The Sarnos – A Life in Dirty Movies

Wiktor Ericsson, 80 min, Sweden.

Joseph W. Sarno wrote and directed up to a hundred films in the sexploitation, softcore and hardcore genres. Starting out in New York in the 1960s he fell into directing sex films quite by accident, but soon established himself as a true pioneer of the genre, an erotic “auteur” with a unique artistic voice.

Joe’s films were influenced by Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, an influence you can see in his use of stark lighting, long takes and rigorous staging. His scripts frequently revolved around the liberation of repressed female characters through sexual experimentation and fulfillment. This was something that set him apart from other sexploitation filmmakers, who often portrayed women as passive victims in their films.

Peggy Steffans-Sarno started out as an actress in some of Joe’s early films. Rebelling against her conservative parents she married the 17-year-older erotic filmmaker and soon became his closest collaborator and muse.

In 1967 Joe and Peggy went to Sweden to make the film INGA. The film was a huge international hit and was thereby largely responsible for spreading the myth of ”Swedish Sin” all over the world. Sweden became Joe and Peggy’s second home as they continued to produce films there throughout the 70’s.

In the late 70’s hardcore pornography took over and Joe’s softcore sex melodramas went out of fashion. Reluctantly he had to give in to producers demanding more explicit sex instead of story. Joe continued directing hardcore films under various pseudonyms, until he finally retired from filmmaking.

In the last decade there has been a sudden resurgent of interest in Joe’s films. Joe and Peggy have been invited to tributes and retrospectives at the Torino Film Festival in Turin, the Cinématheque Française in Paris and the British Film Institute in London.

Joe’s late-found fame made it possible for him to return to his great passion in life – filmmaking. He worked on a new film project up until his death, April 26 2010.