Heinz Dormer is almost 90 years old, but his faded blue eyes take on a terrified, faraway look as he remembers an awful place called "the singing forest." As a young man, he was arrested under the Nazi's anti-gay laws and incarcerated in a camp where homosexuals were tortured in a forest clearing. "It gave us all goosebumps," he says of the distant screams of homosexuals hoisted onto hooks in the woods. "The howling and the screaming were inhuman."
The frail, elderly Dormer, a tiny figure in a wheelchair, is one of six interviewees in "Paragraph 175," a deeply unsettling documentary that explores a phenomenon heretofore neglected in the history books. Though everyone knows about the Nazi persecution of Jews, few are familiar with the suffering of almost 100,000 men arrested under Paragraph 175, the Reich's anti-gay statute, and held in prisons. While the 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals who landed in concentration camps were not slated for the gas chambers, they endured slave labor, castration and surgical experiments.
The searing movie is the latest documentary by filmmakers Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have been lauded for their previous films on the gay experience. "Common Threads" (1989) about the AIDS Memorial Quilt, won the Oscar for best documentary; "The Celluloid Closet," about gays in the movies, won an Emmy; and Epstein's "The Times of Harvey Milk" won him an Oscar in 1985.
But the gay producer-directors never tackled a film that touched upon their Jewish roots -- until "Paragraph 175."
It began in 1996, when they traveled to Amsterdam for the premiere of "The Celluloid Closet." A somber letter was waiting for them when they returned to their hotel. The note, on U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum stationary, was from Dr. Klaus Müller, the Western Europe project director for the U.S. Holocaust museum; he urgently wanted to meet with them the next day.
"We expected an elderly man wearing tweeds," Friedman says; instead, the filmmakers met a hip, young gay German professor who was immersed in research about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, his "gay grandfathers." Time was running out, he warned. Fewer than 10 survivors were known to be alive; most were elderly and had never publicly spoken of their experiences. Müller wanted to know if the documentarians could help get their stories out to the world -- and quickly.
The filmmakers were hesitant. "We were wary of becoming entangled in the thicket of Holocaust politics," Friedman said. "For example, we knew there had been resistance from elements of the Jewish community about including other victim groups in Holocaust museums, especially gays."
"But as gay men and as Jews, we had obvious personal reasons to be drawn to this issue," Epstein said.
Friedman, 49, the son of a leftist English professor, grew up in a culturally Jewish home in New York. Epstein, 45, became bar mitzvah in a New Jersey Reform synagogue and enjoyed a close relationship with his Yiddish-speaking, Russian immigrant grandparents. By the age of 20, he had come out to his parents, moved to San Francisco and co-directed "Word is Out," a landmark documentary about the gay experience.
Back in New York, Friedman, a former child actor who had appeared in off-Broadway plays, saw the 1978 doc and found it to be "a revelation," he says. "'Word is Out' showed me that there were openly gay people making movies, and I wanted to find those people," recalls Friedman, who moved to San Francisco and met Epstein at the younger man's 26th birthday party. In 1987, the two founded their production company, Telling Pictures, and began working on "Common Threads."
Nine years later, they embarked on "Paragraph 175," which proved to be a difficult endeavor. German television and Jewish foundations declined to fund the project, ostensibly because of the glut of Holocaust TV programming. One survivor they'd hoped to interview died during pre-production, and the rest were reluctant to talk about the years they were forced to wear the pink triangle, the Nazi symbol for homosexuality.
The reason, Friedman says, is that homosexuality was not completely legal in the unified Germany until the 1990s; Dormer, for one, was incarcerated for nearly 10 years during the Reich, then spent another eight years in prison after the war. In 1982, he applied for reparations from the German government, but his applications was denied.
Friedman noted another irony. "While American gay activists used the pink triangle as a symbol of their resistance in the '70s and '80s, they knew very little about the real men who wore the triangle," he says. "Those men were sitting alone in their shabby rooms, watching a TV program, isolated and forgotten."
As Epstein and Friedman began production in 1997, they met Gad Beck, who tried to rescue his lover from the Gestapo by disguising himself as a member of the Hitler youth.
They interviewed Pierre Seel, who bitterly recounted how he was violated with broken rulers, stabbed with syringes and forced to build a crematoria while incarcerated in the internment camp at Schirmeck. On one terrible day, the Alsatian man was forced to watch his lover torn apart by the Nazis' German shepherd dogs. "I swore never to shake hands again with a German again, and here you are," he told Müller. "It's terrible."
While Müller wanted to depict the survivors only as heroes, the filmmakers saw a more complex story. One gay man, for example, emerged from prison and joined the German army because, in his words, "that's where all the men were."
An even greater challenge was completing the interview with Seel, who "took out all his rage at Germany on Klaus," Friedman recalls. At one point in the film, Seel explodes into an angry tirade, revealing that he still bleeds every day from the Nazi torture. "Do you think I can talk about that?" he screams. "That it is good for me?"
Seel, nevertheless, accompanied the filmmakers to the documentary's premiere at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival, where Epstein and Friedman sat nervously in the audience. "We were worried people would say that Americans had no business making this film," Epstein says.
But after the screening, the viewers erupted into a sustained applause -- and rose in an explosive standing ovation when Seel was introduced to the audience. "Then Pierre came up to the stage, and he kissed all of us, even the crew, and he made a long, rambling, poetic speech of reconciliation," Epstein recalls.
Shortly after the screening, the German government issued a formal apology for its treatment of gays during World War II, Epstein says. German lawmakers have since discussed the possibility of annulling gay convictions under Paragraph 175 during the war, which could pave the way for survivors to receive Holocaust reparations. But Friedman believes such compensation will come too little, too late. "All these men are very old ," he says, ruefully. "By the time anything happens, they will most likely be gone."
"Paragraph 175" opens today in Los Angeles.