Rating *** A must see

Directed by Sean Mathias

Written by Martin Sherman

With Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau, Brian Webber, Ian McKellen, and Mick Jagger.

Viktor und Viktoria

Rating * Has redeeming facet

Directed and written by Rheinhold SchŸnzel

With Renate MŸller and Hermann Thimig.

By Albert Williams

What keeps a man alive? He lives on others;

He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole, if he can;

Forgets that they’re supposed to be his brothers,

That he himself was ever called a man.

Remember, if you wish to stay alive,

For once do something bad and you’ll survive.

–from The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

“When the National Socialist Party…[promises to] hang on the gallows all homosexuals,” wrote German gay activist Adolf Brand in 1931, “[this is] only a horrible gesture….In truth, however, no one thinks even in a dream of seriously presenting that medieval play. For otherwise indeed a quite considerable number of National Socialists…could today already be carrying their hangman’s rope in their pockets.”

Brand was wrong–dead wrong, as the Nazis proved in 1934, when the infamous “Night of the Long Knives” ushered in a purge that began with the executions of gay Hitler aide Ernst Ršhm and his cabal. Ršhm, head of the SA (Sturmabteilung, or “storm troopers”), was the loser in an internal power struggle with Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler, who later created the reich’s Federal Security Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion. The antigay campaign quickly spread from the military to civilian society. Brand himself was lucky–a conveniently married bisexual, he escaped harm until 1945, when he and his wife were killed by American bombers–but tens of thousands of homosexuals were rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps.

The purge–a tool for quashing dissent against Hitler’s reign of terror that was particularly useful against Catholic clergy–cut short a pioneering German homosexual-rights movement whose official launch date is generally considered 1897, the year sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld established the world’s first known gay-rights organization, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, and began circulating petitions calling for the repeal of laws against male homosexuality. (Among those who supported Hirschfeld’s quixotic efforts were Albert Einstein, Martin Buber, Herman Hesse, and Thomas Mann.) Hirschfeld himself fled Berlin in 1933, leaving his invaluable archives to the fascist firebugs; it was decades before the significance of Germany’s gay-rights movement and the persecution of homosexuals in the Nazi Holocaust began to be recognized.

One of the most important figures in illuminating that long-lost chapter of history is playwright Martin Sherman, the British-based American expatriate whose drama Bent dramatized the plight of gay men under the Nazis. Premiered in 1979 in London with Ian McKellen in the lead role and later mounted on Broadway with Richard Gere, Bent has frequently been rumored as a possible movie; but only now has the project come to fruition (it’s the opening attraction of the 17th Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival). Directed by British stage director Sean Mathias, this is a taut rendition of Sherman’s powerful play, driven by Clive Owen’s harrowingly believable lead performance as a man whose innate will to live is pushed to the limit.

Dramatizing an event such as the Holocaust is a daunting undertaking: one risks either trivializing the episode’s historical importance in melodrama or drowning the individual tragedies in the sheer horror. Sherman’s solution is to focus on the growing relationship between two gay men in a concentration camp–men who fall in love even though they can never touch (or even look directly at each other) until the searing climax.

Bent’s central character, Max, is a promiscuous party boy who happens to pick up the wrong guy at the wrong time–a handsome storm trooper on the Night of the Long Knives. The two meet at a gay cabaret known as Greta’s in honor of its owner, a haggard-looking female impersonator played in a canny piece of cameo casting by Mick Jagger. Greta’s isn’t a coy haven of “divine decadence” like Cabaret’s Kit Kat Klub, but a surreal sexual circus straight out of Fellini Satyricon, where people openly have sex and do drugs in desperate defiance of the poverty and chaos outside, while the androgynous host sits aloof above the action in a red sheath gown, perched on a trapeze and crooning an out-of-tune ode to decadent nightlife: “I cannot love for more than one day / But one day is enough in this city….Find me a boy with ocean-blue eyes / That show no pity.”

When Max’s one-night stand is murdered by Nazis who break into his apartment, Max and his boyfriend Rudy escape in their underwear. Greta–who turned them in–offers a little cash but no sympathy. “Queer is out,” he warns as he walks with Max through the streets on his way to midnight mass. “I’m a married man with children.” Max and Rudy are eventually arrested and sent to Dachau, but only Max–ever the shrewd deal maker–survives the journey, committing atrocities (including having sex with the corpse of a Jewish girl) to satisfy his sadistic captors that he’s not “bent.” His reward: a yellow star instead of a pink triangle for his prison uniform. (Later he grants sexual favors to a Gestapo captain–a young blond with the pitiless blue eyes of Greta’s song–who can enjoy same-sex contact only as long as he believes Max is straight.)

In Dachau Max meets Horst, a young man imprisoned for having signed one of Hirschfeld’s petitions. The two are assigned the same numbing task: carrying rocks from one pile to another, then back again. Designed to break both their bodies and their minds, the Sisyphean labor provides an ongoing action around which Sherman can shape the two men’s relationship as it evolves from antagonism (Horst despises Max’s denial of his homosexuality) to camaraderie to erotic attraction (expressed in a beautifully edited scene in which the two men talk each other to sexual climax while standing at attention) to emotional commitment, which Max resists. (“I can’t love anybody back,” he insists. “Queers aren’t made to love.”) Bent is first and foremost a love story whose central characters go through classic stages of emotional development; its larger historical circumstances are revealed indirectly, as elements in the lovers’ relationship. Sherman instructs his audience in the hideous, long-ignored details of the Nazi persecution of gays while avoiding the trap of preaching about it.

Still, onstage Bent can seem manipulative as in a series of vignettes it depicts Max’s transformation from shallow, self-deprecating playboy to a man who knows the value of love and his own self-worth. But Mathias’s film, with its ingenious use of English and Scottish locations to convey a bleak, prisonlike Germany headed toward destruction, registers Max’s emotional changes more gradually, as part of the relentless grind of his doomed existence. There’s no rhetoric about gay rights or the indomitability of the human spirit, no sentimental hand-wringing.

Bent is Mathias’s feature-filmmaking debut, and his inexperience shows in a few self-conscious cinematic flourishes, such as swirling camera work when the Nazis and their dogs close in on Max and Rudy. But the bulk of the film simply and straightforwardly records the action, highlighting Owen’s brilliant performance as a man systematically psychologically broken down and rebuilt. Strong support comes from Lothaire Bluteau as a proud, plainspoken, slightly prissy Horst; Brian Webber as the doomed Rudy; and Ian McKellen as Max’s gay Uncle Freddie, a vain “fluff” in spats and boutonniere who tries to help Max escape.

Intense but understated, austere but accessible, graphic but not sensational in its depiction of physical and psychological brutality, Bent is rooted in a specific nightmarish era, yet its spare dialogue, superb young leads, and slightly surreal visual scheme make it immediate and contemporary. More clearly than any stage production of Bent I’ve seen, the film conveys the primal struggle between Eros and Thanatos, which is reflected in everything from the film’s orgiastic opening to the pathetic glimmers of hope inspired by a rumor that there’ll be meat for dinner to the giddy joy Max and Horst try to hide as they relish the simultaneous orgasm they’ve just experienced under the eyes of unknowing guards to the devastating climax, when Max realizes that even death can be an affirmation of the life force, if freely chosen.

Bent couldn’t be a sharper contrast to the year’s other major gay film, the Kevin Kline comedy In & Out. Bent may not have the same broad appeal, though Mick Jagger’s presence will help, but this historical drama, whose most fantastic elements are its most chillingly accurate, is nonetheless timely. There are plenty of well-meaning, sincere conservatives troubled by what they see as an unhealthy flourishing of homosexual immorality and influence in contemporary society–from the “family-values” Baptists protesting the Disney company’s policy granting health benefits for gay and lesbian partners to critics of local civic measures like Oak Park’s same-sex domestic registry. This is the audience that most needs to see Bent, to understand the urgency with which Magnus Hirschfeld’s spiritual descendants push for visibility and political power.

The Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival is screening several early German films as complements to Bent, among them the 1919 Different From the Others (a pioneering study of gay life made with Hirschfeld’s involvement) and the 1933 UFA musical Viktor und Viktoria–the source of Blake Edwards’s 1982 Victor/Victoria and his recent Broadway show of the same title. Like Bent, Viktor und Viktoria prominently features an improbably heterosexual drag queen, but the hypocrisy here doesn’t belong to the character–it belongs to writer and director Rheinhold SchŸnzel, whose sanitized scenario utterly denies the sexual ambiguity implied by his story. In SchŸnzel’s film a female impersonator named Viktor (played by the antic comedian Hermann Thimig) recruits Susanne, an out-of-work soprano (Renate MŸller), to take his place when he gets sick. As “Mr. Viktoria,” she becomes an overnight celebrity with her octave-spanning voice and her gimmick (inspired by the signature gesture of the real-life female impersonator Barbette) of doffing her wig at the end of her act to reveal a “man’s” short, slicked-back hair.

I suppose that as the source of Victor/Victoria, which turned Viktor into a happy homosexual (Robert Preston), Viktor und Viktoria merits inclusion in a gay film festival. But viewers hoping for a glimpse of Nazi-era gay life should be warned: there isn’t any. Instead there’s lots of tedious comedy about Viktor pursuing a pretty fraulein, including a duet in which their bickering is juxtaposed with a trained-dog act. Meanwhile Susanne is taken up by a handsome playboy. In Edwards’s film this character was forced by his attraction to Victoria to question his own heterosexuality; in SchŸnzel’s film he finds out almost immediately that Susanne is a woman and then toys with her by taking her out on manly excursions–she learns to smoke a cigar, gets a shave at a barbershop, and gets into a brawl in a barroom–until she finally cracks, reveals her true gender, and gives up her career. No “degenerate art” here.

Aesthetically worthless and morally impoverished, this cloying Aryan operetta, released the same year Hitler came to power and Dachau was built, is still eerily fascinating in its total denial of the political and economic turbulence going on outside the theaters of its day–a denial as bizarre as that seen in the famous film of Hitler’s final foray outside his bunker shortly before his suicide in 1945, the camera angle hiding his trembling hand as he greets the teenage soldiers who are all that’s left to defend Berlin. There isn’t a Jew or homosexual in sight in SchŸnzel’s weirdly unreal showbiz milieu–nor a hint of “Negro” influence in Franz Doelle’s perky dance-hall score, whose innocuous cheeriness makes The Sound of Music sound like Marilyn Manson. American musicals of the same period tended to stereotype their Jewish and gay characters, but here they’ve been erased altogether–just as the Nazis were attempting to do in real life. Now this is degenerate art.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Bent film still.