Too edgy for the mainstream, Martin Sherman’s influential play is nevertheless transformed into an admirable, well-crafted show. In Hitler’s Berlin of 1934, being gay means death, or a living death in a ‘protective custody’ camp. Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau and Brian Webber find themselves on the way to Dachau, a new Circle of Hell. Yet even in a forced labor camp, the human spirit prevails. The British-made picture features Ian McKellen, Mick Jagger, and several other notable stars in their salad days.
Film Movement Classics
1997 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date January 8, 2019 / 39.95
Starring: Lothaire Bluteau, Clive Owen, Mick Jagger, Brian Webber, Jude Law, Ian McKellen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Rupert Graves, Rachel Weisz, Paul Bettany.
Cinematography: Giorgos Arvanitis
Film Editor: Isabelle Lorente
Original Music: Philip Glass
Written by Martin Sherman from his play.
Produced by Dixie Linder, Michael Solinger
Directed by Sean Mathias
We learned early on that the Nazis forced Jews to mark themselves with six-sided stars on their clothing, but their system for prisoners in camps, whether called detention camps, protective custody camps, or concentration camps went much farther than that. Jews wore yellow, common criminals green, and those branded as sexual degenerates were made to wear pink triangles on their prison garb. The awareness of Nazi crimes against homosexuals was heightened by a 1979 stage play by Martin Sherman, Bent. It was performed in London, on Broadway and in many other productions, starring a long list of prominent actors: Ian McKellen, Richard Gere, Richard E. Grant, Tom Bell, Ralph Fiennes.
Sherman adapted his play for an austere 1997 movie version directed by Sean Mathias; Goldwyn and MGM distributed Bent in America. Not exactly family entertainment (it was rated NC-17), it reproduces the play’s frank dialogue and includes some halfway graphic content as well. The original show was so spare as to be playable on a blank stage if necessary; the film adaptation is opened up at the beginning, for an extravagant and fairly explicit party/orgy scene. The producers certainly did what they could to maximize the commercial viability of a movie destined for ‘select’ theater bookings. It has music by Philip Glass and also a song performance by Mick Jagger, who plays a role as well.
The film explain the full context of its setting. The story opens on a fated event in June 1934 that became infamous as ‘The Night of the Long Knives (Nacht der langen Messer).’ Hitler consolidated his power in a bloodbath, eliminating numerous political allies and especially Ernst Röhm, the influential leader of the SA (stormtroopers). Röhm was a homosexual, as were many of his officers; the organized murders carried out in one night by Hitler’s elite Nazi party police (the SS) also targeted a wide range of political opponents. People found with the targets were killed as well. One of the killing raids is portrayed in Luchino Visconti’s 1969 epic The Damned.
At a wild party in an abandoned mill, the host Greta (Mick Jagger) entertains in drag, swinging from a trapeze and singing a song. The mostly male revelers include gay SA officers, lesbians and cabaret performers in bizarre costumes. As the party turns into a full-on orgy, the handsome Max (Clive Owen of Children of Men) brings the ‘beautiful’ SA officer Wolf (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) back to his own loft-like space for night of sex. This distresses Max’s lover Rudy (Brian Webber), a bespectacled dancer who likes to raise houseplants. In the morning they’re interrupted by three SS men, who slaughter the naked officer with a bayonet knife. Rudy and Max must flee in their pajamas; they’re given clothing and some money by Greta, who reveals that he’s an SS informer. From now on ‘queers’ and ‘fluffs’ will be hunted down and imprisoned; Greta says he’s going straight and that it’s every man for himself.
Max broke off from his wealthy family years before. Homeless and on the run, he contacts his Uncle Freddie (Ian McKellen), who brings money and papers for Max to flee to Amsterdam, a political safe haven. But Max won’t go without Rudy. Living in the woods, they’re caught by the Gestapo put on a train to Dachau, which in 1934 is a political prison for Jews, intellectuals, homosexuals and other undesirables. The SS captain on the train picks out Rudy for ‘special treatment,’ likely to break the other prisoners of any illusions about fairness or mercy. Max is saved by another homosexual detainee, Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who warns him that if he shows any concern for Rudy, he’ll be killed as well. Max is made to participate in the savage beating of Rudy. The laughing soldiers also force him to prove he’s not a queer by raping the corpse of young girl they have just shot.
Dachau is a different circle of Hell. Horst is wearing his pink triangle, but Max has identified himself as a Jew in a ploy for better treatment. He’s determined to survive at any cost. Max and Horst are tasked with hard labor made mental torture: they must move piles of heavy rocks back and forth, like Sisyphus. Watched from afar at all times, they can’t touch each other but they can talk. Although they know that personal attachments mean death, they share ‘sex’ by simply standing in place and talking to each other. How long will their guards allow this to continue?
Beautifully acted, Bent is a powerful drama that overcomes typical concentration camp clichés. Horrible Nazi crimes were only slowly accepted as appropriate subject matter for movies. Shows about detention and extermination camps educated new generations while coming under fire for offenses real or perceived. Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1959) was criticized for injecting a (sort-of) glamorous romance into a camp setting. Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) was dunned for simplifying grim-serious issues into triviality. Even Spielberg’s generally lauded Shindler’s List has occasionally taken flak for various perceived crimes of taste and accuracy.
Retaining the focus of the stage play, Bent limits its view to one case. Except for reminding us that that gays suffered too, it’s main purpose is to proclaim that human dignity and love go hand in hand, in whatever form. Many traditional ‘uplifting’ dramas tend to sanitize events, starting by separating love from sex. Sherman’s play doesn’t ignore the obvious human chemistry in relationships. The play and movie take us far into the degradation suffered by Max, who is forced to commit atrocities by real political perverts.
Details do not whitewash Max’s motives. He knows he was not a good person in Berlin, loyal neither to his friends nor his lovers. He chooses the designation of ‘Jew’ because he thinks it will be an advantage over the pink triangle. An anti-Semite might point out Max’s stated survival plan: he’ll get along by ‘making deals’ with the enemy. He trades Uncle Freddie’s money for the privilege of working with Horst (why do the SS guards honor the arrangement?) and even trades sex to get medicine. The Nazi officers seem to have a radar that detects when a captive does anything for any reason but abject fear… so we wonder why it takes them so long to single out the Odd Couple Horst & Max for further attention.
Bent leads with that elaborate party scene, shrinks to a run-down park and a woods where fugitives live, and then narrows down to the space between just Horst and Max. We see where they sleep and watch them move in larger groups, but for most of the screen time in the second and third act, it’s just the two of them alone debating their predicament. They form a committed relationship, even though they can’t touch each other or even be caught looking at each other. Their existential ordeal can be appreciated by anybody. If director Sean Mathias is responsible for the film’s blocking and look — framing the two miserable prisoners in oppressive surroundings — he’s earned his credit. The framing rarely reassures us with a full view around the pair as they move rocks. The prison is represented by a disused industrial site. Huge pits and concrete buildings dwarf the pair as they shamble and stumble through their work.
The show has very little non-essential film footage. Travel transitions are handled through fast montages of train wheels and blurry rails rushing by, probably sourced from a B&W German silent, perhaps Berlin: Symphony of a City. The narrative shorthand technique works extremely well. We never feel cheated.
The physical human wreckage on screen is more important. Starting as a mustachioed playboy, Max becomes a hobo and finally a filthy laborer, scalp scars showing on his ragged-shaved head. As this is years before the Reich instituted killing on a mass scale, Max and Horst aren’t being starved. That doesn’t mean that the guards won’t kill them without notice, over any offense real or imagined.
The intimacy of the scale helps retain the play’s essence of men in extremis. Max and Horst express their anxiety, try to stay sane, and search for a mental peace of mind in an impossible situation. If the end is predictable, it is not a cheat and not sentimentalized. It’s fair to say that adapting the play Bent is not an easy task. That artists keep trying to bring such stories to mainstream audiences is a positive sign — everything human that’s not hateful or destructive needs to be understood and accepted.
I don’t know when Clive Owen ‘arrived’ as a film star; when I did promos for Bent at MGM in 1997 I had no idea who he was, and only later recognized him in Croupier and Gosford Park after finally pegging him in Children of Men. Besides the extended cameo appearance of Mick Jagger to help with the publicity (Jagger’s bit is actually very effective), Bent seems to have had its pick of talent and friends of the filmmakers. Ian McKellen was the first Max on stage, but here stops by to play the effete, cautions Uncle Freddie. Brian Webber and especially Lothaire Bluteau are just as impressive (Unfortunately, Bluteau’s name sounds too perfect for a French version of Popeye’s famous nemesis). Also popping up as guards and SS men are Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (of Game of Thrones), Jude Law, Rupert Graves and Paul Bettany. Everybody speaks with English accents, which in the context of this stylized show, is not a problem.
Film Movement Classics’ Blu-ray of Bent is a fine transfer of this visually precise drama. Once the film’s scope narrows to the two men in the hellish prison landscape the color range drops to near nothing. But the filmmakers don’t try to score easy points by making things look ugly. When the perfectly-dressed SS officers step into the frame, the contrast makes its point.
The stylized party-orgy up front is not a standard ‘Weimar decadence’ scene but something a little more elaborate, like a carnival madhouse of costumed freaks. The opportunist-host Greta puts on a good theatrical show, and the crazed guests take it from there. The design is just rational enough to avoid the pornographic feel of Guccione’s Caligula. Once the scene is set the show moves on to Max’s personal story. Likewise the horrors on the train are not fully depicted, with just enough detail to soak into the viewer’s thoughts. Unless you think a film about Nazis must wade through the slime in close-up, the presentation works. Good taste has nothing to do with it, but this is not an ordeal like some artworks focusing on Fascist atrocities.
Philip Glass’s music is never obtrusive, but we do note his droning theme during the first major train trip. The soundtrack is very nicely mixed, with Mick Jagger’s input used up front and over the end credits.
The disc extras access a group of on-set interview pieces with the main actors, including the star names and Mick Jagger. Jagger’s music video for his song Streets of Berlin is present as well. Some behind-the-scenes footage was meant to be used in a featurette. A couple of trailers are included.
A short insert booklet has color illustrations, a statement from the director and a short, informative essay by Steven Alan Carr. One of his concerns addresses a ‘Holocaust sensibility backlash’ in the late 1980s, wherein authorities like Elie Weisel were concerned that entertainments were trivializing the subject. Carr dares to state that docus and dramas about non-Jewish holocaust victims were diverting attention from what some scholars and activists thought should be a focus only on Jewish victims. That sounds like a risky subject to debate on any level.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Bonus features included Cast and Crew Interviews, Mick Jagger music video Streets of Berlin, Behind the Scenes footage, and new essay written by Steven Alan Carr.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 9, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson