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While the horrific
atrocities committed against the Jews during the Holocaust can be recited by students of
history and schoolchildren alike, the persecution of homosexuals during Hitlers
reign of terror has yet to make a dent on the publics collective consciousness.
Whether it is the still-prevalent homophobia of society at large or the urge to put this
profound tragedy behind us, the stories of the victims who were sent to the death camps
for their sexuality remain largely untold.
Noted filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman
and Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet) aim to change that oversight
with Paragraph 175, an extraordinary new documentary that takes its title from
Germanys anti-homosexual law. A pre-war statute that stated that "unnatural sex
acts between persons of the male sex" may result in arrest and a loss of civil
rights, it was a key piece of legislation used by the Nazis to harass and later imprison
homosexuals during World War II. Narrated by Rupert Everett, the film blends archival
footage, WWII propaganda, and personal testimonials from camp survivors that paints a
devastating picture of the horrors of war - up close and terrifyingly personal.
Its the strength of the
filmmakers' commitment to provide a voice for a community long left voiceless that gives
the film its power. Whereas the reliance of many documentaries on the "talking
head" shot (the dry, static shot of people talking to the camera) can usually grind
the proceedings to a halt, it is the survivors stories, ranging from nostalgic
memories of youth to terrifying tales of their internment, that drives Paragraph 175.
The poignancy of their remembrances adds a human pulse to this dark chapter of history;
rarely have simple scenes of people reminiscing been so heartbreaking.
One survivor gleefully remembers when the Berlin of the Weimar period
was "the Gay Eden of Europe" and gay bar patrons would playfully scare each
other by yelling, "The police are coming!" while the faint-hearted ducked under
tables. The lighthearted tale takes on an eerie tone when the man later finds out the same
bars were kept operating for the purposes of "rounding up" suspected
"criminals of the state". Another man speaks of seeing his lover devoured by
dogs before his very eyes, and the story of a walk through "the singing forest"
where the screams of victims echo against the trees are enough to bring tears to the most
jaded of viewers.
Friedman and Epsteins
decision to focus on first-person accounts, while keeping everything in its proper
historical context, does more than elevate the film above the legion of History Channel
knock-offs detailing the agonies of war. They have done their homework, certainly (there
are aspects of WWII that not even a dyed-in-the-wool armchair general will know), but the
duo have a different agenda. The attention to all aspects of these survivors lives,
from their discovery of sexuality to their plea for recognition as victims of war decades
after their release, offers more than a body branded with a pink triangle. Rather, it is a
complex portrayal of life outside of the "norm" in an era when difference
equaled death. Through its humanization of history and celebration of the will to survive
in the face of unparalleled cruelty, Paragraph 175 becomes more than a sum of its
factual parts. It both fills in a crucial period of gay history and fleshes out the people
who lived through it; it is a document that not only asks for tolerance, but also pays
tribute to those who had to live without it and survived, nonetheless, to tell the tale.
- David Fear