When filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman went to the 1997 Amsterdam premiere of their documentary "The Celluloid Closet," based on Vito Russo's landmark survey of how gays and lesbians have been depicted in the movies, they met Dr. Klaus Muller, a German historian and European project director for the U.S. Holocaust Museum. They then embarked upon a collaboration with Muller, who had been researching gay survivors of the Nazis since the early '90s.
The result is their prize-winning new documentary, "Paragraph 175," which takes its title from the German anti-gay law passed in 1871 and enforced in East Germany until 1968 and West Germany until 1969.
At once illuminating, poignant and heartening, "Paragraph 175," eloquently narrated by Rupert Everett, calls attention to the fact that the Third Reich systematically targeted gay men as well as Jews, Gypsies, Communists and anyone else it deemed undesirable.
That gays were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, required to wear pink triangles, just as Jews had to wear yellow Star of David patches, is not all that well-known. A 1993 survey commissioned by the American Jewish Committee revealed that only half of the adults in Britain and only one-fourth of American adults knew that gays were victims of the Nazis.
What's more, the 20th century ended without any effort on the part of the German government to offer reparations to gay survivors, whose fate went unnoticed at the Nuremberg trials. Muller, who looks to be thirtysomething, tells us he grew up in Germany unaware of the Nazi treatment of gays.
In the course of the 12 years of the Third Reich, about 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality. Roughly half were sent to prisons and 10,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. Since most gay men were Gentiles, they were not slated for execution but were made slave laborers or subjected to medical experimentation; their death rate, however, is estimated to be as high as 60%--the highest percentage for non-Jewish victims of the Nazis.
By 1945, only 4,000 had survived. By the time "Paragraph 175" was shot, only 10 were known to be still alive, with two declining to participate. We meet six of them, with one man appearing only long enough to protest, "Oh, I've talked about this so much," and then refusing to say more.
While the Nazis regarded male homosexuality as contagious and therefore a threat to the Third Reich, they curiously viewed lesbianism as a "temporary, curable" condition. Only five lesbians are on record as having been sent to concentration camps, although the Nazis closed down lesbian bars as swiftly as gay bars and gathering places. Also participating in the film is Annette Eick, a lesbian and a Jew, who speaks of her miraculous escape to England while losing her entire family to Auschwitz. The Nazis were soon not only enforcing Paragraph 175, but also extending it. Gossip and innuendo were enough to have a man arrested and imprisoned without trial.
Through a treasure trove of vintage stills and archival footage the filmmakers evoke the glittering high life of Weimar Republic Berlin, a center of avant-garde art and literature and and a mecca for gays and lesbians, who could live openly at a time when pioneer gay activist Dr. Magnus Hirshfeld, founder of the prestigious Institute of Sexual Science, was leading a campaign to repeal Paragraph 175. Even with the rise of Hitler, gays, like many Jews, considered themselves Germans first, which in many instances slowed their response to danger. Many gays were also given a false sense of security when Hitler, shortly after coming to power, stood by Ernst Roehm, his burly chief organizer of the fearsome storm troopers, when Roehm came under fire for his well-known homosexuality. However, in the following year, 1934, during the notorious Night of the Long Knives, Roehm was murdered after he refused to commit suicide.
Gad Beck, Heinz Dormer, Pierre Seel, Heinz F. and Albrecht Becker, ranging in age from late 70s to mid-90s, recall with pleasure and amusement sexual adventures of long ago, many of them carried out in a spirit of defiance and at high risk. These men come across as sturdy survivors, which provides uplifting and crucial contrast to the terrible stories they have to tell. Alsatian Seel recounts, among other atrocities, witnessing a concentration camp friend being eaten alive by German shepherd dogs.
Especially moving is the dignified Heinz F., who beginning in 1935 spent nearly nine years in concentration camps, returning home to help his brother run the family store without ever speaking of his ordeal until, at age 93, he recounts for this documentary his experiences for the first time. There are tears shed for the dozen friends he witnessed being summarily shot to death, but at the end of his account, he says with a smile, "I've got a thick skin, no?" As for Heinz Dormer, not only did he spend nearly a decade behind bars for Paragraph 175 violations, being released only with the war's end in 1945, he spent another eight years in prison for post-World War II arrests.
Reparations, should they ever be made, seem unlikely to arrive in time for these men. Muller, however, has seen to it that the experiences of gays during the Third Reich have been acknowledged and preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Museum.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: Persecution accounts are too stark and intense for youngsters.
A New Yorker Films release of a Telling Pictures production. Producers-directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman. Producers Michael Ehrenzweig, Janet Cole; co-producer Howard Rosenman. Director of research/associate producer Klaus Muller. Writer Sharon Wood. Cinematographer Bernd Meiners. Editor Dawn Logsdon. Music Tibo Szemzo. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.
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