Paragraph 175 (movie review)

51Z0M4V12NL._SL500_AA300_Title: Paragraph 175
Directed by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Narrated by: Rupert Everett
Genre: Documentary
Length: 81 minutes
Buy LinkAmazon:
Year released: 2000
Rating: N/A

A guest review by Leslie

In a nutshell: Painful to watch, at times, but very interesting documentary that recounts the persecution of homosexuals during WWII in Nazi Germany.

Blurb:

By the 1920s, Berlin had become known as a homosexual Eden, where gay men and lesbians lived relatively open lives amidst an exciting subculture of artists and intellectuals. With the coming to power of the Nazis, all this changed. Between 1933 and 1945 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality under Paragraph 175, the sodomy provision of the German penal code dating back to 1871. Some were imprisoned, others were sent to concentration camps. Of the latter, only about 4,000 survived. Today, fewer than ten of these men are known to be living. Five of them have now come forward to tell their stories for the first time in this powerful new film. The Nazi persecution of homosexuals may be the last untold story of the Third Reich. Paragraph 175 fills a crucial gap in the historical record, and reveals the lasting consequences of this hidden chapter of 20th century history, as told through personal stories of men and women who lived through it: the half Jewish gay resistance fighter who spent the war helping refugees in Berlin; the Jewish lesbian who escaped to England with the help of a woman she had a crush on; the German Christian photographer who was arrested and imprisoned for homosexuality, then joined the army on his release because he “wanted to be with men”; the French Alsatian teenager who watched as his lover was tortured and murdered in the camps. These are stories of survivors—sometimes bitter, but just as often filled with irony and humor; tortured by their memories, yet infused with a powerful will to endure. Their moving testimonies, rendered with evocative images of their lives and times, tell a haunting, compelling story of human resilience in the face of unspeakable cruelty. Intimate in its portrayals, sweeping in its implications, Paragraph 175 raises provocative questions about memory, history, and identity.

Review:

I was not familiar with Paragraph 175 prior to reading The Painting by F.K. Wallace. In that book, Stefan and Gunter are arrested and sent to Birkenau under the provisions of this law. When the camp is liberated by the Soviets, Stefan is informed that he has served 9 months of a 10 year sentence and is sent to prison in Krakow and finally released in 1954. Not only has he lost a decade of his life, he is convicted criminal; this informs the next 30 years of his life and is a driving force in the narrative of the story.

I have to admit, I was a little incredulous to read that a man could be sent to prison after the war’s end and managing to survive a sentence in a concentration camp. But, in doing a little research I found that this was, unfortunately, true. For many men (no one knows how many) it was an “administrative convenience” to accept that they were criminals and ship them off to jail.

It was in the course of doing this reading and research that I came across this documentary, so of course, I had to see it. I ordered up a used copy from Amazon (not available on Netflix) and settled down to watch it several times over the course of a week.

Filmwise, it’s a fairly straightforward documentary, with commentary from seven men and one woman telling their stories, mixed in with archival footage. The commentaries are edited to present their stories chronologically, starting with happy days in Berlin and moving forward through the years as the persecution becomes direct and intense. The movie wraps up with brief synopsis of each person, detailing what happened to them after the war and where they are now. Since the movie was made eleven years ago, I suspect that many of these survivors have since died.

Thank goodness this movie was made and the stories of these survivors were documented, because it is a period in history about which there is little extant information. There are no exact numbers—“maybe” 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals were sent to concentration camps, “about” two-thirds of them perished. The filmmakers said that when they started this project, there were ten survivors still alive. They filmed seven of them and two declined to be interviewed.  It is not clear what happened to the tenth person.

In qualitative research there is a concept called “saturation”—that is, when the researcher starts hearing the same thing from the people s/he is interviewing. There was absolutely no saturation in the commentaries from these seven survivors which makes me wonder what stories we would have heard if 50 or 100 people were still alive to be interviewed. The scope and uniqueness of their experiences helped to make the documentary interesting but at the same time, it was quite horrifying to contemplate what other people might have gone through but didn’t survive to tell the tale—or if they survived, no one thought to document their stories until it was too late.

Would I recommend this film? If you like documentaries and WWII history then you will probably find this as interesting as I did. I will be honest, however—the movie is not easy to find and probably only a handful of people would be as motivated as I was to watch this—and as I said above, I had a fairly specific reason for seeking this out.

NB: I didn’t give this a rating because putting a number of stars on the stories of these people’s lives seems a little crass and insensitive. As I said about, filmwise it’s quite typical of the genre—no big surprises in technique or style.

All in all, between reading The Painting, watching this movie, and doing some more research online, I have learned a great deal about a specific event and time in history that I previously knew little about—and that’s a good thing. Now I am ready to dive into Buy LinkA Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski.

Sometimes I am just a glutton for punishment.  😀

 

12 comments

  • In case anybody’s interested (and has a good enough grasp of the German language), there’s a very good documentary by Rosa von Praunheim called Tote Schwule – Lebende Lesben”. Quote from the English language synopsis:

    “The male protagonists on the other hand all belong to a generation that experienced the Third Reich and Germany at its most repressive point in history. Praunheim makes use of material he himself filmed of his now deceased protagonists in order to create a series of compelling portraits. Walter Schwarze and Albrecht Becker were both imprisoned during the Nazi era. One of the men suffered from depression and was almost broken by the experience; the other, a self-confessed masochist, enjoyed his life in prison. Entertainer Joe Luga remembers the post-war era. As a cabaret singer he once performed in women’s clothes before German troops on the Russian front – but it wasn’t until Adenauer’s government came to power that he found himself behind bars.”

    The film is available on YouTube.

    Reply
  • Woah, this is something I wasnt aware of and I studied history. Very scary to know how far human can go to destroy something, or someones, they don’t agree with. Scary.

    Very good and insightful review! 🙂

    Reply
    • As I said in the review, it was the book The Painting that made me aware of this–and I also thought I knew quite a bit about the history of that time. Live and learn!

      L

      Reply
  • I would add in also I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror, as another worthwhile read. John Simpson latest offering Undefeated love is a fiction title on the topic, which I am currently reading.

    Reply
  • Have you read the book the men with the pink triangle. It is about paragraph 175. I had to stop several times and it took me about a month to read a very short book.
    I saw this film in german and it was a stretch for me. I’m glad the English version has been released.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the recommendation, Tish. I see one of the authors is Klaus Mueller. He’s the historian who conducts many of the interviews in this documentary. Sounds like a book I need to read!

      My copy of the movie has English subtitles. The woman who is interviewed, Annette, speaks in English. One of the men, Albrecht, speaks in English at the beginning, when he’s talking about his first lovers. But when he gets to the part about being arrested and imprisoned, he switches to German. I wondered if that was a conscious decision and he realized he did this?

      L

      Reply
  • The really perverse thing was that the newly-minted “Federal Republic of Germany” (born in 1945) was in some ways more repressive than what came before – we’re talking lengthy harsh prison sentences and castration for gays longer after the Nazi terror was over.

    Reply
  • I watched this movie in 2001 or 2002, can’t remember exactly, in a small indie cinema in Heidelberg. It ran only 2 days and then disappeared from the program, so I was lucky to catch it.

    This movie made a deep impression on me. For a while, I read everything I could find on gay and lesbian history after 1920. It’s a good thing somebody gave those people a voice.

    BTW: Are you aware that in West- Germany Paragraph 175 was still in effect up until 1994 (German reunion)? (according to Wikipedia 44 persons were sentenced following this paragraph in its last year of existence.)

    Reply
    • Thanks, Feliz. It is a little distressing to think that this law was in place until 1994. But then, here in the US, we had states with anti-sodomy laws until 2003–all declared unconstitutional at that time by the Supreme Court. That’s a distressing fact, too.

      L

      Reply

Please comment! We'd love to hear from you.

%d bloggers like this: