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The Holocaust is the history lesson we can least afford to forget and, thereby, be doomed to repeat. The cautionary impulse to keep alive its memory continues to fuel a flood of novels, plays, and films. This ever-growing body of Holocaust art forces us to acknowledge aspects of human nature we would otherwise choose to deny or ignore.
Yet the Holocaust is, in many ways, an unpromising theme for creative endeavors. The subject does not accommodate itself to the moral complexity one finds in the greatest works of narrative artLolita, King Lear, Persona. With the line immutably drawn between good and evil, oppressor and oppressed, the ethical polarities of Holocaust narratives tend to be even more rigidly defined than in the white hat/black mustache schemes of early westerns. As a consequence, these works are usually more terrifying than edifying; like slasher movies, they offer unremitting spectacles of torment without hope of deliverance.
Of all the films I’ve seen that depict the Holocaust, the only one that transcends schematic moralism is Alain Resnais’ half-hour documentary Night and Fog (1955). (No, I have not forgotten The Diary of Anne Frank, Schindler’s List, or the estimable Shoah.) Intercutting archival black-and-white footage of Auschwitz with contemporary color images of the concentration camp’s flower-strewn ruins, Resnais and screenwriter Jean Cayrol blend appalling particulars and philosophical meditations to make us confront the unthinkable through the intellect rather than the emotions.
Cayrol’s poetic commentary, calmly spoken by Michel Bouquet over shots of concentration camp rubble, prods us to contemplate what we would prefer to forget: “The crematorium is no longer in use. The devices of the Nazis are out of date. Nine million dead haunt this landscape. Who is on the lookout from this strange tower to warn us of the coming of new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own? Somewhere among us, there are lucky Kapos, reinstated officers, and unknown informers. There are those who refused to believe this, or believed it only from time to time. And there are those of us who sincerely look upon the ruins today as if the old concentration camp monster were dead and buried beneath them. Those who pretend to take hope again as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the plague of these camps. Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of time.”
In contemporary discourse, the Holocaust has become a ready-made metaphor, sometimes justifiably applied (as in the case of the recent massacres in Africa and Europe) but too often crudely employed to inflame irrational responses (recall Johnnie Cochran’s closing statement to the O.J. Simpson jury). Such is the case with Bent, Martin Sherman’s play, which the dramatist has adapted for Sean Mathias’ screen version.
In 1979, when Bent was initially produced by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, the play exposed the Nazis’ previously little-known persecution of homosexuals and reinforced the burgeoning gay liberation movement. Viewed nearly two decades later, the piece’s shortcomings, as magnified by the projector’s lens, are all too evident. Sherman’s dramatic devices, designed for theatrical presentation, steadfastly resist cinematic translation, posing problems that Mathias is unable to solve.
The opening reels depict a wild, pansexual bacchanal held in a Berlin nightclub on the infamous Night of the Long Knives, the 1934 Nazi blood purge of homosexual commander Ernst Röhm and dozens of his supporters. Mathias’ stylized visuals seem less derived from history than from The Damned, Cabaret, and other movies about the Weimar era. We’re offered an anthology of recycled decadence: drunkenness, drug-taking, avant-garde dancers with shaved heads, sequined drag queens, half-naked men kissing and humping each other. Presiding over the revels is Greta, a transvestite entertainer played by Mick Jagger, who, sporting a frizzy black wig, bears an alarming resemblance to Manhattan cultural doyenne Kitty Carlisle Hart.
At the orgy, Max (Clive Owen), a gay Jewish playboy, picks up a German soldier and brings him home for a one-night stand, to the chagrin of Max’s dancer-lover Rudy (Brian Webber). The next morning, the soldier is murdered by the Gestapo, from whom Max and Rudy narrowly escape. The pair attempt to evade Berlin’s sudden homophobic explosion by crossing the border to Holland, but are captured in a forest and herded onto a train headed for Dachau. Instructed how to survive by a fellow prisoner Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), Max cravenly assists in Rudy’s torture and murder and avoids being tagged with a pink trianglethe Nazi symbol for homosexualsby having intercourse, at gunpoint, with the body of a 13-year-old girl. (His reward for this feat is the Jewish yellow triangle.) At Dachau, Max bribes an officer to assign Horst to his work yard. Slowly and painfully, the pair open their minds and hearts to each other, forging a bond that transcends their harrowing situation.
In the movie’s press kit, Mathias explains that “Bent explores the friendship between two characters under the most difficult circumstances, where the human spirit wins out over oppression and the friendship survives.” But the film’s effect falls far short of its intentions. The Holocaust genre’s gallery of horrorsbeatings, throat-slashings, sadistic tortures, arbitrary executionshas become so familiar that we are inured to the procession of atrocities. By now, one simply waits for them to occur, like song-and-dance numbers in a musical, hoping to receive sufficient advance warning to avert one’s eyes.
Over the past three decades, gay theater has also assembled its own stockpile of clichés, few of which Sherman resists, including the Shylockian “We are just people” exhortation and the ineluctable “I love you. What’s wrong with that?” speech. His original contributions to gay dramaturgy crumble under the cinema’s magnification. Max and Horst’s concentration camp detail, devised to drive them over the edge of sanity, consists of moving rocks (and subsequently chunks of snow) from one end of a quarry to the other, then returning them to their original location. This task, with its obvious allusion to the myth of Sisyphus, may evade disbelief in the abstract space of a stage, but realistically presented on film proves to be woefully implausible. The Nazis’ worship of efficiency and contempt for individuality would have prevented them from dedicating more than a year and the constant supervision of an armed soldier to the unhinging of two inconsequential captives. Surely, the concentration camps provided sufficient methods of absurdist torture from which Sherman could have chosen. Inventing his own exceeds the bonds of dramatic license.
In its theatrical incarnation, Bent’s celebrated set pieces consist of Max and Horst, forbidden to touch or even look at each other, using language to achieve mutual orgasms and, later, physical tenderness. In these dialogues, Sherman builds erotic and emotional rhythms through incantatory repetition. However effective these exchanges might be when uttered by isolated figures onstage, they come across as mannered and tedious in realistic screen presentation, particularly as underlined by Philip Glass’ quavery musical score. Instead of exposing the characters’ souls, Sherman’s dialogue taxes the viewer’s patience and credulity.
What’s finally most shocking about Bent is how little empathy it engenders for its enslaved protagonists. (Exiting the theater, I overheard a man thanking his companions for keeping him awake during the screening.) Normally, professional restraint would prevent me from revealing the film’s denouement, but since the play has been widely performed and discussed, I doubt that I will be giving away any well-kept secrets. The final scene depicts dual martyrdoms. Horst is executed by Nazi soldiers, then Max immolates himself on an electrified fence. Before doing so, he strips off his Jewish yellow triangle uniform and dons Horst’s shirt, with its pink insignia. This telegraphed gesture of self-acceptance is intended to end the piece on a triumphant note of defiance, but instead calls into question Sherman’s peculiar brand of moral bookkeeping: Why is it more courageous and transgressive to die as a homosexual than as a Jew (or gypsy or political dissident)? Bent’s presumption of a hierarchy of martyrdoms insults the memories of concentration camp victims denied a choice of stigmata. Sherman’s usurpation of the Holocaust to plead the cause of gay rights is at best unseemly. Suffering, the most egalitarian of human experiences, does not offer special group rates.CP