Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976), Directed by Don Edmonds, Written by Langston Stafford IMDB
To secure America’s oil supply, a diplomat who is a caricature of Henry Kissinger and a hunky US Navy officer travel to the quasi-medieval Middle Eastern nation ruled by Al-Sharif, aided the notorious Ilsa, former she-wolf of the SS.
Ilsa, who hasn’t aged a day since the end of WWII, is quite apolitical. She has adapted with the times and has no problem working for Arabs or employing Africans as henchwomen (two women named Velvet and Satin, who spend much of the movie near-naked and oiled). She’s into tyranny and sadism for their own sake, an auteur of torture and deviance.
We get a tour through Ilsa’s domain, an odd combination of medieval dungeon and modern clinic, where abducted European and American women are prepared for auction as slaves to various owners. There’s even something for the people into feederism, as women are fattened up for sale to African villages. This is definitely the realm of the disordered body. Furthermore, Ilsa’s pet scientists have perfected ways of concealing injuries and mutilations with medical techniques, juxtaposing the beautiful and the grotesque. This is fairly nasty stuff, though the amateurish makeup effects, fantastic setting and broad acting dilute the horror and shift the mood towards camp. One gag is that the diplomat politely refuses the sheik’s offer of a woman for the night, and the sheik amiably sends a boy to the room instead. The diplomat only objects a little.
There’s a note of political satire here: for black gold, Americans will go into the land of sexual deviance, a primitive world of slavery and Orientalist fantasy.
Uncontested mistress of the sheik’s “white slavery” operation, Ilsa coolly watches as her African henchwomen, near-naked and oiled, beat a rebellious man and rip his testicles off with their bare hands. Yet somehow the American officer can penetrate the impenetrable Ilsa, suggesting all she needed was a good lay from a real (American) man.
As punishment for sex with the American officer, Al Sharif has Ilsa bound and brings in a leper to rape her. This film takes a strange turn as the viewer almost becomes sympathetic to Ilsa. As repellent as her actions are, it’s strangely painful to see her tormented and victimized. Of course, her vulnerability is equated with her conventional femininity, symbolized by a flowing blue dress instead of her usual paramilitary or dominatrix gear. As a “bad woman”, she is armored, impenetrable; transformed into a “good woman” by American dick, she is weak and rape-able. Either life’s a bitch, or you become one.
You can almost believe that when Ilsa unleashes the harem women and the eunuchs as part of the American-intigated revolution, she’s reformed. However, Ilsa is just too much of a sadist bent on revenge. Al Sharif is almost literally hoist on his own petard when Ilsa sends a woman unwittingly fitted with an explosive diaphragm to mount the sheik, who is so lustful he can’t stop fucking her. The result is… messy.
The Naval officer dumps Ilsa once she’s served her purpose. A child inherits the kingdom, moral/political/sexual order is restored, America gets its oil, and Ilsa is cast down into a filthy dungeon. However, you can’t keep an evil Aryan dominatrix down, and Ilsa will return for two sequels.
Ilsa functions as a free-floating signifier of sexual/political deviance that can be attached to European fascists, Middle Eastern oil sheiks, Latin American dictators, Russian communists or any other political villain. She is both a source of suffering and a recipient of it over the narrative of her films. The repetitive story lines and her cycle of symbolic death and resurrection suggest something ritual at work, trying to allay an anxiety that can never be completely dismissed.