March 26, 1998
Max (Clive Owen, left) and Horst (Lothaire Bluteau) in"Bent."
What a peculiar piece of work is "Bent." The film version ofMartin Sherman's play, first presented on the London stage in 1979,and later on Broadway, has taken almost 20 years to come to thescreen. It's not difficult to see why. Not only is it turgid stuff,with a paucity of unfilmable ideas, but in an industry that sometimesseems to specialize in specious history, it will be hard to matchthis one for irresponsibility.
The chief character, Max (Clive Owen), a playboy, a main player inthe decadent gay night life of 1930s Berlin, has the misfortune ofpicking up a soldier in a cabaret-style nightclub owned by thetransvestite Greta. (The scene, incidentally, is a dreadful pasticheof every depiction of German decadence, from Christopher Isherwood to"The Damned.") Max's one-night stand turns out to be a chum of NaziCommander Ernst Roehm, and the evening of their tryst was the nightof the Long Knives, when Hitler purged open homosexuals from hisregime. Max's entertainment for the evening meets a bloody end, andMax and his steady boyfriend, the cabaret dancer Rudy, take to thewoods, hotly pursued by the SS and their dog packs.
Once in the concentration camp, Max chooses to pass as a Jew,donning the yellow star instead of the pink triangle of thehomosexual prisoner; Jews get better treatment than gays, who are,according to this tale, the lowest of the low.
The argument is ludicrous. It is bad art and even worse history.That it deserves to be pilloried is obvious to anyone who cares todraw the line between fact and fiction. That it will probably not beis testament to our politically correct times.
Almost 20 years ago, when Sherman's dubious metaphor -- he wastrying to make some sort of statement about the perils to gayself-respect of remaining in the closet, at a time and in a placemuch different to ours -- was being attacked in the English press,the playwright who is both gay and Jewish, and, therefore, accordingto him, incapable of being offensive to Jewish sensibilities,insisted that the criticism was misplaced. Only the plight of theJews, he said, was a strong enough image in our consciousness to makeaudiences aware of the degree of gay suffering. Arguing that the playneeded to be judged by political rather than aesthetic standards,some of the gay press, though by no means all, agreed.
Historian Barry Davis, in a review for the London-based magazineGay Left, decried what he called "the mercantilism of compassion" --the dangerous game of who suffered most.
"Whatever Sherman's intention," he wrote, "he appears to diminishthe suffering of one persecuted group to highlight the suffering ofanother."
Davis, among others, was at pains to correct Sherman's skeweredhistory, pointing out that while homosexuals were often sent toconcentration camps, they rarely ended up in death camps, at leastfor the sin of being gay. The Nazis did not exterminate gays as theydid Jews and Gypsies.
In the absence of records, estimates of the number of gays killedunder the Third Reich range anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000, butthere is no way to assess how many of those were killed because theywere gay, or how many were Jews who also happened to be gay. Gaysreturning from the camps after the war, surprisingly, were notreluctant to discuss the reasons for their incarceration.
It was a crime, punishable by death, to be homosexual in the SS.But in the German population at large, preventative detention, notdeath, was the punishment for the "crime" of being gay.
Ironically, to today's radical right -- the militias, theNeo-Nazis -- Jews and homosexuals are one and the same, but in moresophisticated circles, to equate being gay with being Jewish issentimental at best and nonsense at worst.
A homosexual in the face of Nazi persecution could choose to stayin the closet. In the film, Greta, the transvestite nightclub owner(played by Mick Jagger), simply burns her wardrobe and becomesGeorge, a respectable German burgher. A Jew had no such option.
British historian Davis believes that Sherman may have based hisplay on the writings of Bruno Bettleheim in "Survival and OtherEssays," in which the author described a camp where gays were indeedthe lowest of the low. But it was not a death camp. Those were earlydays in the war against the Jews, and Bettleheim had escaped toAmerica by the time the mass exterminations began.
In the England of the 1970s, long before we had lesbian love onprime-time sitcoms and red ribbons on every lapel, Martin Sherman maywell have felt persecuted, not least in a Jewish community that couldfind little role for an openly gay man. We hope times have changed.
Piggybacking the woes of one group onto the suffering of anotheris always tempting -- witness the overheated rhetoric of some of theearly radical feminists who would have had us believe they had it ashard as the passengers in the slave ships -- but it is a dangerousbusiness that can come back to bite those who avail themselves of it.
Homosexuality was rife among the SA and the SS in a culture thathad its roots in the German male-bonding ethos, the Mannebund. Andthere is little doubt that many of the female guards in the campswere lesbians.
"The trouble with creating instant victims," says Davis, "is thatyou have to do your sums, and, in this case, there were probably moregays among the oppressors than there were gays oppressed."
This double-edged sword was demonstrated graphically at aninternational gay and lesbian convention not long ago in Israel. On avisit to Yad Vashem, delegates were spat upon by demonstrators, oneof whom yelled, "My uncle was raped by homosexual guards in thecamp."
It would indeed be a tragedy if Sherman's work were to set Jewsand gays against each other in a juvenile and ridiculous "Hitlerhated me more" argument.
Happily, "Bent" is such a poor film that, with any luck, few willsee it.
Sally Ogle Davis writes about entertainment from Ventura.
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