Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten Mahn- und Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück

Silken Floss – The female NS-perpetrator in popular culture. A conversation with Ingrid Bettwieser, Educational department

There is one object in the exhibition that stands out because it is not a historical one: the action figure Silken Floss. What do we actually look at?

Silken Floss is an action figure from the US brand Hot Toys, a so-called merchandise product from the 2008 film The Spirit.

The Spirit was a film adaptation of a very early US comic. The superhero - also called The Spirit - is by Will Eisner, one of the most renowned comic authors ever.

Eisner has a Jewish background, and created the character The Spirit during World War II. The Spirit is a kind of detective who assists the police in fighting crime in a town called Moloch, where he meets the super villain Octopus. If you look at The Spirit comics today, you can clearly see the allusion to Nazi Germany.

In the 2008 film adaptation, Scarlett Johansson embodied the character Silken Floss, a doctor and the helper of the villain Octopus. And while Silken Floss in the comic strip has brown hair and wears a doctor's white coat, in the film adaptation she becomes a blonde in a black SS uniform.

Although the film was a flop, director Frank Miller is one of the most famous comic authors and directors of all time, so that the film has pop-cultural relevance, especially online.

If you take a closer look at the characters, it is quite striking that Scarlett Johansson as an internationally known actress is clearly recognisable here in the 'Johansson look'. So we are dealing with a figure who is deemed desirable in the common sense of pop culture.

What I think is striking is the uniform, which is so detailed: it can be closed and opened, then there is the cap with the skull and the imperial eagle.

The sexualisation of the figure is very clear: the high heels of the boots, the décolleté emphasised by a stylised iron cross with a red stone as necklace, plus the red lips. Then there are her glasses that evoke another comic porn image, that of the 'sexy librarian'.

 

How do you situate the appearance of Silken Floss - the Nazi perpetrator in pop culture - in the historical context of the action figures?  

The history of these figures is quite complex. I would therefore like to single out two strands of discourse. One is the historically well definable interweaving of pop culture and economic marketing. On the other hand, there is the pop-cultural, in fact very advanced iconisation of female perpetrators, and specifically of female Nazi perpetrators.

If we take a closer look at the former - the area of pop culture and economic marketing - we can say quite precisely when comics, action figures/toys and later films began to be marketed as a media package.

The Barbie we all know was launched by Mattel in 1955, but it wasn't until 1964 that the first G.I. Joe figure appeared, a soldier figure that was commercially successful. And G.I. Joe then grew into a series of soldier figures and agents: the action figures.

I would say that from the 1970s at the latest, it was common practice for pop culture in the field of comics, then from the 1990s increasingly through films, to be marketed in combination with action figures.

I think that with the success of superhero films over the last ten years, this phenomenon has increased immensely. Action figures are now a market sector in their own right.

The figures are not toys for children, but are aimed specifically at adults, especially masculine-encoded collectors who can meet in Internet forums. The aim is to collect these figures, to show the collection. The market value increases the older the figure is, especially if the packaging is intact.

If you search the internet, there are an insane number of these figures in matching look, figures encoded as NS-perpetrators. They always wear the SS uniform, they are always strongly sexualised female figures, there is always the blonde hair, always the red lips.

And that brings us to the second strand of discourse: the iconisation of NS-perpetrators and thus also to the increasing sexualisation of NS-perpetrators. Both are well advanced in pop culture.

I would argue that perpetration in concentration camps has been the subject of pop-cultural imaginations for several decades. In pop culture, concentration camp perpetrators are the ciphers, the metaphors for the ''absolute evil''. Well-known markers are the so-called Nazi Exploitation films, e.g. Ilsa. She Wolf of the SS, or the Madame Hydra figure from the Marvel universe.

Some people post on Instagram about the Ravensbrück concentration camp guard Irma Grese and describe her as a "reptilian creature" - not unlike the Hydra figure. Most recently, the series Hunters was published on Amazon Prime; there too, these constellations of figures appear, albeit in passing. 

As with our exhibition piece, the figures are always strongly interwoven with a fetish - the uniform, the décolleté, the red lips - thus always associated with fantasies that have pornographic connotations.

If you check out Youtube clips from the film The Spirit where Silken Floss appears, you will also find user comments such as "well, the film was bad, but great, awesome, cool characters", "great breasts", and a lot more sexually explicit comments.

 

How does this affect your educational work?

In the didactics of history there is a theory which states that our view of the past is shaped by so-called historical imaginations: Images in our heads that arise from historical culture, virulent, widespread images of history.

The image of the female NS-perpetrator in the field of pop culture is, in my opinion, such an imaginative image of the past - not only a widespread image, but also a highly successful one. It is everywhere.

The American philosopher bell hooks argues that pop culture has a decisive influence on our learning. She regards pop culture as what really reaches out to people, as a place of learning for the society as a whole. Pop culture represents society, it narrates of society. 

Pop-cultural imagination, like the image of the female Nazi perpetrator, is commonly used in social networks, Instagram, etc. and is constantly being expanded in this network. In this way, fictions become anchored, are consolidated, can be accessed at any time, and are thus fundamentally formative as a world of access or imagination, as a narrative about Nazi perpetrators, about concentration camp wardens, yet largely detached from historical reality.

An appropriation of historical imaginations does not, in my opinion, happen consciously. Nevertheless, these imaginations are becoming more and more solid. This is exactly where we arrive at the experiences from our educational work.

What we hear again and again from visitors, and this is not age-group specific at all, is the idea that female guards and female perpetrators were more brutal than the men, that they were exceedingly cold, exceedingly merciless - and this is always tied to the stereotype of beauty, to the cold, merciless beast. And we find this stereotype too in Silken Floss, who is blond for a reason.

What does this mean for our educational work? I think it's quite exciting that with this action figure, we now have an object in the new exhibition that presents and evokes precisely these imaginary worlds, and thus provides us with an opportunity to engage in a conversation about these imaginary worlds, an opportunity that must be used.

I also expect quite clearly that in the photographic self-explorations that we also conduct with our groups, this object will often be photographed by the groups, so that this alone will trigger discussions on the various reactions, ranging from "this is how I imagined it" to "this object outrages me deeply".

But it is also clearly not the first object I would show on a tour in this exhibition, for exactly the same reasons.