Paragraph 175

Paragraph 175

Suggested reading:

Men With the Pink Triangle: The True, Life-And-Death Story of Homosexuals in the Nazi Death Camps

(1994), Heinz Heger

The Pink Triangle: The Nazi War Against Homosexuals (1988), Richard Plant

While the horrific atrocities committed against the Jews during the Holocaust can be recited by students of history and schoolchildren alike, the persecution of homosexuals during Hitler’s reign of terror has yet to make a dent on the public’s collective consciousness. Whether it is the still-prevalent homophobia of society at large or the urge to put this profound tragedy behind us, the stories of the victims who were sent to the death camps for their sexuality remain largely untold.

Noted filmmakers Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein (The Celluloid Closet) aim to change that oversight with Paragraph 175, an extraordinary new documentary that takes its title from Germany’s anti-homosexual law. A pre-war statute that stated that "unnatural sex acts between persons of the male sex" may result in arrest and a loss of civil rights, it was a key piece of legislation used by the Nazis to harass and later imprison homosexuals during World War II. Narrated by Rupert Everett, the film blends archival footage, WWII propaganda, and personal testimonials from camp survivors that paints a devastating picture of the horrors of war – up close and terrifyingly personal.

It’s the strength of the filmmakers’ commitment to provide a voice for a community long left voiceless that gives the film its power. Whereas the reliance of many documentaries on the "talking head" shot (the dry, static shot of people talking to the camera) can usually grind the proceedings to a halt, it is the survivors’ stories, ranging from nostalgic memories of youth to terrifying tales of their internment, that drives Paragraph 175. The poignancy of their remembrances adds a human pulse to this dark chapter of history; rarely have simple scenes of people reminiscing been so heartbreaking.

One survivor gleefully remembers when the Berlin of the Weimar period was "the Gay Eden of Europe" and gay bar patrons would playfully scare each other by yelling, "The police are coming!" while the faint-hearted ducked under tables. The lighthearted tale takes on an eerie tone when the man later finds out the same bars were kept operating for the purposes of "rounding up" suspected "criminals of the state". Another man speaks of seeing his lover devoured by dogs before his very eyes, and the story of a walk through "the singing forest" where the screams of victims echo against the trees are enough to bring tears to the most jaded of viewers.

Friedman and Epstein’s decision to focus on first-person accounts, while keeping everything in its proper historical context, does more than elevate the film above the legion of History Channel knock-offs detailing the agonies of war. They have done their homework, certainly (there are aspects of WWII that not even a dyed-in-the-wool armchair general will know), but the duo have a different agenda. The attention to all aspects of these survivors’ lives, from their discovery of sexuality to their plea for recognition as victims of war decades after their release, offers more than a body branded with a pink triangle. Rather, it is a complex portrayal of life outside of the "norm" in an era when difference equaled death. Through its humanization of history and celebration of the will to survive in the face of unparalleled cruelty, Paragraph 175 becomes more than a sum of its factual parts. It both fills in a crucial period of gay history and fleshes out the people who lived through it; it is a document that not only asks for tolerance, but also pays tribute to those who had to live without it and survived, nonetheless, to tell the tale.

– David Fear

para175.jpg (9408 bytes)para175.2.jpg (7243 bytes)