Red Heat (1985, USA)
Red Heat has an (undeserved) reputation as an exploitative Women in Prison film. Not surprising, perhaps, given that’s how it’s marketed these days. But its standout feature is not sleaze, but the same sort of xenophobia that characterises prison films like Midnight Express (1978) and In Hell (2003). Who would have thought?
It stars Linda Blair as a Pennsylvanian college student, Christine Carlson, who travels to West Germany to marry her fiancé, Lt Mike Grainger (William Ostrander). Things don’t entirely go to plan. First, Mike reneges on an earlier pact and tells her that he has signed onto another couple of years in the Army. Chris is not pleased. She goes for a walk and witnesses Stasi agents kidnap scientist Dr Hedda Kleemann (Sue Kiel), who has defected from East Germany and has taken with her some secret biochemical documents. Caught in the act, they grab, bind and gag Chris, too, and smuggle both women into East Germany.
There, of course, they are thrown in prison and interrogated mercilessly. Sleep deprived, Chris ‘confesses’ to being a CIA agent, just so her accusers and the interrogation will stop. On the strength of that confession, she is later sentenced to three years for espionage.
Luckily for her, given that you might think that being in a foreign jail might be really onerous simply by not being able to speak the language, everyone speaks English. This must come as a great relief, for when she is being bullied and abused by fellow prisoners, she knows exactly what they are saying about her. And she discovers a number of other political prisoners, including an Englishwoman, Meg Facett (Barbara Spitz), who refers to herself as a political prisoner after getting caught trying to smuggle a child across the border.
The prison is grimly institutional, with cells seemingly stacked six storeys high. The warden, Einbeck (Elizabeth Volkmann), is a thin-browed woman who is having a slavish affair with a prisoner, Sofia (Sylvia Kristel), the prison’s top dog. The prisoners live in largish dormitories and are (nearly) all required to work in the factory for a pittance. Lillian (Dagmar Schwarz), Sofia’s right-hand-woman, is the leading hand in the factory. She, like quite a number of the women, sports a facial tattoo which looks like it was drawn with ball-point pen; if it were a sticker that you bought in a novelty shop you would return it for a refund. Looking ridiculous doesn’t stop Lillian from making life hard for Chris; indeed, none of the political prisoners are treated well by the local common criminals.
Despite their command of English, there are desperately few East Germans (prisoners or prison staff) who show the slightest degree of humanity. Two exceptions are Hetta (who initially believes the court’s assertion that it used Chris’s testimony to convict her, and so blames Chris for her 50-year sentence), and the vulnerable Barbara (Kati Marothy), who is raped and relentlessly bullied by Sofia and her crew, and eventually hangs herself. When she does, Chris can stand by and watch no more. Although she has been counselled that to take on Sofia will only result in more jail time, she attacks her, and is then joined by others… who all get extra time for assault. Hetta gets five years added on, Meg two and Chris three. Sofia gets zip.
Sofia has one more card up her sleeve. In retaliation for the post-suicide attack, she engineers a nasty workplace accident for Chris, and gets herself admitted to the prison hospital at the same time. What neither of them know, as Sofia is attempting to finish Chris off and Chris is heroically fighting back, is that Mike (frustrated by the US Embassy’s total lack of assistance) has decided on busting Chris out of jail himself. Joined by Hetta’s brother and assisted by an armed posse, he breaks into the prison via the drains and sewerage system to rescue her, and Hetta (and then several other political prisoners for good measure), in a blazing gunfight with casualties on both sides. Innocent American v East German vixen in tense fight; American sympathisers v Communist prison guards in tense gun battle: no prizes for guessing the outcomes.
All said and done, it’s a pretty standard women’s prison movie; innocent woman thrown up against a sadistic top dog, a warden who is not in control of her prison, a rape by a guard, rapes by prisoners, and a suicide. What’s different is the shadow cast by the Iron Curtain, from which the audience to expected to understand, implicitly, that the regime is cruel and brutal and corrupt. It sends this message very unsubtly. Most of the East German interrogators and lawmen are shown in silhouette only; they are faceless autocrats. A guard heartlessly screws up scores of letters written by prisoners to their loved ones. A film night for the women’s enjoyment starts with a wonderful propaganda piece: “In our Democratic People’s Republic we have no crime like in the West, merely social misperceptions correctible by re-education and a shining commitment on your part to the glorious ideals of the Communist Party.” And so on.
Yet, surprisingly, crossing the border is extraordinarily easy. Mike manages to enter, and then leave, the GDR with just perfunctory passport checks and no searches of the vehicles… not even when he’s wearing his Army uniform on the way out. I’ve had a tougher time getting into some football matches. Makes you wonder why all those East Germans were killed trying desperately to go over the Berlin Wall.
Thank God, we’re told, that some of us live in the free world - where we have crime and it is not yet compulsory to have hand-drawn tattoos on your face.
Posted on September 6th, 2016 at 9:02 pm. Updated on September 6th, 2016 at 9:02 pm.
#322 in the Top 500