Though its subject has seen scrutiny before, both nonfiction and dramatic, docu “Paragraph 175” easily reps the definitive screen chronicle to date of homosexual persecution under the Third Reich — particularly via interviews with nearly all the few survivors. Beyond the striking impact of latter testimonies, latest feature from Oscar-winning documeisters Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (“Common Threads,” “The Celluloid Closet”) further distinguishes itself by filtering this harsh subject through exquisitely lyrical craftsmanship. Critical support should help a tough theatrical sell find specialized release; broadcast exposure here and in select offshore markets is assured. Pic won a well-deserved Directing Award from Sundance doc jury.
Helmers were led to their subjects — only 12 are still alive, among whom two declined to participate — by Dr. Klaus Muller, a German historian and employee of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Muller functions as interviewer here, with survivors’ stories in English and subtitled German and French. These recollections are diverse, at times reluctant and often devastating.
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Jewish resistance fighter Gad Beck remembers posing as a Hitler Youth to rescue his lover, when they were both 18, from a Gestapo transfer camp. He succeeded — but his boyfriend insisted on staying behind with his family, none of whom was seen again. Another man was freed after a stint at Dachau, only to be arrested again and sent to Buchenwald. A frail, elderly German recalls hearing a distant “singing forest”: the screams of fellow Nazi-captured gays, tree-bound and tortured during rural attempts at flight.
Not every story is so horrific. The sole woman interviewed (most lesbians avoided persecution by a Third Reich that largely ignored their existence) recalls getting a life-saving travel permit to England — a gift from the Marlene Dietrich look-alike she had a crush on. Ninety-four-year-old Albrecht Becker confounds with the confession that he went from a three-year prison sentence for homosexuality to enlisting in the German Army — because “that’s where all the men were.”
On the whole, however, most survivors impress with their willingness to air “uncomfortable memories” while suggesting the trauma never went away. Shame, guilt and a sense of obligatory discretion linger. Among up to 15,000 gays sent to concentration camps, many were jailed or harassed again after the war thanks to German anti-sodomy laws not repealed until 1969. (Pic’s title refers to an anti-gay penal code that survived, in various forms, over the preceding hundred years.) As yet, their persecution has received no legal governmental acknowledgement. One man who spent 8-1/2 years in the camps confides he’d never told anyone about it until now — maintaining closeted silence for over a half-century.
As usual, Epstein and Friedman gracefully weave together a multilevel nonfiction narrative, using extensive archival footage to background Germany’s turn-of-the-century proto-gay rights movement, the “homosexual Eden” of 1920s Weimar era Berlin, Hitler’s initial “don’t ask, don’t tell” tolerance and his later switch under pressure to brutal “party cleansing” of all sexual “degenerates.”
At times the almost unbearably sad content is leavened by film’s aesthetic elegance, which deploys sepia tones, slow-motion and apt soundtrack choices (including Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again,” plus the inevitable Wagner excerpt) to create a haunted yet gentle tenor. Original score by Tibor Szemzo is less effective, striking an incongruous contempo note with upbeat percussive fillips. Rupert Everett’s dulcet tones as narrator at first seem too languorous, but ultimately suit pic’s hushed, sorrowful tone. Tech package is first-rate.