Last edited: July 11, 2004

‘Paragraph 175’: Condemned by the Nazis, but Not for Religion

New York Times, September 13, 2000
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By Lawrence Van Gelder

To the growing body of invaluable cinematic literature documenting for posterity the hideous barbarity of Nazism may now be added "Paragraph 175."

At once admirable and deeply unsettling, this film draws upon the testimony of little more than a handful of the all-but-vanished ranks of survivors to relate the horror of the Nazi purge of homosexuals from the life of Germany and the aftereffects that scar and roil these men as the 21st century begins.

"I am ashamed for humanity," says one of the survivors as he recounts his personal ordeal and the horrors visited on those he knew.

"Paragraph 175," opening today at the Film Forum, was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Together they won an Academy Award for their documentary "Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt," after Mr. Epstein won an Oscar, among many other awards, for "The Times of Harvey Milk," which will be revived at the Film Forum, starting on Friday.

This year their new documentary, to run through Sept. 26, won the grand jury award for directing at the Sundance Film Festival and the International Film Critics Association Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.

"Paragraph 175," using new and archival film, family photographs and narration by the actor Rupert Everett, takes its title from a portion of the German penal code enacted in 1871: "An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex or by humans with animals is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights may also be imposed."

This provision, expanded by the Nazis, remained law in West and East Germany until nearly the end of the 1960’s. Some of the film’s witnesses were rearrested under this law after the defeat of the Nazis. During the years of the Weimar Republic, between the end of World War I and the rise of Hitler, Paragraph 175 was rarely enforced, and the Berlin of the 1920’s was, in the words and images of the film, "a homosexual Eden."

According to the filmmakers, who drew upon German records and were assisted by Klaus Muller, a German historian and the project director for Western Europe for the United States Holocaust Museum, about 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality between 1933, when Hitler assumed power, and 1945, when World War II ended. About half were sentenced to prison; 10,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps, and by the end of the war, only about 4,000 of those in the camps had survived. Of the eight known to be alive, six appear in "Paragraph 175."

Because women were regarded by the Nazis as vessels of motherhood, lesbians were spared mass arrest. Some chose exile; others entered into marriages with gay men. Only one woman, who escaped to England, tells her story in the film.

Mr. Muller, the film’s associate producer and director of research, notes that he grew up in Germany without ever hearing of the persecution of its gays.

Among the male survivors seen in "Paragraph 175," one tells of torture; another recalls a daring but vain attempt to rescue his lover from a Gestapo camp by donning a Hitler Youth uniform; a third remembers his years in concentration camps; and yet another tells how he was released from prison during the war only to find that all the men were gone. So, he says, he joined the German Army because "that’s where the men were."

And one of them tells of "the singing forest," where the agony of gay men subjected to torture wailed from the poles on which they were hanging.

For generations to come, "Paragraph 175" lets them be heard.


Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman; written (in English, German and French, with English subtitles) by Sharon Wood; director of photography, Bernd Meiners; edited by Dawn Logsdon; music by Tibor Szemzo; produced by Mr. Epstein, Mr. Friedman, Michael Ehrenzweig and Janet Cole; released by New Yorker Films. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 81 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Rupert Everett (Narrator) and Gad Beck, Heinz Dörmer, Pierre Seel, Heinz F., Annette Eick and Albrecht Becker.

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