Last edited: July 11, 2004

Documentary ‘175’ Almost Intrusive Look at Nazi-Era Slaughter

San Francisco Examiner, September 15, 2000
P. O. Box 7260, San Francisco, CA, 94120
Fax 415-512-1264

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 Hitler’s 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 it’s not long into Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s soberly, deeply effective project that you realize the photos and footage stand in for the memories the film’s 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, little-known holocaust.

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 didn’t 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. It’s the same point-counterpoint approach the

San Francisco duo used in "The Celluloid Closet," their docu-adaptation of Vito Russo’s 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 people’s paranoia. Suddenly, men started seeming gay, and the guessing games taken for granted today were deadly. Even one of Hitler’s 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.

[Home] [World] [Germany]