Title: Paragraph 175
Directed by: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
Narrated by: Rupert Everett
Length: 81 minutes
Year released: 2000
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.
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.
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. 😀