Salon Kitty AKA Madam Kitty
R0 - Scandinavia - Another World Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (7th January 2008).
The Film

Alongside Caligula (1979) and La chiave (The Key, 1983), Salon Kitty is one of the most widely-seen films by Tinto Brass. Produced several years after the commercial failure of Brass' previous film La vacanza (1971), Salon Kitty marked a turning point in Brass' style, towards the kind of earthy excesses and focus on near-hardcore material with which Brass is now most closely associated. It is these aspects of Brass' films that divide viewers: Brass' fans love his fusion of satire and sleaze, seeing the sexual excesses and vulgarity of Brass' films as a key element of their subversive worldview; other viewers see his films as little more than vulgar exploitation pictures that aspire to be arthouse films. However, these are not mutually exclusive perspectives: Brass' movies are a curious mixture of the sensual and the political; and in terms of his exploration of the relationship between desire, sexuality, power and politics, Salon Kitty is probably Brass' most successful film.

Inspired by the story of the 'Pension Schmidt' (named after its owner Kitty Schmidt), a Berlin brothel that was renamed 'Salon Kitty' and used as a 'honey trap' by the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst/Secret Service), Salon Kitty is based on the book by Peter Norden; according to a 1974 issue of Variety, Sidney Lumet was once in line to direct the picture (10 July, 1974: 26). It is difficult to imagine what a filmmaker like Lumet would have done with the material, but according to Brass' interview on the Blue Underground DVD, Brass stipulated that when offered the opportunity to direct Salon Kitty, he accepted on the basis that he could rework the script, downplaying the sexually exploitative elements of the movie and emphasising the elements of political satire.

Salon Kitty is often discussed in relation to two other mid-1970s Italian films that explored the legacy of the ideology of Fascism, and which provoked controversy due to their sexually explicit imagery: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo o le centoventi giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975) and Liliana Cavani's Il Portiere di notte (The Night Porter, 1974). Like Salo, Salon Kitty associates ritualistic, fetishistic sexuality with Fascism; and like both Pasolini and Cavani's films, Salon Kitty explores the relationship between unbridled desire and power.

Salon Kitty also reunited two of the stars of Luchino Visconti's La caduta degli Dei (The Damned, 1969), a film about a German family's growing association with Nazism: in Visconti's film, Ingrid Thulin and Helmut Berger played a mother and son who are involved in an incestuous relationship. In The Damned, incest is just one aspect of deviant sexual behaviour that is deployed as a way of illustrating the corruptive effects of greed and power. Brass' film shares this theme with The Damned, together with Visconti's impressionistic use of the zoom lens as a means of placing the audience in the middle of the action.

In Salon Kitty, Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) railroads Madam Kitty Kellerman (Ingrid Thulin) into unwittingly allowing him to use her brothel to spy on members of the German military. Wallenberg forces Kitty to replace her prostitutes with women that Wallenberg has chosen for their commitment to National Socialism and their lack of sexual inhibitions. The women are to work as prostitutes whilst spying on their clients, relaying information on potential traitors to Wallenberg and his team. Unbeknownst to the women, the rooms in 'Salon Kitty' have also been 'tapped' with microphones, and the conversations within the rooms are recorded.

Wallenberg is obsessed with one of the women, Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy). Meanwhile, Margerita begins to fall in love with one of her clients, a Luftwaffe pilot named Hans (Bekim Fehmiu). However, Hans plans to defect; to protect him, Margherita relays false information about Hans' plans, but thanks to the microphones in the room his plans to betray his country are recorded and he is executed. Upon being told that Hans has been executed, Margherita's faith in the ideals of National Socialism falters; she deduces that her conversations with Hans have been recorded, and working with Kitty she seeks to use this knowledge against Wallenberg, using her new-found sexual talents to trap him into implicating himself in a plot to overthrow Hitler.

Brass uses heavy irony to undermine the ideology of National Socialism. In an early scene, a lecturing doctor asserts that the principles of eugenics 'are based on indesputable scientific fact'; and when asked by a girl if it is 'true that Jesus Christ was the son of a Roman prostitute and a German mercenary', the doctor replies, 'Without a doubt [....] He was blonde, he had blue eyes: typical signs of his Germanic origins'. At the end of the film, Wallenberg denounces the ideology with which he has been so strongly aligned, suggesting that it is no more than a means to achieve absolute power. Wallenberg tells Margherita that 'I don't give a damn about National Socialism, just as our leaders don't give a damn. It's a means to an end: power. They have no ideals, no faith. You are the one with illusions, Margherita: you and millions of Germans who believed Hitler. It's a way to get you all under our thumbs [....] We made criminals out of you: murderers, thieves, corrupted accomplices'.

Brass satirises National Socialism, but he also satirises the old regime that it replaced. An early sequence shows workers in an abbatoir flirting with a woman before taunting her with a severed pig's penis; on a wall in the background is the infamous mural 'Arbeit macht frei'. The closing moments of the scene are accompanied by two prominent non-diegetic sounds: the loud buzzing of flies and the grunting of pigs. These sounds continue as the film cuts to a dinner party populated by members of the old aristocracy, representatives of the pre-Nazi regime who are cynical of the ideals of National Socialism. The men and women are aggressively questioned by Margherita, who at this point in the picture is a committed National Socialist; Margherita declares the 'old order' to be 'a dead generation'. Margherita's grandmother, a member of the 'old order', asserts that the only 'important thing is to be on the winning side'; in the background is a painting depicting the 'kiss of death', a young man kissing a skeleton. The non-diegetic sounds of the buzzing of flies (an index of death and decay) and the grunting of pigs (a symbol of greed) suggest that the 'old order' are just as power-hungry as the Nazis. In making this ironic cut from footage of an abbatoir to a scene of representatives of the 'old order' debating the philosophy of National Socialism (accompanied by the non-diegetic sound of grunting pigs), Brass criticises both the decadence of the 'old' generation and the blind idealism of the youths (such as Margherita) who are in thrall with the philosophy of National Socialism.

A similar scene takes place later in the film, after Margherita has become disillusioned with Nazi ideology, and accuses her grandparents of 'hiding behind your law [...] and tradition [....] You keep your eyes closed, so as not to hear, to speak' and challenge the rise of Nazism. Again, this scene is accompanied by the non-diegetic sound of buzzing flies, as Margherita leaves the room, turning her back on her grandparents for the last time, disgusted with her grandparent's generation for not stopping the rise of National Socialism: the associations of the old regime and the concept of decay are clear.

As suggested in these two dinner scenes, Brass' use of symbolism (both in terms of sights and sounds) is sometimes heavy-handed; often it is explicitly sexual, as when one of the prostitute's clients makes the woman put a penis-shaped loaf of bread between her legs before proceeding to lick and bite it.

However, at the core of Brass' films is an alignment with the carnivalesque: alongside their satirical nature, Brass' films represent a ribald assertion of life. In Salon Kitty, Hans states that 'Man belongs to humanity, not to a nation or race, or religion', and this statement seems to sum up Brass' worldview. When she becomes disenchanted with National Socialism, Margherita turns to the only person who can help her defeat the power-mad Wallenberg: the free-spirited prostitute Kitty. As in other films by Brass, sex is seen as something which can both enslave and liberate us.

Brass' post-Salon Kitty films often feel as if he began the project with the intention of exploring a specific social issue, but was distracted by his own sexual fetishes. At times during Salon Kitty, the dialogue begins to become 'heavy' but the scene suddenly veers in another direction: during one scene, Kitty discusses politics with one of her employees, declaring that she is 'a madam, above ideals; just like despite Hitler, your husband, your child and your Party, you are a whore'; within seconds, the scene descends into a lovingly-filmed catfight between the two women. In another scene, Hans eloquently expresses his alienation with the war and the Nazi ideology for which he is fighting, whilst via means of a dissolve stock war footage is laid over Margherita's tearful face; from this point, the scene quickly devolves into a soft-lit sex scene that takes place in a public lavatory. For Brass, sex and politics are inextricable linked, and he seems to suggest that sex has the potential to free us, or at least distract us from the messy business of politics.

Salon Kitty has had something of a chequered past, and a number of different edits of the picture are in existence. Brass oversaw the editing of the picture, and his final cut of the film ran 133 minutes. However, following conflicts with the Italian censors the film's producers agreed to remove several minutes of footage, including a scene of a woman whipping another woman. This abridged version of the film (running 129 minutes) was distributed in Italy by Titanus and throughout most of the rest of Europe by 20th Century Fox. In the UK, this edit of the film was cut by the BBFC before being granted an 'X' rating: the BBFC removed some of the close shots of female genitals, part of the scene in which Aldo Valletti tosses a phallic dart at a target painted on a woman's pubic area, and the scene in which a German officer eats a penis-shaped loaf that has been placed between the thighs of a prostitute.

In America, the film was retitled Madam Kitty and distributed by Trans-American (a subsidiary of American International Pictures) in 1977, with the addition of a prologue which apparently attempted to explain the context in which the film is set. (In the UK, the so-called 'club cut' of Salo that was shown at private members cinemas contained a similar contextual introduction.) This cut of the film was almost twenty minutes shorter than the version of the movie shown in Europe, running at around 112 minutes in length. In the UK, the 1993 VHS release from Redemption represented yet another cut of the film: the edit of the picture represented on the Redemption tape was missing around 12 minutes and, on top of that, replicated most (but not all) of the cuts that the BBFC imposed on the film in 1976.

For the 2003 Blue Underground DVD release, the footage cut by the Italian censors was reinstated; the footage was taken from Brass' own Italian-dubbed print of the 133 minute cut of the film, and thus was presented in Italian with English subtitles. (However, portions of this dialogue existed in English on earlier home video releases of the movie, including the Redemption videocassette.) This 'director's cut' of the film has been released on DVD in the UK by Argent Films, and is now available on DVD from the Danish company Another World Entertainment.

Salon Kitty has often been credited with kickstarting the disreputable 'Nazisploitation' subgenre, and elements of Brass' film:principally the idea of using a brothel as a 'honey trap':turn up in several films from this short-lived trend, such as Le lunghe notti della Gestapo (Red Nights of the Gestapo, Fabio de Agostini, 1977). However, fans of sexploitation films are likely to find Salon Kitty frustrating, thanks to the way in which it places equal emphasis on sex and politics: although Salon Kitty contains transgressive and explicit images of sex, its principal aim isn't titillation. The English dub is also frustrating: some of the accents are decidedly camp and the dubbing for some of the non-English speaking actors often treads into the category of caricature; the film works better in its Italian dub, which is a little more sombre in tone. Unfortunately, the AWE disc only includes the English dub (the Italian dub is presented in its entirety on Blue Underground's DVD).

Brass returned to similar territory with Senso '45 (2002), a remake of Visconti's Senso (1954).

Video

The film is presented at 1.85:1, with anamorphic enhancement. Compared with the Blue Underground DVD, the transfer on AWE's disc suffers from some almost imperceptible cropping on the left and right hand edges of the frame.

The film runs for 133:07, and is presented in the PAL format; the disc contains the same uncensored 'director's cut' that was released by Blue Underground and which has subsequently been released on DVD by several other companies, including Argent Films in the UK. (See the comments above for more notes on the different edits of this picture.) The shorter 112 minute cut has reputedly been released on DVD in Japan, and it is a shame that this alternate edit of the film hasn't been released on DVD elsewhere, in a more affordable edition. However, of the different cuts of Salon Kitty the 'director's cut' (as contained on Another World Entertainment's DVD) represents the most satisfying edit of the film.

The disc contains an interlaced NTSC to PAL conversion, and thus has the same running time (within two seconds) as the Blue Underground disc. There are some problems with combing and ghosting, and the image is much softer than the Blue Underground disc (and with a much more muted colour palette); for direct comparison between the Blue Underground DVD and AWE's release, see the screen grabs below.

The Blue Underground DVD contains a better presentation of the film, and as noted elsewhere the Blue Underground disc also offers the viewer the opportunity to watch Salon Kitty with its Italian dub. However, AWE's DVD represents a perfectly satisfactory way to view the film, and is a good alternative for viewers who require Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian or Danish subtitles.

Contrary to what is stated on both the DVD label and the packaging (which both state that the disc is coded for playback in Region 2 players only), AWE's release of Salon Kitty is free from regional coding.

Blue Underground:
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AWE:
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Audio

The disc contains only the English dub (in mono), with some brief moments in Italian with subtitles. These Italian-dubbed scenes represent moments that were excised by the Italian censors, and which have been reinstated from Brass' personal print of the film. (However, as noted above, a handful of these lines existed in English in the 129 minute edit of the film, and were also included in the edit of the film that was released on VHS by Redemption.)

Most of the principal actors dubbed their own lines into English; however, in this English dub many of the secondary parts suffer from distracting dubbing, and at times the accents veer into the realm of camp. The Italian dub, which sadly isn't included on this release, is a little more sombre, and could be said to better suit the largely downbeat tone of the film.

The DVD contains English subtitles only for the scenes that are in Italian, alongside subtitles in Danish, Norwegian, Finnish and Swedish.

Extras

The disc contains a trailer for Salon Kitty (3:54) and a slideshow of stills from the film (4:52). There are several text-based features, including biographies of Tinto Brass, Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin and Teresa Ann Savoy. Other text-based features include a page headed 'Salon Kitty trivia', and a short piece about the Pension Schmidt entitled 'The Real Salon Kitty'.

Also included are additional trailers for several other releases by Another World Entertainment: Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (2:31), Zombie Holocaust (2:42), Breaking News (1:55), The Nameless (2:24), Torso (3:29) and Obsession (1:28).

Overall

Tinto Brass' films are something of an acquired taste, and Salon Kitty probably represents one of Brass' most accessible films: Salon Kitty contains all of the major features of Brass' work, including his mixture of fetishistic sexuality and satire. Viewers who are new to the work of Brass will likely find Salon Kitty to be either a potent fusion of sex and politics, an irredeemably vulgar piece of trash or a frustrating exercise in sexploitation. Like its similarly-themed key contemporaries (Pasolini's Salo, Cavani's The Night Porter, Walerian Borowczyk's La BÍte/The Beast, 1975, and Nagisa Oshima's Ai no corrida/In the Realm of the Senses, 1976), Salon Kitty treads the fine line between art and exploitation, and as a consequence runs the risk of frustrating both fans of exploitation cinema and aficionados of the 'art' film. Viewers expecting a sexploitation film along the lines of the later 'Nazisploitation' films will be sorely disappointed by Salon Kitty's emphasis on politics and power-plays. Likewise, those expecting a serious critique of Nazi ideology may be repulsed by some of the more sexually explicit scenes and the film's emphasis on ritualistic sexuality. However, if you are in tune with Brass' wavelength, you will most likely love the film; and if this is your first viewing of Salon Kitty, you may be left wondering whether Brass exploits women or (as he often claims) simply celebrates their sexual power. Salon Kitty represents the bridge between Brass' more serious avant-garde early films and his more playful later erotic pictures such as Cosi fan tutte (All Ladies Do It, 1992), La chiave (1983) and Miranda (1985), and as such it is a key film in the work of this most unique filmmaker.

This Scandinavian-release is distributed via "Another World Entertainment" in Denmark, "Njutafilms" in Sweden, "Voices Music & Entertainment" in Norway, and "Firebox Records" in Finland.


For more info, please visit the homepage of Another World Entertainment.

 


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