”Paragraph 175” (New Yorker Video) is a documentary on the Treatment of gays at the hands of the Nazis. By the year 1920, Berlin had become the homosexual Eden and homosexual men and women lived open lives in a world where being different seemed to be the rule. When the Nazis began their rise to power this changed and over 100,000 men were arrested between 1933 and 1945. Their crime was homosexuality and they were arrested under the extremely strange Paragraph 175, a sodomy provision of the penal code which dated back to 1871. Some men were sent to prison, the majority were sent to concentration camps and of the 100,000 only 4,000 survived. Today, less then ten of them still live and f that number, five have come forward to tell the story of the Nazi persecution. What they does s shed light on a period of history which has been hidden for too long. The moving testimonies they give are pieced together with provocative photos as questions of memory, history and identity are raised in this wonderful, but heartbreaking, documentary.
We hear from a gay Jewish resistance fighter who helped refugees in Berlin, from a Jewish lesbian who managed tot escape to England, a German Christian photographer who was imprisoned because he was gay and when released joined the army to be with men and a French Alsatian who watched as his lover was tortured and murdered in the camps. As they speak your heart breaks a little and these stories are real and devastating. You hear one man tell how he stood by as his lover was devoured by German Shepherds and from the gay man who managed to help his Jewish lover go free and then watch him run to his family so that he could die with them.
The movie documents the fall of the decadent golden days of Berlin and how gay men were taken prisoner because of innuendo or simply gossip. It is impossible not to admire the survivors who came forward to take part in this important film. The stories are real and the people are real and the emotions you will feel when you watch this are very real. It is impossible not to be struck almost senseless by what you see and hear here.
It is even hard to think about how this film was made. There are only a few survivors left and people are not eager to talk about this period. We have had many films that deal with holocaust material but gays and the holocaust has been almost completely ignored. What is sp interesting in â€œParagraph 175â€? is that what we have is experience and emotions, we see them and we hear them and we are lucky for this because they will be gone soon.
Basically a series of interviews, the documentary has interspersed actual footage of the time with the people speaking and it is done very professionally. When we consider how many movies and documentaries have already been made about the darkest period in history but this one is specialâ€”IT IS ABOUT US. It was only 74 years old that this happened and it is almost inconceivable that it took that long to have a movie made about the treatment of gays during that time. But now that we have it, it must be seen as it explores the terrible, horrible fate of our community. This is the most powerful 80 minutes of film I have ever seen and while it is emotional and informative it does not force issues. It made me angry and sad and the compassion I felt in the beginning for the people who shared their stories turned to rage at times. Why did we not fight back? Why did we take this? And then I realized that we had no choice, No one cared whether we lived or died and many did not believe this was happening. The movie did not have to try to depend upon human emotion, it happened naturally and this was caused by the sheer simplicity and honesty of the interviews.
The only problem with “Paragraph 175” is that it was limited and this is because there are not enough survivors alive to talk about the period. The archival footage of life under Nazism and in the concentration camps is sparse and the pool of interviewees is small. This has caused the film to have t rely on family photographed and pictures of gay and lesbian Germany from the period immediately following the first World War. The narrator, British film star, Rupert Everett is the spine of the movie.
Let’s take a brief look at what Paragraph 175 said. It stated: “An unnatural sex act committed between persons of male sex is punishable by imprisonment; the loss of civil rights may also be imposed”. Yet this was never enforced until the rise of Hitler. As we watch and listen to the accounts of those interviewed, we hear stories of the most repressive nature. The stories pull at the heart because unlike the Jews they have not been able to tell their stories and have not been able to hide their feelings for so long.
The penal code did not cover lesbians because lesbianism was considered curable and women, being the vessels to produce children, were not included in mass arrests. Most lesbians went into hiding or exile or married gay men.
In closing I would like to give a few statistics. Of the 100,000 men arrested for homosexuality, 50,000 went to prison and about 15,000 were sent to concentration camps were they were used for slave labor, medical experimentation and castration. Of those that survived, we only have a few left today. Paragraph 175 was not abolished after the War; in fact it stayed in effect until the late 1960s and was enforced every once in a while.
This film excels in letting people tell their stories without adding to what they say and it carefully and judiciously explains the situation of denials of the world that regarded homosexuality as a threat to the existence of mankind. Even with the horror of the stories, “Paragraph 175” gives one faith in man and also chides the viewer into making sure that something like this will never, ever happen again. The movie is beautiful because of its importance and should be viewed and reviewed whenever we think that things are bad for us here in America.