At first glance Paragraph 175, a documentary by Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, doesn't appear to be must-see moviegoing. Epstein and Friedman are well-known award-winning documentarians with a string of notable successes: The Celluloid Closet, Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, and The Life and Times of Harvey Milk among them, all landmarks in both American documentary and gay history. But in this film the duo takes on the Nazi persecution against homosexuals before and during World War II, a war that has been examined before, lately, and often. And though the homosexual theme isn't all that common, it isn't all that rare either. The English play Bent has been produced on Broadway and in many American regional theaters, and the awareness of Nazi persecution of gays is pretty much common knowledge.
Paragraph 175's origins trace to Klaus Müller, a German historian with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Seeking to document Nazi suppression of gays, Müller sought out Epstein and Friedman to make a film, fearing that the few remaining survivors would die before their tales could be told. The three men agreed to collaborate on the project, which would involve Epstein and Friedman following Müller around Europe in search of survivors.
Epstein and Friedman have managed to give some vital new angles to this material, offering more than simply another Nazi victim tale. A key clue that there is something new here is in the title, Paragraph 175, which refers to an anti-gay law, not from the Nazi era but from the Nineteenth Century, a statute first ignored by the Nazis and then enforced brutally. As the film makes clear, paragraph 175 did not die with the collapse of the Nazi regime. Not only was it still on the books in 1968 Germany, but gay prisoners from Nazi concentration camps were rearrested and sent back to prison by post-Nazi regimes.
The bare facts of Paragraph 175 are barbarous. After the free living of the Twenties Weimar Republic, gay Germans faced increasing oppression when the Nazis came to power. The official party line initially was ambivalent regarding sexual preferences but then abruptly turned homophobic. An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals were imprisoned in concentration camps, with one-third dying there. Only ten were known to be living when this film was made. Though two of the survivors declined to be interviewed, the other eight (seven men and one woman) describe their experiences during that dark era.
Some of their tales are desperately sad. One old man, Heinz F., recalls how he was dragged away to serve eight years in the camps before being released. His family found a job for him and accepted him back with no questions or mention of where he had been, thereby relegating him to another less physical hell. After his great physical suffering, he was unable to express his story or share his feelings about it. Another man recalls the "singing trees" of a forest where gay escapees from the camps were captured, hung from trees, and tortured, their screams mingling with the wind.
Despite such unforgettable horror, some of this narrative is remarkably sweet. It's fascinating to watch some of these oldsters recall a prank or a romance or a mere moment from 60 years ago, plucking an indelible memory out of their murky past. Gad Beck, a resistance fighter, tells of his desperate rescue of his Jewish lover, Manfred, who was interned with his family at a police station and was about to be sent to the camps. To save Manfred Beck donned a Nazi uniform and bluffed his way in, demanding that police release Manfred to his custody. The ploy worked and he was freed, but while walking away, Manfred stopped and turned back, unable to abandon his family. He returned to the police without another word, and Beck never saw him or his family again. Beck's account is so clear, so detailed and emotionally honest, it's devastating. No mere actor could touch it.
It is these interviews that make this film so engaging. These survivors have been asked to dredge up memories of days long past and, one might think, best forgotten. But is it better to erase the past or try to comprehend it? Should these people marvel at their own survival or put it aside and move past their experiences? Many manage to find a nostalgia for the good times, only to suffer the stabs of painful memories recalled vividly.
The camera work of cinematographer Bernd Meiners wisely focuses on the faces of the survivors. However shaky some of them may seem, their spirit and courage to revisit past agonies are breathtaking. Some moments are unforgettable; for instance, when the poignancy of loved ones lost or opportunities not taken suddenly spring back to life. Interviews are punctuated with archival footage and photos that help illustrate the sober narration, spoken in soft solemn tones by Rupert Everett. There's also a leitmotif of motion as Müller journeys from city to city -- through Germany, France, and Spain -- in search of his interviews. As he travels by train, subway, and car, the camera lingers on the passing views, the rhythm of rails, on streets and scenery that rush by, a perfect visual expression of a time lived and lost and fading into the irretrievable past.
The result is a film not so much about Nazis or gays or docu-history but about memory and forgetting, about the passionate roil of self-awareness in a largely indifferent world. Like a few other great movies about the Holocaust (Alain Resnais's Night and Fog and Shoah), Paragraph 175 is one of those rare films that exceeds its intentions. Epstein and Friedman clearly have set out to document a fast-fading episode of gay history. They certainly achieve this, recording the facts as they found them. But this lyrical graceful film, full of contrasting horror and sweetness, also is a profound meditation on personal memory and social amnesia and on the basic human need to tell the stories of lives lived -- lives with great pain and confusion but experienced fully. This is transcendent cinema. Don't miss it.
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