Documentary 175 Almost Intrusive Look at Nazi-Era Slaughter
San Francisco Examiner,
September 15, 2000
P. O. Box 7260, San Francisco, CA, 94120
Wesley Morris, Examiner Film Critic
THE IMAGES are familiar enough: men frolicking in ponds, locked in
horseplay, sitting in the sun being regular guys in swim trunks, seemingly oblivious to
their shirtless hairless chests. This could be the Abercrombie & Fitch home movie. The
photographs and archival footage used in "Paragraph 175," the unshakable
documentary about the slaughter of nearly 15,000 gay men under Hitlers rule,
suggests such a world, one that seems ripped from Madison Avenue shopping tomes.
The fact is those men, with their Olympic bodies and dashing dispositions, were more
likely to be co-opted by Leni Riefenstahl than Levis. But its not long into Rob
Epstein and Jeffrey Friedmans soberly, deeply effective project that you realize the
photos and footage stand in for the memories the films subjects have of a peaceful
era wiped out by a Naziism that followed a title section of the German Penal Code. Maybe
consciously, but without offering up the thousands of victims as martyrs, the film speaks
to how much easier, maybe more frivolous gay life has become in the wake of this other,
Written in the mid-19th century, paragraph 175 was actually a sentence that comprised
28 words. Concisely, it denoted that sex between men, and sex between man and animal, was
verboten, "punishable by imprisonment" and the swiping of human rights. This
means being herded off to a concentration camp. The Code didnt say so, but Nazis
always were an act-first party when it came to genocide. The film does away with
anthropology and doles out bits of history (we learn that the pink triangle was originally
a mark for death) pillow-talked by Rupert Everett, and moving intimate portraits.
Less than 10 of the men are still alive; with the help of a young German researcher,
Klaus Miller, five of them and one woman are located and extensively interviewed. Epstein
and Friedman provide the visual supplement to wistful accounts that grow increasingly
harrowing over the course of 76 minutes. Its the same point-counterpoint approach
San Francisco duo used in "The Celluloid Closet," their docu-adaptation of
Vito Russos book about gay Hollywood. But the waggish attention to campy details is
swapped for painful interviews that eventually carry the uncomfortable force of
eavesdropped therapy sessions. The physical and psychological toll of it all comes out in
rage (as with Frenchman Pierre Seel) or in detached reflection (Heinz F).
Under paragraph 175, homophobia became some kind of toxic airborne event, to borrow a
phrase from Don Delillo, an epidemic that spread to peoples paranoia. Suddenly, men
started seeming gay, and the guessing games taken for granted today were deadly. Even one
of Hitlers higher-ups, Ernst Roehm, who was a known homosexual, was executed.
"It meant something different then, a night of love," Heinz says, still mourning
the long-ago theft of his joy.
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