An Interview With Keith Crocker on Blitzkrieg: Escape From Stalag 69

by William Simmons

Blitzkrieg Popular in the 1970s, and typically embraced by Italian filmmakers, the Nazi 'death camp' films courted fascination and criticism for their unflinching exploitation of war-time atrocities. Merging elements of the sexploitation, WIP, and historical film, there is no question as to the purpose of these films: exploitation. Animalistic entertainment satisfying the cruelest and most primitive instincts of an audience, historical accuracy in Nazisploitation is often replaced by sheer audacity and an emphasis on pain, death, and humiliation. While the dramatically superior The Night Porter was perhaps the first and most influential title to explore the sado-masochistic relationship between Nazi and victim, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS was the stylistic template for this brand of entertainment. This Canadian production stands as one of the more gratuitous explorations of sexual abuse and violence against prisoners in a WWII environment. But it took the Europeans to truly mine the sexual sadism and queasy violence of this context. The seventies saw an onslaught of Nazi camp potboilers, including The Beast in Heat, The Gestapo's Last Orgy, and SS Girls. Eventually suffering failing box office due to lack of originality, the Nazisploitation film died a quick death, finding little welcome for its nihilistic message. Political correctness (a social dictate disturbingly close to Hitler's policies) and cultural timidity has silenced this mean-spirited genre . . . until now. Storming across selected movie screens throughout May 2008, director/producer Keith J. Crocker's Blitzkrieg : Escape From Stalag 69 is a balls-out return to the gory glory days of old -- a film that spits in your face with unadulterated bad taste, lavish nudity, and hearty gore. Based on an idea originally conceived in 1995 by Crocker, the re-written screenplay was completed in Spring 2005. The result is one of the harshest films of the 21st century.

Daring every breach of taste and decency, Blitzkrieg strives first and foremost to evoke strong reaction. A love child of terror and tastelessness, this ode to subjugation offers the adventurous film fan all the visual decadence and thematic outrages one would expect in Nazisploitation while retaining its own identity. Obvious is the delight in the abuse/exploitation of the female. More impressive is a story that focuses as deeply on the breaking of minds and emotions as the abuse of flesh. This cinematic problem- child goes still further, working from the grief-stained memories of historical atrocities that are still capable of rousing anger and fear. Blitzkrieg stays true to this template, stirring into its plot medical experiments, sexual victimization, POW theatrics, and an attempt at historical accuracy. This amoral shocker disturbs not only by cataloguing the atrocities committed against prisoners in a POW camps, but dares us to enjoy the sexual brutality and violence. While Crocker takes the time to tell a story instead of being satisfied to simply use a flimsy plot upon which to hang sensationalism, the sub-plots of freedom fighters and inner political conflict do little to soften the blow. This surprisingly thoughtful and unapologetically repugnant full frontal assault against expectation is as emotionally daring as it is shamelessly crass, dealing with such themes as love, despair and culpability. Amidst the requisite shocks are moments of psychological insight, human struggle and desperation. Of course the true aesthetic goal of the film is a steady explosion of breasts, blood, and brutality -- a cinematic kick to the teeth.

"In Germany 1945, there exists an infamous prisoner of war camp run by a ruthless Commandant by the name of Helmet Schultz. The camp houses various American, Russian and British prisoners, but the paranoid, megalomaniac Schultz has decided to use the prisoners for a series of unorthodox experiments which satiate his twisted psycho sexual mind more so than advance science. When he isn't busy experimenting on people, then he's torturing them mercilessly in an attempt to extract information that they couldn't possibly know. Helmet's sidekick, Wolfgang, loves to inflict cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners, and delights at the broad powers he has been handed by the Third Reich, as does Helmet's sister Frieda. An American GI, Jack Jones, is convinced that if he and his men quietly await liberation, they will be slaughtered senselessly, hence Jack must rally the British and Russian prisoners together, and due to internal conflicts, this is not an easy task. Furthermore, the Gestapo has gotten word of Helmet's abuses and have every intention of shutting him down before word can escape regarding his conduct toward the prisoners. And then there's a female Russian front fighter who despite the endless torture inflicted upon her, has ideas regarding an overthrow all her own…"

Bringing to mind everything from Bruno Mattei's wonderfully insane Nazi Bordello flesh fests to Love Train 7, Blitzkrieg is something of a 'best of' compilation documenting and modernizing the visceral outrages and emotional threats of Nazisploitation. The moral ambiguity and versatile tone matches the far reaching notes of the story, tragic one moment and cheesy the next. Both serious Grindhouse and a parody of the sub-genre, Crocker crafts with this modern reinterpretation of sex camp shenanigans a low budget masterwork impossible for devotees of dementia to ignore. Beginning his independent onslaught with the low budget yet enthusiastic The Bloody Ape, Crocker has followed his simian shriek fest with a movie sure to keep him banned from polite society. Owner/operator of Cinefear Video (a rare film preservation company and entertainment website), Crocker strikes one as a no nonsense, down to earth gentleman with an earnest love for genre cinema and both the knowledge and skills to match. Compensating for a lack of funds with imaginative prowess and an ability to cull together impressive talents from various spectrums of the independent film community, Crocker makes even his defects work. The down and dirty look of the film reflects the harsh themes of the story, and the tone -- alternating between tongue-in-cheek parody and white knuckle gut churner -- creates an uneasy and utterly enjoyable roller coaster of emotions. If you feel slightly dirty enjoying all this, that may very well be the point. In the midst of promoting the film, Crocker was kind enough to set down with Sex Gore Mutants and chat about his time behind the trenches.

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William P. Simmons: In 1997 you released The Bloody Ape. How did this project come about? How difficult was crafting the film, and how did this influence your preparation and directorial duties for Blitzkrieg?

Keith Crocker: Bloody Ape was shot in '92, but the transfer from Super 8mm film to video and the final edit wasn't completed until '97. The project came about because I was unable to find "Paying" work within the New York Industry. Hence I forged ahead and made my own film. I used Edgar Allen Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" for inspiration; I just brought the tale up to modern standards. Though it seemed a difficult film to make at the time, it was a breeze compared to Blitzkrieg. Basically, it was a slasher film in which the slasher was a gorilla as opposed to a slasher. Using a 40's style monster for a film made in the 90's (but which is supposed to take place in the 70's. Go figure!

Blitzkrieg WS: What was the creative and financial impetus for Blitzkrieg? What are your aesthetic and/or commercial goals for the film?

KC: Creatively, I wanted to explore the mind of a socio path, and that's what the lead character in the film is. Wars allow sociopaths to act out, hence why I stuck my nut in a war situation. It's not an anti war film because as long as there's people on this planet, they'll be wars. Wars of all sorts going on, not just big guns, but people suing each other in court, fighting with other drivers while driving, etc… it's all war, and it's all human. Finance was the same it was for Bloody Ape, 'O.' I can make movies because I'm cheap, don't get into financial headaches, yet somehow a can pull a film off on a dime. Commercially, I'd like to see it sell well on DVD and have folks enjoy it because it's not the usual no budget horror shit. Aesthetically, I hope people can watch the film and learn more about human behavior, understand what makes us tick, and why.

WS: Describe the plot and theme for Blitzkrieg.

KC: Blitzkrieg tells the story of a sociopath Commandant who runs a prisoner of war camp. He's a frustrated scientist so he likes to conduct unorthodox experiments on the various prisoners of war he has in captivity. Both the prisoners have had enough of his abuse, and so has the SS, who don't want blood spilled on the account of this idiot and his knuckle headed ideas. Hence his landscape grows smaller and smaller by the day as the prisoners and the SS decide this guys fate.

WS: How is this film going to be unique from other Nazisploitation movies? How is it similar? What about it will please the fans, and how might it surprise their expectations?

KC: I've given folks a gory film with a really good plot and dialog. You'll be able to really root for certain characters, get involved in the story, maybe learn a thing or two about people, and even have some laughs and gasps. There are good guys and bad guys on both sides, we don't choose favorites nor do we condemn. We just play it out as it happens, and everything comes together like a puzzle. I believe people will like it because I respect horror and war films and I didn't turn this thing into a campy spoof to cover up the fact that I can't write or direct. I write and direct very well, and I think this film reflects that. It will surpass what most people think they are going to get.

WS: What is your own interest in the genre?

KC: One, it's a period piece, and I'm not too fond of contemporary cinema. I love stories about the past, hence my interest in period pieces. Two, it takes place in Europe, and being descended from Europeans, I feel I must make my "European" film, as Bloody Ape is without a doubt my "American" film. I could have easily set the story in a Russian Gulag, or a Japanese prisoner of war camp, or during the Civil War, or Vietnam, but we choose WWII because the costume guy and production designer, Keith Matturro, is a WWII expert (in fact he's writing a five volume set on the German navy) and he had German costumes, plus he can fabricate pieces as needed. With him in tow, it was easy to green light this film.

WS: What particular vision, talents, skills or experiences did you bring to the film?

KC: I love to write dialog, I love to make people talk. It was a joy putting words in people's mouth, enforcing their ideas, bringing characters to life. This is what I do. I satire humanity by forcing them to look at themselves. My films should be used as a road map to tell people how not to behave. Point is, rather than cardboard cut outs, I think I gave you some juicy characters to watch. Plus the hybrid angle of war film, horror film, it's like a fine salad full of different things. We got more nudity than you can shake a stick out (full frontal male nudity as well). The girls are lovely, half the cast is from Europe, and hence we got that down home flavor!

WS: Do you feel genre films explore elements of existence in ways that other genres aren't capable of?

KC: Good exploitation and violent films do. Not all films are good, so time and time again the subject is mishandled, but the best of the genre explores the human condition through the most extreme of emotions, and when handled well, you get a film that is like therapy, or at it's most base level, an enema, it cleans your soul of all the dirt life forces on it.

WS: How did you become interested in filmmaking? Cult and exploitation movies in particular?

KC: Originally, I painted. When I was in the 6th grade, I painted scenes from movies, taken right out of the pictures in the Horror Movies book by Denis Gifford. Finally, a friend of mine introduced me to the Super 8mm camera. It was love at first sight. I thought it would be more fun to create images of horror rather than drawn and paint them. My first Super 8mm epic was a 20 minute piece called Dracula is Alive and Well and Living in Hewlett (Hewlett was the name of the town I grew up in). In High School one of my first jobs was making films for a Phobia Clinic. From there it just snowballed to Blitzkrieg.

Blitzkrieg WS: What were the particular emotional, aesthetic, and commercial goals for Blitzkrieg? What were some of the biggest challenges crafting a Nazisploitation flick for the 21st century?

KC: I wanted to annoy the politically correct. I wanted to create a stir. I wanted to bring respect back to the genre as companies such as Troma and E.I. Cinema have reduced horror films to the lowest and stupidest point they've ever reached. Basically, they reduced horror to porn, and bad porn at that. I want to see a brand new underground emerge that respects the genre. The biggest challenge was trying to make Long Island, NY look like Europe, but we did that by shooting carefully and picking some nice, dated locations.

WS: The Nazisploitation genre is infamous for its unrepentant delight in savagery, political incorrectness, and sexual-sadistic violence. How do you feel about this unsettling form of storytelling? Do you see the sexual excesses and violence as art or simple entertainment? How do you think the mainstream press and moral watchdogs will respond?

KC: If you can make a good film with a good story, violence and sex can be art. I believe horror films should rip your guts out; they should be an unrelenting experience that kicks you in the stomach and never says "sorry". I hope the critics get bent out of shape and hoot and holler, but some may really like it, and that's fine too.

WS: How did members of your cast and crew react/respond to the outrageous content of the film?

KC: When I ran ads looking for talent I spelled out that this was an unusually violent film and those with a weak disposition should not apply. I also stressed the nudity, this way I could avoid the curious who dip their toes but never take the plunge. The cast I ended up with loved the screenplay; hence the surprise element didn't exist or become a problem.

WS: Are their any juicy stories or mishaps you can relate from on set?

KC: Too many to repeat here, but one funny story involved this actress from Romania who played a torture victim. This gal was bawdy, and she was nude in body make-up that suggested beatings. Also, we had her face half burned off. Anyhow, she was enjoying a smoke in the back yard of where we were shooting. She heard the ice cream man coming down the street and wanted to go buy ice cream, butt naked, in her horror make-up. She dared us that she would do it, but I discouraged it because it could have gotten her or all of us arrested if she did!

WS: Tell our readers what to expect in terms of story, acting, and particularly the violence and sex in this new addition to cinematic atrocity.

KC: Story wise, you get a cool exploitation version of the play Stalag 17 mixed with the violence of flicks like Witchfinder General and Mark of the Devil, two of my favorite films. Sex wise, we have some beautiful female and male bodies, and we have a hot sex scene between a Russian girl and a German soldier that ends up very, very messy. Russian girls can be just as dangerous as Irish girls, so watch out who you date!

WS: Do you feel at all uncomfortable using real atrocities for exploitative entertainment?

KC: The violence in this film is exaggerated; I didn't per say recreate real SS methods of prisoner interrogation. The violence in this film illustrates were Helmets Schultz's head is at. It's all sexually motivated; hence it's a product of a crazy man. In most cases American prisoners of war weren't treated all that bad. Russians weren't treated to well because Nazi's hated communists more than anything. The main catalyst for the cruelest torture in the film is a visiting Japanese General. Now, the Japanese treated prisoners of war like shit, so I guess that's the closest I come to bridging a reality.

WS: Many critics, audiences, and even genre devotees find these films tasteless, cruel, and morally reprehensible. How do you answer these people?

KC: See the film first before you judge it. Give it a try; don't dismiss it based on word of mouth or just from seeing the trailer.

Blitzkrieg WS: How do you respond to the charge that violent cinema inspires audiences (children and adults) to mimic the antisocial behavior illustrated on the screen? Further, what do you feel your responsibility to people is as a filmmaker? Do you have any qualms about directing these pictures or do you feel the assumption that they are somehow 'dangerous' itself irresponsible or ridiculous?

KC: Horror films are therapy; they do more good than they could possibly do bad. Mass murderers may collect or watch horror films, but their condition existed way before the horror film did. Horror movies are good for people, more folks should watch them. Bad horror films don't screw you up, they just waste your time. Still, no harm done!

WS: Blitzkrieg steps back in time with authentic period costumes and meticulous set designs, harkening back not only to the golden age of Nazi exploitation cinema but emitting a feeling of actually 'experiencing' this time period. How did you accomplish this? Who where the many people responsible for capturing this atmosphere?

KC: Certainly Costume man and Production Designer Keith Matturro, and Director of Photography and Lighting Design Jim Knusch are two of the most important men when it came to creating an air of authenticity. Jim comes from a film background, hence he knows how to compose a shot and light it. Keith Matturro knows the history, hence he can add little things that most folks wouldn't think to do. They both made this film truly an experience that is felt, not just watched.

WS: Most impressive in Blitzkrieg is the organic feeling you achieve - the pain, the desperation, the decadence. How did you achieve this?

KC: You have to call upon your own sense of desperation and pain in order to make a film like this. You have to put yourself emotionally in the same position as what your characters are going through. Once you do that, your mind set is in place and your set to go. The director sets the mood, so if the misery is there, that's my ability to help create as authentic a piece as possible.

WS: How do you make stories centering on pain and torture, modeled after real atrocities, 'fun' (for lack of a better word)?

KC: My film explores psychology rather than attempt to apologize for war, which will always be with us. But by being able to identify and understand the sociopath, you can often intercede and stop tragic things from happening. The fun is in the way we wrote the characters, not so much the way we torture them.

WS: Did you approach this sensitive subject matter seriously and with an eye towards tragedy or wholly embrace the unapologetic sleaze factor of the sub-genre?

KC: I treat the film as a classic tale of the tragic, but like all tragic things humor is present, irony, etc…So I made sure all of this was present in the film. I made the violence hopefully kick ass rather than per say gratuitous. I wanted you to feel the pain rather than just blur your vision with pints of blood!

WS: How difficult was getting funding for this controversial type of movie?

KC: None, because I financed it myself, and I'm cheap and cleaver hence the film was very inexpensive to make.

WS: How did Wild Eye come to distribute your film?

KC: Rob Hauschild, who runs Wild Eye, was looking for some good, new, bold cinema to distribute. He loved Blitzkrieg just from the still pictures, long before it was ever finished. The deal was made based on the production value alone!

WS: What will you and Wild Eye be doing to promote the film?

KC: Old school exploitation style… Grindhouse oriented trailer, posters, lobby cards, the works. Live personal appearances' were ever the film is playing. Give a ways, direct contact with audience, everything the major companies won't give you!

WS: Your professional movie posters and lobby card sets bring to mind the gory-glory days of old in exploitation advertising. How do these materials reflect the movie?

KC: They reflect the mindset we had in mind for advertising the film. The film delivers the goods, but it also will appeal to folks who love other genres such as war films, psychological thrillers, etc…

WS: Describe your directing process.

KC: For this film, hands off, I allowed my actors to interpret the characters the way they felt they could bring life to them in a semi realistic way. I was too hard on the actors during Bloody Ape, so this time I tried a different approach and I fell I've gotten a very satisfying result. It's trusting your cast and allowing them to bring something unique to the table. I spent more time with the camera man and costume guy to get visuals that were as close to what I wrote as I could possibly get.

WS: Describe a day 'on set' while you were making Blitzkrieg.

KC: You start up with energy and you end up exhausted, too little hands to help out, hence you're your own crew. Sometimes you misjudge how long a shoots going to take, and a four hour day becomes eight. But, we all liked and were comfortable with each other hence taking breaks and eating and drinking in each others company made it all so much fun.

WS: What are your plans for the future?

KC: Rest and lots of it. I'm working on two screenplays now, and I have two documentaries in the works for Wild Eye for early next year. It's all good!

Special thanks to Keith Crocker and Rob H at Wild Eye Releasing - Check out the official Blitzkrieg site here

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