Cinema, Spectacle, and the Unmaking of Sadomasochist Aesthetics

By Ravetto, Kriss | Annali d'Italianistica, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Cinema, Spectacle, and the Unmaking of Sadomasochist Aesthetics


Ravetto, Kriss, Annali d'Italianistica


Kinder, heut' abend, da such ich mir was aus Einen Mann, einen richtigen Mann Kinder, die Jungs hang mir schon zum Hals heraus Einen Mann, einen richtigen Mann. (1) (Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel)

How could Nazism ... have become everywhere today ... in all the pornographic literature of the world, the absolute reference to eroticism. (2) (Michael Foucault)

I. After the defeat of Italian and German Fascism, anti-fascist cinema has performed an ironic act of displacement: it removed the aggressive sexuality of Lola Lola, as portrayed by Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel, from the context of the Weimar Republic, and transformed it into a modern cultural icon of fascist sexual politics. Lola Lola returns in a sadomasochist play, dressed in Nazi regalia. Such films as Luchino Visconti's La caduta degli dei (1969), Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972), and Bernardo Bertolucci's Il Conformista (1971) all view Fascism as a theater of morally reprehensible sexuality: voracious sexual consumption, control and torture. Linda Mizejewski comments on this re-making of the cabaret vamp when she argues: "Antifascist productions end up duplicating the fascist politics they strive to condemn, reproducing the homophobia, misogyny, fascination for spectacle, and emphasis of sexual difference that characterize German fascism" (Mizejewski 25). The process of transforming decadence into fascism is a metonymic repetition that retains the aesthetic form of both fascism and what the Fascists condemned as degenerate art, while emptying it of its former historical significance, yet still maintaining its ideological and moral content. Michael Foucault has questioned this permutation, asking how Nazism, which fashioned itself on its own model of blood purity and masculine mastery, could become the ultimate sign of decadent erotic sexuality. Specifically, how could the character of the Nazi and the Fascist come to be identified with the same 'impure' icons (e.g. feminized sadists and femme fatales) they once used to represent external (Bolshevik, Slav, African) and internal (Jew, homosexual, mentally disadvantaged, Gypsy) threats to German and Italian 'purity'.

Surprisingly, this kind of fascination with Fascism has drawn several homosexual directors to view it as ultimately rooted in homosexuality itself. For such film-makers as Visconti, Bertolucci and Fosse, the representation of Fascism as homo-erotic serves simultaneously to empower homosexuality by associating it with a powerful sign of evil, and dis-empower it by simply reproducing what has been pre-established as socially and morally abject. As Foucault's statement implies, the eroticization of Nazism requires that an uncertain threat remains a potential menace that stands as the ultimate sign of transgressive sexuality. Yet the post-war identification of Fascism with subversive sexual transgression not only equates sexuality with evil and violence, but also reduces it to a narrative of repression, therefore casting it abstractly in the "dubious discourse of the symptom," to use the words of Paul de Man (58). Through the guise of the symptom, an otherwise aggressive male sexuality is mistakenly framed as homosexual, thus collapsing the homosexual into the homosocial.

In this essay, I shall focus on the sexual politics of Liliana Cavani's Portiere di notte (1974) and Lina Wertmuller's Pasqualino settebellezze (1975). Unlike other reincarnations of Nazi sexual politics, these two films disrupt the continuous representation of the femme fatale as an emblem of Evil, undermining a discourse that divides and sorts out 'good objects' according to sex, race and sexual practice. Although Cavani and Wertmuller are equally implicated in the sexualization of the figure of the Nazi, they draw upon the aesthetics of the sublime, which does not allow a return to the confines of 'straight' politics nor a return to the stylistic campiness and kitsch of other films that place the "sexual deviant" in the position of the Nazi and re-spectacularize the feminine body as a masculinized body or a satirical body. …

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