Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Helltrain (1977)

Helltrain (aka Hitler's Last Train) is an entry in the Nazisploitation genre. For those of you who are unfamiliar, this field is dominated primarily by films lensed in Europe, and its most famous examples are Salon Kitty and Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS. These films typically showcase tons of skin (male and female) and sex, gruesome tortures, bloody violence, and humiliation. They are alternately set in brothels, prison camps, or a combination of the two. Here, our offering comes from French director Alain Payet (as James Gartner), whose main output is in the hardcore porn area. Strange, then, that this movie is so reserved. I suspect this is a heavily-edited version of the film. At the same time, I'm not so sure a hardcore edition would prove more satisfying.
We begin with the standard cabaret scene. Here, we meet Ingrid (Monica Swinn), top mistress to the Nazis' highest-ranking officers. Backstage, her friend, the innocent Greta (the tragically-short-lived Sandra Mozarowsky), pleads for Ingrid to use her influence for Greta's father, an anti-Nazi sympathizer. But when Greta won't pledge loyalty to the party, Ingrid turns her away. We get the sense that Ingrid got into the Nazi party reluctantly but has now devoted herself to the cause.
Ingrid's boytoy, Otto (Frank Braña), receives word that the Germans are marching into Russia. He arranges for Ingrid and an elite selection of women to board a train and dutifully service the romantic needs of the poor Nazi officers so far from home. Greta joins this harem caravan, and she and Ingrid enter into a competition, of sorts, for the affections of young Nazi officer, Paul (Bob Asklöf).
The film is set mainly on the brothel-train, and the physical sets are never more than functional. While they don't totally betray the film's 70s origins, you never fully believe this is the 40s, either. The camera remains fairly static, except for the occasional zoom and some handheld exteriors. That, combined with the flat overblown lighting, creates an overall stage-bound ambience. The editing is choppy (though this may not be entirely the filmmakers' fault), with music and scenes cut off midway and time jumps that can be disorienting. The production did spend some money on military vehicles for the marching and exterior action scenes. However, they're handled by the extras as if they're on a weekend business retreat. There's also stock footage of tanks rolling and guns firing to pad out the action on the film's miniscule budget.
The characters are all one-dimensional and fairly repellant. Every male character, with the exception of Paul, is positively salivating at the prospect of having sex with Ingrid and her girls. This is even portrayed in sections, so we get the total picture that all men are barely-restrained animals. The Nazi rank-and-file board the train and grope the women before running away. The "partisans" board the train and molest and humiliate the women. The American soldiers circle Ingrid like a wolfpack, champing at the bit. Some of the women have slight changes (I hesitate to call them arcs) through the movie, but it's never enough to generate any sort of drama or sympathy. What's most discomfiting though, is that Greta, the one character we expect to defy Ingrid and the Nazis and embody at least some integrity and heroic ideals, falls in love – quite easily, mind you – with a Nazi Captain. All-around, the film takes a dismal, misanthropic view of human nature. Although these types of movies were never intended as feel-good entertainment, they do usually have at least one character we can care about and root for, even marginally. But not here.
The central idea of the film is interesting, and it could have been developed in a number of directions. As it stands, though, it doesn't try to go any higher than its surface. There are tensions and expectations that are frustrating in their non-exploration. Almost every scene and plot wrinkle centers on Ingrid, and there are no subplots to vary things up. The pacing of the movie never slows to a dead crawl, but it does get repetitive. The girls party with the Nazis, the military moves around a little, and Ingrid receives new orders. Rinse and repeat. It's never totally boring, but by the end, you're kind of glad it's over. Speaking of the end, the final scene does give a nice, elliptical feel to the film, even though the twist comes off as fitting but implausible.
How, then, does Helltrain stack up in the Nazisploitation category? Unfortunately, it's pretty tame stuff. There are a large number of topless scenes and scenes with see-through lingerie (on women only, thankfully), but it never goes to the next level. Everyone does a bit of fondling, but I honestly can't recall a single sex scene. Further, what is on display isn't very titillating at all. Also, there is some humiliation – mostly in the form of riding women around the train car like horsies – but again, it's nothing shocking or outré. Even a couple of rapes are pretty staid. Although characters do get killed, the movie is, by-and-large, bloodless. It's almost like a warm-up or entry level film in the genre. It's baffling, because they obviously had the opportunity to take full advantage of their exploitable elements. They just didn't.
In Nazisploitation flicks, we don't necessarily expect to like the characters. That said, it's nice to have at least one who is sympathetic to some degree. The simple fact is I didn't care about any of these people one way or the other. They're not nice enough to like or malevolent enough to hate. The shortage of shock value only adds to the mediocre reaction the film provokes. This seeming apathy from the filmmakers only encourages the audience to not care, either. I know, by the end, I didn't.
MVT: Swinn's performance is actually fairly nuanced, and she does a decent enough job trying to hold the film together.
Make or Break: The "Break" for me is the scene where we realize that Greta and Ingrid are jockeying for Nazi Paul's affections. By this point, I was convinced that even characters set up with the expectation of being good are just pieces of crap, and no one cares anyway.
Score: 5.5/10

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