Die Sklavinnen begins with its first frame narrative: a young prostitute wanders into a police station and claims she was kidnapped, drugged, and forced into prostitution by a woman named Princess Arminda (Lina Romay). Cut to the exterior of an island prison where Arminda is escaping. Arminda is beaten and captured by the henchman (Franco) of wealthy businessman Amos Radeck (Victor Mendés). Radeck demands to know where his daughter is: he believes Arminda captured her and forced Radeck to pay five million dollars ransom for her release. Arminda says she knew his daughter but did not kidnap her. Thus, Arminda begins the second frame narrative of Die Sklavinnen: she begins by detailing her story of first meeting young Martine Radeck (Martine Stedil).
Martine Stedil was one of the cooler actresses with whom Franco was able to collaborate during his Dietrich period. Stedil had an important but less focal role in one of my all-time favorite Franco films, Downtown—die Nackten Puppen der Unterwelt (1975). So, it was exciting that Stedil would be the focal character, albeit still a character in an ensemble piece, in Die Sklavinnen. In one of the cuter sequences of the film, Arminda attempts to seduce Martine. The humorous part is neither Romay nor Stedil are wearing undergarments, and each’s dress slides off in one tug. “Tell me if make any mistakes,” says Martine, playing a very shy submissive. Arminda, despite admitting to her lover Raimond (Ramón Ardid) that she has fallen in love with Martine, eventually drugs her and forces her into prostitution. In the film’s best scene, after several collaborators have identified Martine as the millionaire’s daughter, Martine gives a loopy, disassociated speech when confronted about her past. Because of the drugs, she cannot remember much and that she does remember is in bits and pieces. Martine still attempts to seduce her confronter while simultaneously wanting to let go and be left alone: it is one of those weird, poetic sequences that Franco is known for, and shamefully too little is included in Die Sklavinnen.
Die Sklavinnen is undeniably dirty but is nowhere near as sexy as Downtown or another Dietrich production like Das Bildnis der Doriana Gray (1976). Franco’s obsessive eye is gone from his camera (Peter Baumgartner says he only shot a few scenes in Portugal but is the credited director of photography.) (*) I wish he would have treated Stedil to his trademark lingering camera gazes and just, in general, made her the focus of the film. Die Sklavinnen has an interesting kidnapping plot, but even at seventy-five minutes, it feels as if it is being padded out with conversation and filler. Downtown, for example, had a really cool scene where Romay sang a song in a cabaret. In Die Sklavinnen, there is only a few short dance sequences (one in the same cabaret setting from Downtown). The film also oscillates in tone: most of the film is fairly serious in tone, but there are ridiculous comedic scenes, like when a john meets his prostitute and her parrot makes off-color jokes about his virility. Tonal inconsistency can be very effective in cinema, but in Die Sklavinnen it feels like Franco got bored and preferred to shoot comedy on that particular day.
Die Sklavinnen is not a bad film: besides its actresses, it has great locations (as do most of the Dietrich productions). Walter Baumgartner’s music is really catchy and cool. Die Sklavinnen belongs in that realm where you have seen too many Jess Franco films, and you are really watching anything that he has made to get a Franco fix. Die Sklavinnen is familiar, mostly uninspired, and mildly entertaining in Jess Franco’s lesser tier of films.
* Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco. Eds. Lucas Balbo and Peter Blumenstock. Graf Haufen & Frank Trebbin. Germany: 1993. P. 131.