by Douglas Messerli
Martin Sherman (screenplay, based on his play), Sean Mathias (director) Bent / 1997
In the vast space of a LGBTQ ball in 1934 Berlin, everything seems to be going on at once, as dancers dressed in drag ready themselves to take the stage, acrobats and mimes perform seemingly postmodern-like performances, and celebrants drink, eat, and fuck themselves into a frenzy while above this splendorous warehouse setting, the bar’s owner Greta (Mick Jagger, dressed in drag) spins in a trapeze-like sitting bench singing “Streets of Berlin,” clearly Greta’s goodbye song to the city she loves and hates simultaneously (composed by Philip Glass, with lyrics by Martin Sherman):
Streets of Berlin, I must leave you soon
Oh, will you forget me? Was I ever really here?
Ah, streets of Berlin, I must leave you soon
Oh, will you forget me? Was I ever really here?
Find me a bar on the cobblestone street
Where the boys are pretty
I cannot love for more than one day
But one day is enough in the city
Find me a boy with two
Ocean blue eyes that show no pity
Take out his eyes! He never needs to see
How they eat you alive in the city!
Below Max (Clive Owen) appears as a kind of party organizer while his roommate, sometime boyfriend, Rudy (Brian Webber), carefully puts on his long stockings while painfully observing his promiscuous lover, as usual, kissing and making out briefly with everyone with whom he comes in contact. At a nearby table sit a group of SS Nazi troops, greedily eyeing everyone in sight, Wolf particularly having determined that Max is the man who whom he wants to spend the night.
If there was ever a Hollywod Cecile DeMille-like view of the final days of Weimar sexual depravity, here it is in loving color. While Greta, carefully, eyeing noting attendees from her high perch, is surely aware that the world below has suddenly come to an end, those in the hellish trenches seem oblivious that either the same night or the night before Hitler has had Ernst Röhm and many of his followers killed in what became known as The Night of the Long Knives.
When Max wakes up in bed with Wolf, hardly able to remember what happened during his drunken, coke-sniffing, sexual encounter with the cute man beside him, and while Rudy simmers in anger nearby, the storm troopers—obviously alerted by Greta who has sold out to the Nazis— raid the apartment in which the couple have been squatting, Wolf’s fellow soldiers unceremoniously slit his throat.
Those first several moments of Sean Mathias's film adaptation of the play Bent which he also had directed on stage in Britain, tell us everything we might need know about the film that follows: it’s over stated and, like several of its characters—particularly Rudy and Max—not completely aware of what’s actually happening.
One might argue, in fact, that this was true of the original stage version from 1979 with Richard Gere (as Max) and David Dukes (as Horst). The publicists declared that finally this play revealed the fact that homosexuals were arrested in Nazi Germany, several of them dying in the concentration camp. In fact, given the little information we have, we know that about 50,000 mostly gay men were sentenced under the new Nazi anti-homosexual laws, with about 5,000 to 15,000 being incarcerated in concentration camps. They may have actually been more, since gays were often not given the pink triangle, but were grouped with lesbians as anti-social beings forced to wear a black patch.
During the Nazi years, about 60% of those in camps were killed, many through beatings, torture (some had their testicles boiled in water), and intense rapes. Others were experimented on by Nazi doctors. And, as the work suggests, their pink triangles represented the lowest of camp demarcation, some simply being used for target practice. Those who initially survived were often given the most dangerous work tasks as part of “Extermination Through Work” policies, assigned work in the underground rocket factory at Dora-Mittelbau, and the stone quarries in Flossenbürg and Buchenwald.
And even after the war many were re-sentenced to prison or unable to tell their stories since until 1969 homosexual behavior was still outlawed by the German government. Chancellor Adenauer going as far to describe it as a “healthy law.”
Yet before 1979, there had been many stories told and the history of gay incarceration had been significantly recorded. Certainly, I had read some of that history before the appearance of Bent whose publicists continue to describe the work as one of the first recognitions of the decimation of gays through World War II.
However, just to put the suffering of gays in Nazi prisons in some perspective, while conservatively speaking about 9,000 homosexuals were killed in the camps—not an insignificant number of men killed simply for loving their own kind—over 6 million Jewish individuals were murdered, often in even more inhumane ways.
So, we must recognize both the play and the movie Bent despite being a well-intentioned and perhaps even important document that helps us to further comprehend the vastness of the Nazi hatred, is simply not as earth-shattering as its author and Mathias might have meant it to be. In particular, in the case of the film, the tale it tells, moreover, is often so muddled that it loses some of its significance.
After the almost prurient opening scene, we follow the Max and Rudy for a while as if they were part of an underground adventure story, as Max attempts to get two passports to Amsterdam from his closeted Uncle Freddie (Ian McKellen), promising to ditch Rudy in Holland and return to marry the daughter of a wealthy industrialist to whom his father has previously wanted him to marry.
When the second passport is not forthcoming, the two hide out in a forest, chattering away their nights as if the horrors that have descended upon them has not yet quite registered. Rudy, particularly, seems more than a bit dense-minded, as he continues to work out with the attempt of keeping his dancer’s body.
Even when they are eventually rounded up and sent on their way to Dachau they appear not yet to have comprehended what is in store for them. Another voyager, Horst, being transferred from a previous camp to Dachau attempts to tell Max what is in store after the Nazi’s force Rudy to stomp upon his glasses and take him away to beat in a nearby rail car. But all that Max can mutter over and again is “This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.”
His disbelief results in a reality even worse when the officers return Rudy’s near-dead body to ask Max if the boy is his friend. When Max denies it several times like Peter denying Jesus, they demand that Max prove it by bludgeoning him with a metal rod. Max does so, even with some sense of sadistic pleasure, killing his lover before the Nazis toss the corpse off the train. They take him to another car where a young 13-year old girl who has already had her throat cut is positioned to have him prove he is not a queer by raping her. While the leering soldiers watch, he does so not once but twice.
By this time, accordingly, we are so disgusted by the probable “hero” of this tale, that any one with a shred of empathy has lost interest in him. And it gets even worse, as taking what Horst has told him to heart, he denies his sexual orientation replacing it with a lie that he is Jewish instead, thus awarding him a patch that, in this perverted world, he sees to be of more worth that the pink triangle labelling him a simple pervert. It seems not to matter that he has already proven himself a pervert, reiterated over and over by his insistence that he will survive the ordeal by sacrificing any sense of human decency he has left.
In other words, as I wrote about the play which I saw in 2015 in Los Angeles but is equally applicable to the film, Sherman has chosen a nearly impossible monster as his hero, whose redemption—in this case by a scrawny pink-triangulated Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), whose major sin is that he signed a petition in support of the sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld—appears nearly impossible from the start.
Mysteriously—and this is a continual problem with Sherman’s seemingly naturalistic tropes—Max gets Horst transferred from the brutal tasks of breaking down rocks with a pick-axe to the nearly existential task of moving a pile of stones from one place to another before returning them back to the other, again and again, ad infinitum—a job which, Max argues, is intended to make one mad.
Although, I would like to know whether or not Sherman had any evidence that such a task was really given to prisoners at Dachau, it at first seems a kind of perfect metaphor for the madness of the camps themselves. Yet we still cannot quite believe in the reality of what is presented as a metaphorical situation. Might the Germans truly waste their energy on someone they might more easily have simply shot or beaten to death? And would they have two guards available to waste their energies tracking the meaningless trek of their victims back and forth in space?
Sherman, moreover, is not a writer with someone like Beckett’s skills, and in the first of what are far too many scenes in which the actors are forced to heft stones back and forth across the white space (later covered with snow), the author returns us to the kind of gay domestic scene with which the film began. Having simply replaced Rudy with Horst the supposedly transformed monster cannot even remember his former lover’s name.
Later, as his characters’ conversations increasingly become infused with talk of sex, the author does not share Beckett’s abilities to transform the inane into a poetically rich language. And, accordingly, no matter how well acted—and in the case of Owen and Bluteau they are not equal to the acting skills of the original stage actors—it is difficult for us to believe that two men during a three-minute rest period might whisper themselves into mutual organisms. It reminded me, a little, of those early network chatrooms wherein participants talk about sex in order to actually experience it. But in this case, involving a room full movie-goers unable to experience the intimacy of live-acting, it appeared to function more as a voyeuristic moment than a true shared experience between two untouchable lovers. And later, when the freezing and sickly Horst lamely refuses to go through the same verbal sexual encounter, Sherman reaches to the bottom of his often jokey quips—“I have a headache”—in response, turning what might have been a somewhat creative dramatic trope into a sit-com quip.
When soon after the Nazi guard commands Horst—whose cough proves that the medicine Max had obtained from him through the present of a blow-job to the Nazi guard was actually intended for his co-worker—to throw his hat at the nearby high-voltage electric fence that Mathias’ camera has previously waved before our eyes, we are not surprised when the events are inevitably played out. When you like male blowjobs, perverts are not something you want standing around to remind you of your forbidden desires.
What we are surprised about is that Max—whom we have finally believe has truly begun to understand love as something different from mere sex—once more stands by without being compelled to aid his friend. That he is forced to bury him and, at the very moment of the pietà like enactment wherein he begins to carry his dead friend to his grave, he is forced to stand still while looking forward as dictated by the whistle announcing the “rest time,” having no choice but to hold Horst’s body before him, merely reminds us of the fact that this is the first time in this film since the decadent body against body friction of the first scene, anyone has actually touched another being. When the whistle signals a resumption of action, he seemingly puts Horst into the ditch with the voiceless howl of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Once again, just as with Rudy, Max has in large part been the cause of this man’s death.
We can only conjecture that if he has any human feeling left he will no longer to be able to live with himself. Accordingly when after moving a few rocks, he returns to the ditch to remove Horst’s shirt with the pink triangle, and, removing his own yellow starred garment, puts it on—although meant to be a truly moving moment, an acceptance not only of his sexuality but of his recognition of love—there is something empty in the act.
No matter how Max has been transformed, his recognition has simply come too late. And even his rush into the wall of electrified immolation at film’s end, seems to be a melodramatic aftermath. Perhaps if he had really dared death earlier on, had actually reached out to touch the other instead of simply imagining him, we might have truly been able to celebrate what Mathias certainly intended to convey: W. H. Auden’s contention that “We must love one another or die.”
Los Angeles, October 13, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review and My Queer Cinema blog (October 2020).