Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Concentration of Hans

101 Enterprises Inc.

Were you so inclined, you could argue that Carl Coolen’s 1967 stroke novel The Concentration of Hans is marginally less offensive than highbrow Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmueller’s The Night Porter (1974).

Both traffic in Nazi/prisoner concentration-camp eroticism, but while Wertmuller dared suggest that Charlotte Rampling’s Jewish love-camp slave Lucia was deeply, irrevocably in love with SS officer Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), who used and degraded her, Coolen’s 14-year-old Hans Mueller quickly abandons any perverse fantasies that befriending some Nazi might save him: Hands simply vows “to stay alive at any cost, at any expense, even… submitting to the fondling and the cruel manipulation of the camp guards.”

Hans’ blonde, blue-eyed youth, of course, smacks of pedophiliac allure, but overall The Concentration of Hans strikes an appropriately appalled tone as it recounts his ordeal. Which is not to say that it isn’t one hot potato of a gay smut novel, reveling as it does in the teenager’s relentless torture and sexual humiliation.

Orphaned as an adolescent, Hans found refuge with brutish Dutch farmer Oskar, who taught him to pleasure other men and keep his needs and desires to himself. But when Oskar tried to rape him, Hans resisted and was caught midflight by Nazi invaders. Hans and fellow hot young thing Pieter are bought at a humiliating slave auction by decadent Lieutenant Haas, who get off on pitting the boys against one another. The prize is never specified and “winner” Pieter gets nothing more than the privilege of being Haas’ girl for the night and a bullet in the head in the morning.

Hans is soon shipped to Bergen Belsen, where he falls in love with swarthy, equally well-endowed Yugoslavian youth Joseph: Each gives the other a reason to endure the hunger, pain and mortification of their daily torment. Hans is flogged and raped, sucks and fucks uniformed men of all ages and watches the guards sic sex-crazed dogs on boys just like him. The nadir comes when he’s chosen for a potency experiment and, under the influence of libido-enhancing drugs, viciously rapes four boys no less helpless and brutalized than himself. And “then the bombers came.”

The Concentration of Hans ends with Josef and Hans strolling on a Riviera beach, both still startlingly young and comely in their abbreviated swimsuits. Hans has reinvented himself as one Henri Maleaux (which, for what it’s worth, means “bad waters”) and is on the verge of achieving French citizenship. Both are haunted by things they’d rather forget – things so shameful that neither wants to share them even with one of the few others who would understand -- but grateful that they survived when so many others died.

For all its sleaziness, there’s something perversely endearing about Hans, something that has nothing to do with Coolen’s lurid evocation of love camp atrocities and everything to do with Hans’ fundamental decency: It’s tough not to root for him, even when basic empathy bleeds the hot right out of most of the baroquely twisted situations in which Hans finds himself.

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