Bent is educational, thought-provoking piece of history
The film Bent portrays the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi reign of terror, a subject unknown to many, overlooked by others, but clearly overshadowed by the Third Reich’s more infamous genocide of the Jews.
Adapted for the screen by Martin Sherman (author of the ground-breaking and award-winning play of the same name), the movie is essentially about the triumph of the human spirit over perceivably insurmountable obstacles.
Bent opens with scenes of the wildly decadent nightlife of the gay and eccentric who flocked to Berlin in the economically troubled late 1930s seeking the solidarity and freedom of expression that city life often brings. Greta, an androgynous nightclub owner (played by Mick Jagger), who also serenades his customers, hosts the nightly festivities which take place in a surreal and stylistic setting. The fun, however, comes to a devastating halt when the Nazis arrive on the scene, and concentration camps soon replace nightclubs as the film continues on a provocative, yet macabre and heart-wrenching path.
Despite the gruesome subject matter, playwright Sherman and director Sean Mathias (acclaimed theater director making his film directorial debut, and not unnotably, chosen by Sherman) focus less on producing a harsh re-creation of the Holocaust and more on portraying an existential view of it.
Rather than constructing a commercially acceptable and historically accurate depiction of the war, Sherman and Mathias concentrate on how the human psyche reacts to the devastation. The leading characters, Max and Horst (superbly performed by Clive Owen and Lothaire Bluteau, respectively) are not simply affected by the obvious emotional trauma of being prey to murderous rampage and blatant torture, but by the more obscure emotional trauma resulting from the deprivation of love, compassion and free will.
Max and Horst rise above the most oppressive of all possible environments: the death camp. They endure it, attempt to survive it, not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally. In fact, physical existence becomes insignificant in relation to spiritual survival (which proves ultimately to triumph). While Max and Horst are physically and mentally pummeled in the most merciless of manners, their souls continue to flourish. They build a loving relationship; they support each other, and they share affection, consolation and even snippets of humor.
Exploring this crucial psychological element of the Holocaust is the film’s strength. It is masterfully effective. I wondered, however, about the movie's credibility. During some moments of the film, it was difficult to suspend disbelief, such as a scene in which there is a complete lack of blood shed when prisoner Horst is riveted with bullets, and another in which prisoner Max receives money in a letter from home (I thought such actions would not have been sanctioned by the Nazis). In addition, I had a hard time believing that both prisoners could reach orgasm while separately standing at attention, in a physical state of exhaustion and malnutrition.
Furthermore, the film depicts the guards employing far more psychological torture than physical, and I wondered whether the Nazis actually engaged in mind games to such an extent. Some of my doubts were put to rest, though, when I realized that the film takes place during the onset of the war, when the prisons were established as detention camps not extermination camps. So, in fact, prisoners did receive mail, they were even released on occasion, and the harsh treatment in general was somewhat less severe. In those early days of the war the members of the Third Reich made the rules as they went along, they were formulating their tortures. They learned early on that terrorizing the prisoners on the train [en route to camps] broke them down and that was a great way of controlling them when they got to the camps.
A few other tid bits worth mentioning: The score, beautifully composed by Philip Glass, was a moving and notable feature of the film. And Sir Ian McKellen, who plays Uncle Freddie in the film, originally starred as the main character, Max (garnering an award for the role) in Bent’s 1979 theater production in London. Other Max alumni include Richard Gere and Michael York in the 1980's Broadway production. Catch this film; it’s educational, thought provoking and above all, worthwhile.
You can rent or buy this extremely important film at Outloud! Books and Gifts on Church Street, at other retailers or online.