Written by Sharon Wood
Directed by Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman
When people talk about the Holocaust, one of the most common statistics is that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis. What isn’t discussed as often is the other half of that equation. It’s estimated that twelve million were killed in concentration camps. The other six million were comprised of a smattering of other groups, including dissenters, gypsies, those with physical and learning disabilities, and homosexuals.
Rupert Everett narrates the documentary Paragraph 175. The title comes from the 1871 German statute making sodomy illegal, upon which the Nazis prosecuted male homosexuals during their time in power in Germany. While the Holocaust was going on, gay men in particular were prosecuted even worse than the Jews. Close to 100,000 men were arrested under this statute. It’s estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. There were only ten men known to be alive who had been incarcerated in the camps due to homosexuality at the time the film was made.
Prior to the Nazis rising to power, it almost seemed as if a new era was dawning for homosexuals in Germany, and there was even a push to get Paragraph 175 repealed. However, the champion of this movement, the leader of the Hirschfeld Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin was also a homosexual and a Jew.
Klaus Muller, the historian who is featured in the film, talks about living in Germany and growing up not hearing about the persecution of homosexuals. The men he tracks down are reluctant to talk. Some of it is just the horrible memories, but it’s also due to fifty years of no one wanting to hear their stories and having to shut down and not talk about it while others did. What’s even more tragic is that these men weren’t seen as victims of the Nazis. They were treated as criminals following the war and many were arrested even after surviving the camps under the Paragraph 175 statute.
The film is in German and is available with an English or French translation soundtrack. I preferred to view it in the original German while reading the English subtitles. The stories are gut-wrenching. There are some humorous moments as the interviewees talk about the clubs in Berlin, but the gravity of the topic is not lost in these moments. The most open seems to be a man by the name of Gad Beck, while the others are more reticent and seem to have to have the story drawn out of them. For me, there were quite a few moments when there were tears in my eyes.
Special features for Paragraph 175 are sparse but good. The commentary is excellent and really augments the film well. The Directors and Producer talk about how reluctant and even hostile these men were to talk about their experiences. Several outright refused to talk to them initially or agreed only if they would be shown in such a way that their identities were concealed. The additional interviews included on the disc but not in the film are Phillippe Swaan & Kitty Fisher from the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
I highly recommend Paragraph 175. It’s a bit of history that isn’t talked about when discussing the Holocaust and one that should be. I’m glad they managed to get these people’s experiences on video before it was too late.
• Audio Commentary with Directors Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman and Producer Michael Ehrenzweig
• Additional Interviews