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by Michael Rowin
April 9, 2008 9:03 AM
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REVIEW | Strange Fascination: Ari Libsker's "Stalags"

Many Americans have never heard about the Stalag fiction phenomenon; Ari Libsker's short but valuable documentary, simply titled "Stalags," makes for a troubling, though thoughtful, introduction. Stalags constituted a genre of cheap exploitation novels that briefly thrived in Israel in the early Sixties during the period of the Adolf Eichmann trial, when the atrocities of the Holocaust were initially and tentatively broached in the public sphere. Stalags usually stuck to the same tried and true formula, pawning themselves off as translations of memoirs by American or British soldiers who had been imprisoned during World War II by the Nazis and subjected to sexual humiliation and violence by SS she-devils. In the end the soldier gets to turn the tables by raping and killing his inhuman torturers.

With only minor variations on this theme, and nestled beneath lurid, kitschy covers illustrating highlights of stories with titles like "I Was Colonel Schultz's Private Bitch" -- to name the most notorious, extreme example of the genre -- Stalags formed a collective fantasy narrative that struck a nerve with young adults, many the children of Holocaust survivors. Their parents' unimaginable experiences being shrouded in a tacitly agreed upon silence by a largely repressed society, this generation was forced to learn about what happened from alternative avenues even as it was in the process of discovering its own sexuality. Before being banned as anti-Semitic pornography only two years after their first appearance on the scene, Stalags filled this vacuum (if anything serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen when taboos stifle dialogue, this is it).

Libsker, the grandson of Holocaust survivors and a filmmaker known for investigating uncomfortable topics in relation to Jewish culture (as in his 2004 documentary "Circumcision"), refuses to dismiss the sensationalistic hyperbole of the genre and instead takes it seriously as a product and shaper of historical confusion. He interviews collectors; Ezra Narkis, the first publisher of Stalags; authors whose identities had long been masked behind pseudonyms; and various academics and thinkers who offer opinions on the meaning of the phenomenon.

A popular explanation is that readers haunted by a perceived ethnic weakness are turned on by the coveted power of their victimizers even as this fantasy life allows them to exact ultimate revenge against their enemies. There's a "survival of the fittest" dynamic to these narratives; and, in the opinion of some, they seduce readers into scenarios in which, by desiring such intoxicating power, they may be no better than the criminals themselves.

But beyond such superficial psychology Libsker offers an incisive study of the way history informs fantasy and vice versa. The film helps trace Stalag erotica back to the influential and proto-Stalag 1955 novel "The Dollhouse" by K. Tzetnik, the pen name of Yehiel De-Nur, a Holocaust survivor whose fictional work was based on his experiences in Auschwitz. Tzetnik apparently embellished for novelistic (and, many contend, pornographic) purposes, and while his depictions of the camp's female sex slaves paved the way for open discussions about what others had gone through, they also placed undeserved emphasis on a relatively rare practice.

Tzetnik's legacy therefore became not only one of speaking out about the horrors suffered under genocide but also of a stigmatization of female survivors wrongly suspected of having prostituted their bodies for survival, as well as an overall pornographizing of the Holocaust. Libsker ends "Stalags" with footage of high-school classes touring Auschwitz, their principal reading sections of "The Dollhouse" as if it were a nonfiction account of what transpired inside its walls. It's an unsettling image, confronting viewers with the painful fact that while we elect never to forget, we may remember the titillating over the purely, methodically, and unarousingly barbaric for no other purpose than our own perverse fascination.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

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