Salon Kitty is too easily and too often and dismissed as softcore Euro sexploitation. There's certainly an element of truth in the description - this is a Tinto Brass film after all - but there's more to the film than tits and knobs. It's a provocative, disturbing and flamboyantly artistic film. At its best, it's a challenging meditation on power, perversity and the complicity of spectators - and even at its worst it looks impressive.
In the months prior to the outbreak of World War II, SS Major Helmut Wallenberg (the suitably reptilian Berger) is given an unusual assignment. He's asked to recruit enough pure Aryan, fanatical Nazi women to populate a brothel that will cater to the every perverted desire of the Nazi party elite. The girls are to report back on the loyalty and patriotism of the men they service, and the bedrooms in the brothel are all wired. Wallenberg is told to deal with any "traitors" and also to "have fun" - although, as a ruthlessly ambitious toad himself, he's fully alert to the possibilities for blackmail and personal advancement that this situation presents. He sets about his task with relish.
This story is loosely based on reality - the Nazis really did spy on their party leadership in specially constructed brothels (and many were executed because of what they revealed to the prostitutes). Naturally, however, Brass uses the historical backdrop as an opportunity to give free reign to his own debauched imagination.
The first three-quarters of an hour are brash and shocking. There are some deeply unsettling scenes as Wallenberg tests the resolve of his recruits by placing them in a series of unpleasant sexual situations (think dwarves, cripples and Neanderthal freaks).
Elsewhere, the action veers from elaborate champagne soaked-vaudeville in a Berlin whorehouse, to visceral horror in an abattoir as pigs are slaughtered to the sound of a ragtime piano and flirtatious laughter. Then it lurches onwards again to yet more titillating nudity. In case there's any danger of the audience forgetting the exact implications of what they're watching, meanwhile, there are a few scenes of stark horror. Some of these have remarkable subtlety and power - most notably a wordless sequence in a museum when an SS woman stamps on a small Jewish boy's toy while his impotent parents look on in silent fear and rage.
The constant motifs of spying and watching, and the pointed use of mirrors to reflect events directly back onto the viewer, pose some uncomfortable questions about voyeurism and the complicity of the spectator. Brass insists that his audience think about what it means to enjoy the more overtly erotic sequences when they're set in this fascist context - and it's disturbing. The whole thing is made weirder still by frequent and incongruous doses of Brass' trademark slap and tickle bare-bottom silliness.
Any director would find this momentum hard to maintain and Brass sensibly eases off the throttle as the story segues into more conventional love and revenge territory. The film's two heroines Margherita (the generally naked Savoy) and the titular Kitty (the excellent Thulin) take centre stage as they seek recompense for the way their roles as prostitute and Madam respectively have been abused by the ruthless Wallenberg.
It moves along at an engaging pace. Even though, in this second half, Brass no longer tries so hard to unsettle, he still aims to impress - particularly though the extravagant sets designed by Goldfinger and Barry Lyndon veteran Ken Adam and the magnificently over the top costumes from Ugo Pericoli. There are a few completely ludicrous sequences and more gratuitous nudity than you could ever hope to shake a stick at, but the film also has plenty to get across about the use and abuse of power and the fundamental gangsterism of National Socialism. It's fascinating right up until the respectably satisfying ending.