Daniel Penny in Boston Review:
In her 1975 New York Review of Books essay “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag interrogates what was then a growing trend within 1970s popular culture of reviving fascist imagery after three decades of total rebuke. Sontag begins by examining Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl’s photography book, The Last of the Nuba, in light of Riefenstahl’s involvement in the Third Reich. Sontag tracks a set of visual sensibilities across Riefenstahl’s filmmaking career, arriving at a kind of taxonomy of fascist aesthetics, which she calls “both prurient and idealizing.” For Sontag, fascist artworks share:
a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, and extravagant effort; they exalt two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry . . . around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets.
Sontag connects these obsessions with theatrical control to the rise of Nazi imagery in cinema, erotica, and fine art in the 1970s. Arthouse films such as The Damned (1969) and The Night Porter (1974) use the “supremely violent but also supremely beautiful” imagery of the SS to lasciviously explore the twisted psychologies of sadomasochism-loving Nazis; while films such as Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975) epitomize the cresting wave of Nazisploitation, in which “far-out sex has been placed under the sign of Nazism.” As Sontag sees it, the unique appeal of Nazis in the context of sadomasochist fantasy is twofold: first, by the 1970s, fascism had become both novel to young people, yet also taboo; and second, fascism provides a readymade sexual fantasy that requires little imagination, “a master scenario available to everyone,” replete with a highly organized visual system: “The color is black, the material is leather. . . .”