THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
The most visible victims of the Nazi killing machine were the six million Jews and their millions of survivors. But other groups were hunted simply for not conforming to the Aryan type. One group rarely discussed in the decades since World War II is the hundred thousand homosexuals stripped of their identities and placed under arrest by the Nazi regime.
Paragraph 175, named for the anti-sodomy law used by the Nazis, takes the personal approach to this subject, interviewing a half dozen of the survivors (only about ten were known to exist at the time of the film)
and really emphasizing the diverse nature of the subjects. One man recalls risking his life to save his lover from forced removal, a brave maneuver, only to see his lover make a selfless sacrifice of his own moments later. Another man takes the filmmakers through his introduction to the gay Berlin nightclub life of the Weimar era
in a transporting narrative.
The film doesn't shy away from other experiences as well. The sole lesbian interviewed was shuttled away from Germany early in the Nazi rule and spent the rest of the war in London. In one of the most startling moments in a film full of them, one survivor, a man who narrowly escaped extermination, expresses sympathetic feelings towards the Nazis. If it weren't for his being gay, he says, everything would have been fine. The rest of the horror doesn't seem to phase him.
These men are old and the film has to express a certain degree of patience. They aren't always thrilled to bring up these ghosts and sometimes it takes them a while to get their point out. They smile as they remember the good times. But their eyes still betray the hurt and the pain. Near the film's end one of the gentlemen just about breaks down on camera in what has to be one of the hardest moments I've ever seen in a film. The bald emotion on display, even over half a century later, is undeniably strong.
The filmmakers, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein, are the same team that made the acclaimed films The Celluloid Closet and The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, both powerful films about the gay experience. Paragraph 175, which runs a short 81 minutes, is a perfect continuation of that mission as well as an excellent addition to the canon of fine non-fiction films on World War II.
The anamorphic video comes from the filmmakers' video camera and from archival footage. The image is good, with crisp focus and good colors. Not an overly visual film, Paragraph 175
still manages to look quite beautiful at times.
The Dolby Digital soundtrack is simple but provocative. Rupert Everett's subdued narration fits the tone of the film and the strange, atmospheric score adds a rythmic element. No bells and whistles, but solid sound.
A commentary track from the directors and one of their producers is informative and interesting. They discuss the complex experience of making the film, including periods when they felt none of the film's subjects would sit for interviews and the process of creating a coherent narrative through their experiences traveling through Germany. Their insight is valuable.
The disc also includes
two interviews taken from Steven Spielberg's Shoah project which documents the stories of Holocaust survivors. These two interviews are given by Jewish survivors recalling instances when they crossed paths with homosexual victims of Nazi persecution and they're quite moving and horrifying.
Even at its short length, Paragraph 175 is a powerful, moving film. It doesn't try to equate the persecution of gays with the wholesale slaughter of Jews by the Nazis but it does add an extra layer to this terrible period through honest, deep storytelling. There are endless angles to the Nazi abomination and the non-stop stream of films on the matter is testament to that. Even given the crowded genre, however, Paragraph 175 will likely teach viewers something new.