When Life Was No "Cabaret"
"Paragraph 175" filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman testify
about the Nazi persecution of gay men.
Salon, September 7, 2000
706 Mission St., Second Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: ( 415 ) 882-8731
By Michael Sragow
The makers of "The Times of Harvey Milk" (1984) and "Common Threads:
Stories From the Quilt" (1989) long ago proved themselves masters of the elegiac
movie. But they have continued to grow as filmmakers by conducting provocative and
open-ended inquiries into matters more elusive than Harvey Milks martyrdom or the
AIDS scourge. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman first worked together when Friedman was a
consultant for Epstein on "Milk." They then teamed up full-time on
"Threads." In "The Celluloid Closet" (1995), they demonstrated
conclusively that Hollywoods depiction of homosexuality has been malicious at worst,
tentative at best. Yet their deftly culled clips and conversational interviews with gay
and straight movie people (from Gore Vidal to Tom Hanks) formed a mosaic of impressions
and opinions rather than a monolith.
Three years ago, Klaus Müller, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museums chief expert
on and investigator of gay issues, approached Epstein and Friedman at the Amsterdam
premiere of "The Celluloid Closet" and pitched them an idea for a movie. The
result is the gravely beautiful "Paragraph 175." The teams healthy respect
for the variety of ways people respond to historical phenomena energizes this chronicle of
what Richard Plant, in his groundbreaking 1986 book "The Pink Triangle," calls
"The Nazi War Against Homosexuality."
Paragraph 175 was the section of the German penal code that in 1871 forbade homosexual
contact between men. The original law read, "An unnatural sex act between persons of
male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights
might also be imposed." It predated the Nazis and outlasted them, and was not
stricken from the books until 1969.
But it was the Nazis who strengthened and brutally enforced the paragraph. Convicted
men were either sentenced to prison or sent to concentration camps (sometimes thrown into
prison and then into camps), where they wore the pink triangle. Although Nazis did not
round up gays as single-mindedly as they did Jews or Gypsies, only a third of the gays who
were interred in camps survived. The other inmate groups tended to shun them, and the
Nazis often subjected them to pseudo-medical experiments. Fewer than 10 are alive today.
The filmmakers talk to six of them. (Plant estimates that from 50,000 to 63,000
homosexuals were detained in the Nazi years and that from 5,000 to 15,000 died in camps;
the film puts those numbers, respectively, at 100,000 and 10,000 to 15,000.)
Epstein and Friedmans film is neither an apocalyptic horror movie nor a dirge. It
probes how history can turn on a dime or a single paragraph.
Nothing is simple in "Paragraph 175." The filmmakers remind us that when
homosexual Ernst Röhm headed that rabid Nazi unit the S.A., Hitler declined to denounce
Röhms personal behavior, which led anti-Nazis to paint the National Socialist Party
as a homosexual hotbed. After Röhm and the S.A. fell in the Night of the Long Knives,
Heinrich Himmler, the head of his own elite guard, the S.S., put a campaign of homophobia
into brutal full swing. But by then when it came to gays the propaganda
battle line had become hopelessly confused.
Even after the war, vital testimony to Nazi atrocities was silenced because
homosexuality remained illegal in Germany for another quarter-century. The film reflects
how difficult it is for men to testify to Himmlers reign of terror even now. One
camp veteran in Poland and one in Germany refused to talk to the filmmakers. One survivor
interviewed for the movie declines to summon up harsh memories, while another is still so
apoplectic he can barely articulate his rage.
Yet another blithely talks about joining the German army after he emerged from prison,
so he could still be among men. Lucid and involving, "Paragraph 175" draws you
into its complexities and haunts you for days afterward with its mixtures of courage,
compromise and frailty. It premieres theatrically in New York and San Francisco in
mid-September. I spoke to Epstein and Friedman two weeks ago at their San Francisco
Michael Sragow: Your office is a block and a half from the San Francisco Public
Library. Just now, when I went there and typed into the computer, "Gays and the
Holocaust," it asked me to reword my search; I tried "Gays and the Nazis"
and "Gays and the Third Reich" and "Gays and Germany," but the
computer couldnt locate any book on the subject. This film must have differed from
your others in requiring more pure historical research you werent documenting
or interpreting already well-reported events.
Epstein: When Klaus Müller presented us with his research it was an opportunity that
we couldnt pass up. He had witnesses we could interview. But the big difference
between this film and some of the other ones weve done isnt that we were
discovering the history of this subject as we went along. The biggest difference is that
it had a history that couldnt be presented or told in black-and-white terms
contrary to what we naively may have thought before. It became much more confusing.
M.S.: What did you think the story was before you actually got into it?
Epstein: You know: the classic story of victims and victimizers. Just as you
couldnt find anything in the library, what we found was almost all mythology. We had
to figure out what was real and what was myth.
Friedman: On one side, there was the mythology that there was a gay Holocaust. On the
other side was the mythology of the gay Nazi. Both of those were wild extrapolations based
on a grain of truth. There was no gay Holocaust. There was persecution of gay people. But
there was no systematic annihilation and there was never any clear policy about
homosexuals except that, from the time of the Röhm putsch on, homosexuality was contrary
to Nazi ideology. And Röhm was the basis of the myth of the gay Nazi.
M.S.: So, in terms of well-known movies, you have "Bent" on one side, for the
myth of the gay Holocaust, and "The Damned" on the other, tying homosexuality
itself to Nazism.
Epstein: Exactly. We tried to use "The Damned" to make that point, but that
film didnt make it into our film.
Friedman: As we started to talk to these guys, we had to deal with our own feelings
about being Jews and going to Germany and talking to Germans of that generation. They had
a really different experience of that time than were used to hearing. Some of them
made you uncomfortable. Some of them made you wonder whether they were very nice people.
Epstein: In fact, they may have been "nice people" and may also have been
sympathetic to national socialism. One guy who is in the film did say to us in the
pre-interview, "All would have been fine, but for the fact that I was
homosexual." Which sent chills up my spine.
M.S.: At one point, this dapper character named Albrecht recalls volunteering for the
German army after being released from prison. We hear one of you gasp, "Whu
Why did Why?"
Friedman: Thats Rob.
M.S.: It is a freak-out for the audience as well, because he is a charming guy. But in
order to understand him, you have to take this step you didnt think youd have
Epstein: Thats what I mean. As filmmakers who try to engage an audiences
sympathies, we tend to be drawn toward sympathetic characters. Here, all that was clear
from the beginning was that we were dealing with gray areas.
Friedman: I think theyre all sympathetic characters, but they contain a lot of
contradictions. The film got interesting for me when these problems started to arise. It
also got scary because we werent sure how we were going to deal with them.
M.S.: Was there a point when you thought you couldnt make the film?
Epstein: There was a point at which we thought it should be made by Germans. It was so
particular to Germany and what happened during that period that it seemed natural to ask,
"Why arent Germans doing this?" Then, as we made the film more our own, it
made sense that we were coming at it from the outside. Being outsiders made it easier for
us to get at different levels.
M.S.: Well, why didnt German filmmakers ever make this film? And why didnt
Klaus approach a German documentary team?
Epstein: Klaus approached us because he felt we would make an accessible film, based on
our previous work; also, that it would get an international audience and not just be
Friedman: One reason that a film hadnt been done in Germany before is just
historical accident. It had to do with the timing of these men deciding to go public with
their stories. They made their choice at a bad time in terms of television programming.
German TV had just done a whole year on the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
M.S.: The impression you give is that the six you film include every gay survivor there
is, except two people who wouldnt talk to you.
Friedman: Right everybody known to be alive. There is just a small number
because the survival rates were so bad for homosexuals in the camps. The death rates for
homosexual prisoners were among the highest for non-Jewish inmate groups. And the numbers
were relatively small to begin with. But I cant help thinking that there are more
than the eight or so that we know of.
M.S.: Im fascinated by your ambivalence to me, it feeds into the look and
the feel of the film. It has a twilight emotionalism. Right at the beginning you have this
survivor, Gad Beck, talk about a person having to see the period "romantically"
in order to understand it, already upsetting expectations of what a documentary of the
Nazi era would be.
Friedman: That has to do with memory; its certainly a film about memory, about
telling history through the memories of very old people recalling things that happened to
them 50 years ago. That defined the style for us the rhythm, how we told the story.
Epstein: The first interview we did was with Gad Beck. He did set the tone, because
love was such an important theme for him in getting through those times.
M.S.: Following Klaus Müllers figure, all in black, as he boards a train, with
that percussive music evoking railroad tracks even when hes off the train, you feel
as if youre part of a detective story.
Epstein: Good, good. That was what the story became for us we were on this
journey of discovery with Klaus as our guide. Even though the film is about memory, doing
it, for me, was about being aware of what is going on in the moment and being willing and
able to use that. I think that paid off time and again: When we were confronted with a
problem, turning that problem into something that became part of the film. The train, for
The train ride came to us because we were supposed to do an interview with this guy
named Karl, who ended up in the film only briefly. Hes the one who says
"Im not going to talk about these shitty, shameful deeds anymore." He had
agreed to do a full-length interview and then he decided he just wouldnt. We took
the train ride to see him and see what might happen. We made that part of the story. And
we put Klaus on the train and thats how Klaus started to become our guide.
It all happened organically. It was an exciting time to be in Berlin because it was
like the moon was being developed for the first time. There were construction cranes all
over the city. It was early in the fusion: You could tell that it was just starting to
feel like the East and West of the city were coming together. That immediately felt
metaphoric to us: this whole reconstruction and rebirth of a city in the midst of people
trying to preserve the sense of what it was, before that was lost forever.
Friedman: All that provided a dramatic, immediate structure. But there also was the
historical structure. And we had to find a way to marry those two.
M.S.: You marry them with the imagery: the trains, for example. Near the beginning, Gad
Beck talks about sneaking in some lovemaking in stalled trains during bombing raids. Near
the end, when one of your other witnesses talks about nearing the end of his life, you
have a brief shot of a train receding in the snow. Thats typical of the poetic
quality this movie has, even when you chronicle the most atrocious events.
Friedman: We knew we were going to have to rely on archival footage, but the kinds of
archival footage that we were finding only tangentially applied to gay life, because all
the gay stuff was destroyed. The stuff that related to the Nazis and the Holocaust all
felt over-familiar. So we struggled to use that material in a way that felt new
that would make you look at it in a different way. We had a creative collaboration with
our editor, Dawn Logsdon, who did find poetry in that archival material.
M.S.: People wont be surprised to see Weimar-era Berlin presented as the
homosexual Eden of the 20s. We know that from the "divine decadence" of
"Cabaret." But you emphasize how German homosexuality also grows out of
romanticism and nature love and youth cults. Its wild a whole spectrum of
sexual stimulus and emotion that youre not used to seeing in homosexual histories.
Was that a discovery for you, or did you know about it going in?
Epstein: I think my image of German youth groups was of the Hitler Youth. We had to
educate ourselves before we realized that the Hitler Youth was a co-opting of a
grass-roots movement that encompassed a whole range of ideologies from the far left to the
far right to nudism and vegetarianism. And it seemed, at least anecdotally, that
homoeroticism was very much a part of it. But its dangerous to draw [sweeping]
conclusions partly because its dangerous to apply 21st century notions of
homosexuality to early 20th century German culture. At the time of these youth movements,
the concept of homosexuality was less than half a century old. It wasnt until Magnus
Hirschfeld [the gay founder of Germanys Institute for Sexual Research] started
studying it and publicizing his ideas of the "third sex" that people started
thinking of homosexuals as a "type."
M.S.: I dont think you do draw conclusions. But introducing that stuff and saying
"Look, this was part of Germany, too," opens the film up and again - lets
you add a different visual component.
Friedman: Yeah. We were able to get some flesh in there. [Laughter.]
M.S.: Did you feel an obligation to include at least a little bit of each interview
because there are so few of these survivors left?
Friedman: After almost every interview I had major doubts about whether we could
possibly make a coherent story out of this. That was partly because of the language
problem it was all being translated simultaneously and partly because some
of the men speak very, very slowly. Its really not until we saw it written on paper
could we figure out what they were talking about, because by the time they got to the end
of a sentence wed often have forgotten where theyd begun.
M.S.: You follow a loose chronological structure, yet the connections among speakers
always seems to be thematic, juxtaposing one guys point of view to anothers
or in the case of the Alsatian, Pierre, his vs. everybody elses. His
testimony and his rage are so potent. He can barely talk to Klaus because Klaus is a
Epstein: Pierre actually came to the Berlin Film Festival, incidentally. He made his
peace with Germany through this film.
Friedman: Each of the people in the film serves a dramatic purpose; I think their
stories dictate how theyre used. Annettes story is essentially the Weimar
story and it ends at the time that the lesbian subculture was pushed underground and she
was forced to leave the country.
Epstein: Annettes story was probably the hardest to work in because it was a
lesbian story, and lesbians werent affected in the same way that homosexual men
were. But nonetheless we knew we had to address it in some way. In a sense, we were
addressing the absence of their obvious victimization, and we hope we found a way to have
Annette represent that. Thats typical of what we tried to do: to find out early on
what the essence of each person was and then make it work for the film overall.
M.S.: Few of us are used to seeing people talk as blithely as these old men about being
teachers and group leaders yet having sex with their pupils or followers or, in the
case of Gad Beck, being a student and jumping his phys ed teacher in the shower. They have
the total openness that can come with feeling you have nothing to lose. When you were
hearing these things, were you still thinking, "Why cant they talk
Friedman: It was fun when these old men started talking about sex and you saw a gleam
in their eyes; it was encouraging!
Epstein: I had more faith in the material than Jeffrey, which is a reversal of our
roles. Hes usually much more the optimist and Im much more the pessimist. But
I thought there were enough moments there to make it function.
M.S.: I think the contradictions and murkiness you present actually spur a viewer to
try to find out more about the subject. The movie is a series of twists: Hitler initially
defends his bully-boy Ernst Röhm, the homosexual at the head of the S.A.; Hitlers
enemies use Röhms homosexuality to attack the Nazis. Were used to a Manichean
view of the Nazi era, but your movie presents history as a series of feints and retreats
and odd choices. Why wasnt there a total Nazi roundup of all homosexuals?
Friedman: For one thing, they were by and large Christian German men and they were
potentially "curable" in the eyes of some of the authorities. And also, there
was no real systemized way of dealing with homosexuals. In the courts, it was up to the
whim of the judges. And in the camps, how they were treated was really up to the camp
M.S.: I think it also speaks to how difficult it is to make analogies between
persecutions based on behavior and persecutions based on heredity.
Epstein: Im sure back then that homosexual men did not think of themselves as
being one class of people. They did not see themselves as a type, no matter what their
homosexual behavior. For Jews the situation was very different.
M.S.: And because of Röhm, the Nazis couldnt say they had no experience of
homosexuality or no homosexuals in their ranks.
Friedman: Yeah, but does that mean that the Nazis were gay? Or does that mean that
homosexuality was more integrated into German culture than you think it was, when the
Nazis came into power? Thats my interpretation, but Im not a historian.
Epstein: The whole Röhm situation was something Jeffrey homed in on really early into
the project. I think we went as far as we could with it in terms of specific information.
But theres a whole other component to the theme of homosexuality in the camps that
we were interested in, and couldnt really get into in this film, which is how
homosexual acts were used abusively within the camp system. For a lot of other victim
groups, like Jews, their association with homosexuality comes from having been victimized
by Kapos and commanders who raped them and committed other homosexual abuse. That has
nothing to do with homosexual identity. But it has helped to perpetuate the mythology of
the homosexual Nazi.
M.S.: Whats the most pernicious effect of that mythology, apart from it being a
misreading of history?
Epstein: In the long run, it demonizes homosexuals. At the time, I think it also made
it more difficult for the Nazi persecution of homosexuals to be made public, because there
was a prevailing notion that the Nazis were homosexual.
Friedman: It was the German opposition, first in Germany and then exiled in Europe, who
used the homosexual angle in their anti-Nazi propaganda, and it was picked up after the
war. Its become a convenient trope in movies.
M.S.: Even though viewers may not identify totally with any of these characters, we
experience the events they describe subjectively. This eerie intimacy comes from that
poetic, impressionistic approach you keep talking about like your evocation of the
"Singing Forest," where gays and Jews were hung on hooks from poles. That
metaphor gets inside your brain, but you do it very sparingly with shots of limbs of trees
and then an actual photo of the torture. To get to that place, where you experience these
things fully enough to know how to communicate them, must have been hard.
Epstein: I think your job and hopefully your art as a filmmaker is to have a
combination of connection and detachment. Its a dance; you constantly go back and
M.S.: Even when you shoot talking heads, you take care in the way these guys are
framed, from the lenses you choose to the settings.
Epstein: Years ago I was accused, quite pejoratively, by a lefty documentary filmmaker,
of coming from the "interior decorating school of filmmaking." Now I can say
thats true with pride. We certainly work with the director of photography on
whats in the frame and what the light is and what you can see in the room.
M.S.: What was it like, coming from San Francisco, which is perceived to be a
contemporary homosexual Eden, to do a history of Weimar Berlin, which was seen the same
way in the 20s?
Epstein: I think that something I learned from the film and also, having lived
long enough now, in my own life is that you cant assume the permanence of
things. Even here in San Francisco, the city thought to be the homosexual Eden, were
seeing vast changes from what it was when we moved here 20 years ago. You realize how much
of life is transitory. You cant take things for granted; you cant be
Friedman: Making "Paragraph 175," I kept being aware of parallels with
"The Celluloid Closet." We were dealing with the same period of history in a
completely different context, and it was the same story really. There was this time of
freedom and openness, in the teens and 20s. Then came a clampdown in the 30s.
I had to go through realizing again that life is not just a progression toward more
freedom or progress. Its cyclical, and things are going on that can jump boundaries.
Maybe your next film should be the study of a year.
Epstein: 1933 would be the one, I think. It was the year of the Production Code. It was
the year Hitler came to power. I dont know what the connection is!
Friedman: But it could be an interesting area to explore.
About the writer: Michael Sragows column about moviemakers appears every Thursday
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