Tenderness, horror and open eyes

'Paragraph 175' vividly documents gay life in Nazi Germany without oversimplification or sensationalism.

Film

April 01, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

The fearless documentary "Paragraph 175," which screens tomorrow night at the Baltimore Jewish Film Festival, explores gay life in the Third Reich with a unique, sensual rigor.

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman combine survivor interviews with archival materials, arriving at an audio- visual impressionism that superbly balances tenderness and horror.

"Paragraph 175" is named for the part of the German penal code condemning "an unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex, or by humans with animals."

Theatergoers who've seen "Bent" might expect a single-minded tale of persecution and resistance. Moviegoers who remember "The Damned" might think they're in for tales of orgies in the Nazi ranks. But Epstein and Friedman resist simplification in "Paragraph 175."

First, they depict the kaleidoscopic vitality of the gay world in Weimar Germany. It flourished both in the homosexual Mecca of Berlin and in rural provinces, where back-to-nature youth groups (whether religious, nationalist or Zionist), and clubs based on what used to be called "physical culture," inspired a romantic body consciousness.

Moviegoers are accustomed to German gays of that era cavorting in the "divine decadence" of "Cabaret." Seeing a gay component in healthy-mind / healthy-body cults brings a new dimension literally into the sunlight. The filmmakers suggest that the Hitler Youth seized and perverted this politically innocent movement through one campfire putsch after another.

Nazis confused

Then, the filmmakers show how confusing an issue homosexuality became once the Nazis took power. Because Ernst Roehm, the head of Hitler's bully-boy force, the S.A., was gay, the opposition painted the Nazis as a gang of homosexuals -- using anti-gay propaganda to advance a leftist cause. After Hitler purged the S.A. in the "Night of the Long Knives" (the subject of "The Damned") and made clear that homosexuality was an offense to National Socialist ideology and a sap on the Master Race, the government still failed to impose a common standard of punishment.

The Gestapo and police rarely rounded up gay women, considering lesbianism a phase rather than a lasting perversion. Gay men, however, could be jailed and sentenced to brief prison terms or thrown into concentration camps. Since most of these gays were both German and Christian -- and thus potential Aryan salvage -- the Nazis made no plans for a homosexual version of the Final Solution. Yet gays, who were shunned by other prisoners and used for medical experiments, suffered one of the highest death rates of any group of concentration camp inmates.

From this welter of political cross-purposes, judicial convolutions and mixed personal motives, Epstein and Friedman emerge with a movie both mural-like in its expanse and exact in its portraiture. They start with views of construction cranes dotting the horizon like great harbinger birds proclaiming the birth of a new, unified Berlin. It's as if the filmmakers are calling for an end to preconceptions and a fresh look at the Third Reich, and they lure us into their version immediately when a man named Gad Beck talks about the emotional heat of wartime: the pleasures of stealing love during air raids.

Beginning a movie about Nazi terror with a nostalgic memory is daring and, of course, germane. It instantly establishes Gad Beck as a vital, unpredictable character and brings home the particular lunacy of condemning men and women according to gender preference.

Beck, who is half-Jewish, joined and eventually led a Jewish underground group, managing to stay out of prison until 1944. When he talks of amour, Beck's tone is airy and sophisticated. But he trembles when he speaks of disguising himself as a Hitler Youth to walk his lover out of a Gestapo camp -- only to have the boy walk back to the camp to be with his family. "Paragraph 175" fights the temptation to evaluate the Nazi era in monolithic terms. It characterizes even the most atrocity-ridden chapters of its history as, in part, a series of individual conquests, defeats and improbable returns.

A feeling of vertigo

The filmmakers constantly trace the collision of personal idiosyncrasy and mass madness, leading to astounding revelations. When the audience first sees Albrecht Becker, we're inevitably drawn to him -- he's a dapper, charming guy. Like most of the interviewees, he's proud of his sexual adventures, laughing over his own youthful physique in photographs and pointing out an American as his "first exotic lover."

He talks about how glad he was that he was sent to prison instead of to a camp -- and then confesses that after being released, he joined the German Army because it was his only way to be near men. Suddenly, it's as if a viewer stumbles down

Albrecht's mental staircase. "Paragraph 175" is so well-made that it gives human contradiction the impact of vertigo.

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