DVD Review – Helga: She-Wolf of Stilberg (1978)

The first thing which hit me when I settled to watch Helga: She-Wolf of Stilberg – apart from the Lidl-like almost-familiar name (what exploitation classic could they possibly have had in mind when they named this one?) – was a feeling of profound disorientation. Surely, with a title like this, we were in store for a piece of mildly-derivative Nazisploitation? Well – yes; and no. But mainly no. Perhaps, I dunno, there was a bit of mild concern about making a film which openly referenced the Nazis, in France, so relatively soon after World War II? I suspect this may have been part of it, but from the very offset, this film feels a bit like the Exploitation Movie which Dare Not Speak Its Name. We’re apparently in some sort of politically-unstable version of France (?) where the soldiers wear striking red armbands bearing a distinctive symbol which IS NOT a swastika, and don’t you dare confuse the two; the blonde lady present at the argumentative interim-governmental meeting at the beginning of the film (Malisa Longo, who has form) is indeed a tyrannical nympho who gets sent off to a remote outpost to govern over female prisoners, but honestly, I don’t know why this would make you think of a certain other film…

So, in a film short on plot, that’s our basic set-up here. There’s a meeting, where a motley band of renegades discuss their political futures. People are dressed in styles which vary exclusively between army fatigues and cocktail wear, and the only thing they really seem to have in common is a fear of some opposition leader by the name of Vogel. Our Helga (Longo) makes her feelings known at this meeting, and for her troubles, she’s sent off to act as the overseer of Stilberg, a temporary prison being housed in a chateau – where she’s out of the way. Ain’t so bad: there are only about twelve prisoners in all, she gets to do what she wants with them – and with some of the soldiers – to pass the time, and she gets to use a riding crop as a completely decorative accessory in most of her scenes. Things change somewhat when the daughter of the hated Vogel, Elisabeth (Patrizia Gori, who, again, has form) turns up in her gaol. Helga at first tries to seduce the girl, but when this all fails, Elisabeth hatches a scheme to escape, precipitating a change to the political system currently established.

Hmm. This isn’t a particularly long film, and has a few key cast members who know their stuff when it comes to cinema of this kind, so it’s a shame that the whole thing flounders so spectacularly. It does this almost from the opening seconds, too: the film is impossible to date, for one thing, appearing WWII-era in some moments, and late 70s in others (largely through the array of footwear and fashion on offer, it has to be said, especially when Helga spends most of the film is the same lurid pink satin blouse (smashing though it is) and leather strides. It promises violence and torment – which go with the territory when you’re promising a She-Wolf, I’d say – but never really delivers on that, preferring to play it relatively safe with an often barely-connected array of nude scenes. This doesn’t quite cut it. I felt throughout that the director, Alain Garnier (a.k.a. Patrice Rhomm, a.k.a. Homer Bingo, to name but a few aliases!) was rattling through what he felt was expected – just enough of a nod to a prison brawl, a shower scene, and some unconvincing torment – before he could safely cut to the stock footage of tanks blowing up.

That’s the thing, isn’t it – it’s all very well to make a film off the modest success of a title like Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, and indeed Helga uses the tagline “Deadlier Than Ilsa” in its original publicity, but it’s not enough to simply get something bloody made when it compares so feebly to the thing which it enabled it to be made in the first place. Whatever you think of Ilsa, it doesn’t scrimp on any element which it bothers to include – I happen to think it’s a pretty nasty film in places, which uses a clear, if dubious rationale (“women can handle pain better than men”) to provide a narrative which you can follow. Malisa Longo is admittedly a redeeming feature here, partly because she looks great on screen (as she equally does in her other lowbrow movie appearances, such as Salon Kitty) and partly because she shows herself game for what’s she’s being asked to do, but there’s only so much steely pouting one can do, shorn of a story or any particularly shocking elements. She’s just not given much to do here. Helga: She-Wolf of Stilberg certainly isn’t the first film to piggyback off another film which turned a buck on a winning formula, but it just feels so aimless and unconnected here, which is a shame.

Ultimately, Helga: She-Wolf of Stilberg is sort of watchable, but isn’t excessive or coherent enough to really tick the boxes. It doesn’t so much harness the appeal of a range of women in prison/SS women films as coast along on them, in the hopes that enough people’s curiosity will have drawn them in. There’s the time capsule thing to aid it now (assuming you can date it!) but a few interesting moments aside don’t quite cut it, considering the company it seeks to keep. Sorry, I’ll stick with Ilsa.

Helga: She-Wolf of Stilberg is available from Maison Rouge Films from 13th March 2017.