kind of achievement. The film was budgeted low and shot in eight or nine days, depending on whose memory you trust. Those monetary shortfalls result in a camp seemingly populated by only half-a-dozen male and female inmates apiece; so visibly underpopulated is the set that it loses the horrific sense of scale defining images of the concentration camp. When so clearly looking at a barebones production, the images don’t match the atrocity and it’s hard to feel a real historical sting, no matter how many Hitler portraits have been hung in the background. The film looks grimy without having actual texture, sticking to cheap indoor sets, and has absolutely no sense of humor that might go where the obvious lack of moral purpose is. Using the Holocaust as a pretext for grindhouse disreputability is obviously on some level a historical obscenity and trivialization. On the other hand, it’s really not worth getting worked up about.

I won’t belabor the obvious irony in Ilsa being shot on the sets of another trivializing narrative about WWII, Hogan’s Heroes. The producers offered to take care of demolishing the sets when they were done, but in the wake of Ilsa’s success, they returned to the same lots for a sequel. She Wolf was a hit, despite inevitable controversy: A Rhode Island theater pulled it when angry Jewish residents broke the theater windows, and the film never passed U.K. censorship. Saxton returned to write the sequel, turning California into Saudi Arabia or thereabouts. Dead at the first film’s end, Ilsa’s job in Ilsa, Harem Keeper Of The Oil Sheikhs is self-explanatory, only now she gets to wear shorts appropriate to the “desert” climate. This particular sheikh is played by Texarkana native Jerry Delony, whose brief run in softcore included a turn as Dr. Cock-Luv in 1973’s reportedly humorous Nazi Sex Experiments. As El Sharif, he’s billed as Victor Alexander to convey the appropriate exotic touch.

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This Ilsa’s primary distasteful subtext is that lustful, sweaty, obscenely rich Arabs are kidnapping your daughters for their sexual pleasure. Leap forward a little over 30 years, and it’s hard to argue Taken is more sophisticated. The harem setting provides obvious excuses to parade naked women, including the three freshly kidnapped at the film’s opening: one an heiress (Patty Hearst?), a “Scandinavian love goddess” in deference to contemporary fetishization of Swedish sex bombs, and—for the Bond globe-trotting exoticism-fetishizers—an unspecified Asian-European equestrian. Ilsa’s primary task is to make sure they all pleasure El Sharif in his exact preferred ways, which raises a side question: Isn’t making sure everybody in the harem has sex the exact same way kind of nullifying the point of sexual variety?

In the first film, Richard Kennedy played a Nazi commandant who begs Ilsa for a golden shower; here, “Wolfgang Roehm” plays Dr. Kaiser. Ostensibly an American oil executive, he’s really a Henry Kissinger stand-in, merging business realpolitik with national self-interest. “I have always felt that personal diplomacy reaps the greatest rewards,” he practically winks, “and I think I can say my theory has usually been proved correct.” The anti-administration thrust of such a portrayal (two years after the much-touted negotiations to end the war had given way to the sad spectacle of soldiers fleeing the U.S. Embassy via helicopter) is obvious. But Kaiser also simultaneously represents interests the Western viewer will probably agree with. Kaiser tells Sharif he needs to help “his people”—this is, by selling his oil for a reasonable (cheap, advantageous) price. In this scenario, proto trickle-down economics practically create the moral obligation to sell oil to the West at a discount. This Ilsa thus climaxes with the deposition of the cruel sheikh with the only legitimate heir, a young boy whose ear can be “advised” (i.e., directed toward the U.S.) by on-site American military personnel. The CIA must have been thrilled.

Calling this film ideologically confused is underselling it, because El Sharif is deposed by a harem uprising led by Ilsa and her two aide-de-camps, Satin and Violet. It’s to say nothing against these admittedly awesome characters that they’re obviously there as black, vaguely Panther-esque fetish objects. Fighting in tandem, they finish off one man by simultaneously ripping off one testicle apiece. The sight of a group of dispossessed women revolting against their male patriarch oppressor, only to have their action co-opted in the service of cheaper gas prices, could be a cynical comment on the appropriation of all revolutionary movements. Then again, it’s probably just a cheap attempt to have it all vaguely topical ways possible.

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There’s a similar political wobbliness to Ilsa, The Wicked Warden, which is easily the best of the Ilsa films; in very large part, that’s because it’s not really one. After the success of the two films, Cinepix was approached by a European producer who wanted to emulate them. Thorne went off to make a film with the infamous Jess Franco, with some notes from Cinepix about possible directions and motifs for her character; the resulting Wanda, The Wicked Warden was merely retitled with Ilsa’s name for release in Cinepix territories. Depending on whether you’re watching the German, Spanish, or English dub, Wanda/Ilsa could also be referred to as Greta. Despite going from blond to brunette, Thorne is still vaguely in preening character, dropping an occasional “Achtung!” into her dialogue to remind us of her background.

Franco’s career is too long a side-issue to get into here; a body of exploitation work exceeding 200 films should give you some idea. He’s long been lambasted as one of the worst directors in film history, though predictably there have been efforts made to resurrect him. (Last year, a seriously dedicated 432-page book—the first of two projected volumes meticulously examining his every work—was published.) This is my first encounter with him, so I can’t speak to his overall skill, but Franco was certainly a better director than the hapless Edmonds: Lighting is actually sculpted around actors’ faces and sets’ contours rather than being dropped in sullen clods, and the framing and camera motion occasionally exceed the sub-functional. Another thing Franco clearly understood is that, when making cheap exploitation movies in a limited number of locations, it’s nice to have some pretty outdoor scenery. Stuck on TV studio lots, the first two films barely venture outside; here, there’s plenty of lush Spanish greenery to gaze at between mammaries.

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This is by far the film heaviest on constant, here’s-what-you-came-for nudity, beginning with two sequences intercutting young asylum inmates in the shower with their matron repeatedly squeezing a sponge over herself in the tub. This Ilsa is the warden of an asylum confining women with “sexual aberrations” such as “nymphomania,” “lesbianism,” and “prostitution.” It’s effectively a women-in-prison potboiler, with Ilsa bluntly labeled by one of the inmates as the prototypical “sadistic lesbian.” It emerges that many of the women kept prisoner are in fact political revolutionaries (“Viva Che Guevara” is scrawled on the walls), their sexual abuse being filmed and sold to a government official. It’s a standard film studies move to claim that any instance of voyeurism or cameras observing dreadful proceedings “implicate” the viewer as a guilty participant, but it would also be a stretch to claim that this Ilsa doesn’t cheerfully give viewers everything they want. If anything, two years after General Franco’s death, the target seems to be his government, tying systemic repression and sexual perversity back to fascism. The film ends with Ilsa being literally eaten by her revolting inmates, intercut with footage of tigers and lions tearing into carcasses. Rise and revolt!

One of Warden’s redeeming pleasures is its ESL dialogue (Ilsa is introduced as “the chief of all us shitty piss-asses”), which continues through the final installment. Ilsa, The Tigress Of Siberia brought the series to Quebec for the first time, with Montreal and outlying areas standing in for first Siberia in 1953 and then its present-day (1977) self. Tigress takes a record-breaking 14 minutes to get to its first bit of nudity, and this is by far the tamest installment sex-duration wise. It’s the tail end of the gulag era. By day, Ilsa abuses her prisoners in sadistically inventive ways, by night she drinks vodka (lots of tossed-down shot glasses; you hope people watched their feet) and does “Russian dances” to the strains of balalaika and accordion. A lot of the dirty talk is admittedly hilariously belabored Russian wordplay (“Your body is so full and warm, like mother Russia”), including within a few two-guys-and-a-girl threesomes, possibly the only ones to pun on collective farming. (“Let us dig together!”) Ilsa’s major goal is to break the spirit of “the so-called ‘political thinker’” Andrei Chikurin (Michel René Labelle), a vaguely Solzhenitsyn-esque figure. With news of Stalin’s death, Ilsa and her associates pull a My Lai on their prisoners before skipping out of Siberia, mistakenly leaving Andrei alive.

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Cut to 1977 and the cleanest-minded two minutes of the entire Ilsa franchise. Splicing in hockey footage (as the Canuxploitation blog points out, probably left over from director Jean LaFleur’s previous film, The Mystery Of The Million Dollar Hockey Puck) and shots of the city, the film slaps over an enthusiastic sports announcer’s tribute to his city: “A beautiful city! A great host!” Is this the kind of exposure the tourism board would have been pleased with? Members of the Russian team skip out to a brothel (cue porno-funk and light striptease) that turns out to be run by Ilsa and her gang of sadists. Now a security apparatchik (he turned out to be a loyal party man after all), Chikurin is kidnapped by Ilsa and subjected to some sub-Ludovico mind tampering. After being exposed to a rapid slideshow of images, a computer determines what he fears most and creates a holographic image of it. (Surprise: It’s castration!) The Russians send out a seal team 6-type squad, and the film ends with a massive, mostly satisfying shoot-out in the Cannon Films vein—cheap and unspectacular, but with lots of bullets.

While bad, it’s the least sadistic of the films, and endearingly Canadian in its odd bursts of national pride. (Snowy Quebec also serves as a natural stand-in for Siberia, even if the look is more McCabe And Mrs. Miller than Russia). It’s a relative high to go out on; follow-ups were contemplated (one the self-explanatory Ilsa Meets Bruce Lee In The Devil’s Triangle) but never realized. Thorne now co-runs a wedding service business with her husband of 40-plus years.

Final ranking:

1. Ilsa, The Wicked Warden
2. Ilsa, The Tigress Of Siberia
3. Ilsa, Keeper Of The Sheikh’s Harem
4. Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS

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