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Reviewed by:
  • Stalags [Stalagim]
  • Julia Anspach
Ari Libsker , Stalags [Stalagim]. Heymann Brothers Films, Yes Docu, New Israeli Foundation for Cinema & TV, Cinephil, 2007.

In the early 1960s, a new form of pornographic comic books appeared in Israel that met with great public interest. These so-called "Stalags," an abbreviation of the German Stammlager, meaning prisoner-of-war camp, told the fictional stories of American and British soldiers during the Second World War whom the Germans captured and imprisoned in camps. There they are tortured by female SS-officers whom they finally overcome and rape. The first of these magazines was written shortly after the start of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, its plot obviously reflecting the testimonies given by survivors of the Shoah at the trial. The Israeli documentary film Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel explores the emergence and development of this genre.

The questions raised and aspects explored by filmmaker Ari Libsker's diverse interview partners all revolve around one basic question: how should one approach the topic of the Shoah? The film examines the two initial Israeli literary traditions dealing with the Shoah: Stalags on the one hand and, on the [End Page 154] other, the writings of Yehiel Feiner-De-Nur, alias K. Zetnik, who also testified at Eichmann's trial. Hence, both genres relate to this trial, through which Israeli society–for the first time–was confronted with the full story of occurrences in the camps. The trial also catalyzed a general broader interest in National Socialism and the Holocaust in Israel.

The film suggests a connection between the remembrance of German crimes and the (alleged) sexual obsession of Israeli society by switching from color to black-and-white shots. Contemporary interviews and historical shots are both filmed in black-and-white and are dominated by Stalag illustrations in color. A strong off-screen voice that reads segments of the texts or comments on events accompanies detailed close-ups of the Stalags.

The film begins in detective story style. Libsker first interviews today's Stalag collectors and then traces the genre back to its roots. Dark black-and-white shots of an unidentifiable, backlit interview partner talking about his sexual fantasies of the Stalags create an atmosphere of sexual perversity. Through a sudden cut to images of Tel Aviv in the 1960s, the scene shifts back abruptly to Israeli society at the time. This paradigm of linking the 1960s society and sexual deviance persists throughout the film.

The first issue, "Stalag 13," became a bestseller with a circulation of eighty thousand copies. The author, Eli Keidar alias Mike Baden, was the son of survivors; his parents' whole family was murdered. By reason of their popularity, Keidar's writings found imitators: more and more comic books appeared on the market. The first copycat authors, all writing under pseudonyms, varied the plots slightly but kept the basic pattern, which ends with the victim over-powering his female tormentor. Finally, the stories changed: the plots became crueler and bloodier until the book "I Was Colonel Schultz's Private Bitch" appeared. Here, the tormentor is a man, the suffering victim a woman. This story led to a debate on porn and censorship. Even if they were not all banned, the popularity of Stalags waned at the time of Eichmann's sentencing. The film poses the rhetorical question whether the problem with this special issue – which was actually banned – was that by coming too close to reality, it touched a sensitive nerve. One could not simply dismiss this particular title as a mere "comic book."

Written under pseudonyms, these comic books supposedly told true stories. In fact, they mere developed a fictional topos in which authors appear as protagonists, specifically as non-Jewish American and British soldiers. The perpetrators rape and torture women whom they are finally able to defeat. Thus the Stalags modify and invert reality in many aspects, but in the documentary, this taking of liberties is only touched upon. The film also leaves many other questions unanswered: questions of authorship, the gendered aspect of the violence, the psychological function of the reversal of perpetrator and victim, and the question of the Stalags' relation to reality in general...