This past Saturday, I attended a screening of Paragraph 175 as part of the 2016 NYC LGBT Film Festival. The screening was at the Cinépolis Theater in the New York neighborhood of Chelsea. Originally, I had planned to write about a film called American Fabulous that I saw a week prior, but when a friend told me about the festival that would be happening this past weekend, I decided to take a look at it’s schedule. Paragraph 175 struck out to me, as it is the name of a provision of the German Criminal Code, which made homosexual acts between males a crime. I was somewhat familiar with the code, as I am a World War II and gay history aficionado. When I clicked on the “more information” button, I found out that Academy Award winning director Rob Epstein, the director of the Celluloid Closest, had directed the film and was going to be presenting the film with a Q&A to follow. I knew that I had to be there.
Paragraph 175 is a documentary that features Klaus Müller, a celebrated historian whose work is heavily focused on gay Germany. The film follows him as he interviews survivors of the Nazi persecution of homosexuals under the German Penal Code of 1871, Paragraph 175. Rupert Everett narrates the film, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman in the United States in 2000. The purpose of a documentary is to expose a specific culture, genre or narrative, and that is exactly what Paragraph 175 does. The film highlights the bigotry that dominated World War II and the damning law that would be a part of German history until1994.
My favorite part of the film, one of the most positive parts, was when one of the victims, Albrecht Becker, was going through old photos and he came across an older picture of him with two guys on a beach. He said, “that’s me, that’s my friend from New York – he was my first exotic lover.” It was so beautiful and absolutely sparked a moment of self-reflection. While I’m not sure what particularly drew me to loving German history so much, I do have a personal connection to the country. During my sophomore year, I dated a guy who was studying abroad in New York from Berlin. When he left in December, there was a void that needed some filling. I missed him so much. He invited me to come visit him for my Spring Break – I went and stayed for 10 days or so. While I was there, he introduced me to so much German history, culture, and values. I was so drawn to it all, so I went back this summer and stayed for a month. I had the time to really absorb the history and experience the culture. For as long as I live, Berlin and my German escapades will be one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I was the exotic lover.
The documentary as a genre is incredibly worthwhile, as it is capable of addressing specific issues that may have otherwise been reduced, simplified, or unrevealed to the public eye. Documentaries also allow people that have some sort of connection to the matter to truly relate, as authentically as film gets. A narrative based film is usually based on an existing story, while a documentary tells that story. For instance, listening to people who were actually persecuted during the Nazi regime is so much more worthwhile than a narrative that depicts the time period. Paragraph 175 does a fantastic job honoring all of the oppressed homosexual men and women who were ostracized throughout German history, specifically the Nazi regime.
At the end of the film, Epstein opened the floor to some questions. One of the most valuable components of the Q&A for me was when Epstein discussed the feelings that people should have when seeing Paragraph 175, especially younger people who are far more detached to the World War II narrative. Specifically, someone asked Epstein, what he thought the film would mean for a young gay person now. Epstein spoke about it being an educational experience, rather than an honoring one. He said that high schools and even colleges will simply tell students what Paragraph 175 is about, but wont provide context and a greater understanding. He mentioned that people nowadays are passive in their willingness to want to learn such an intense history and that the names of the persecuted people wont even be remembered by some ancestors. Karl Gorath, Gad Beck, Annette, Eick, Albrecht Becker and Pierre Seel are the remaining survivors who were willing to be part of Paragraph 175; two homosexual men were not interested in being in it. Besides thos two, only five people had this distinct, horrific story. The morbidity surrounding such a notion is terrifying. When Epstein put that into perspective, I lost it. It’s such a sad feeling knowing that the only way such an important story can be told is through familial records, historical documents, and Paragraph 175.
I dragged my sister along to see Paragraph 175 with me. At first, she had low expectations, as she is not really into documentaries, let alone one that she thought was going to be dominated by a gay male narrative. To put it into better context, my sister is a lesbian and she is absolutely vocal in the lack of attention towards lesbians within history. Every time we attend a queer event together, she complains that the subject matter is heavily geared towards gay men. When Annette Eick, a lesbian poet, was featured in the film – my sister grabbed my arm. She didn’t have to say anything, but I knew there was a certain satisfaction in seeing her identity represented on the screen. Eick’s narrative is incredibly important because she is a lesbian. While the torture was historically less severe to lesbians – it still existed and was a significant aspect to the homosexual, German narrative. Despite the representation of lesbians in Paragraph 175, lesbians, at the time, were “curable of their disease.” Gay males, at the time, were unfortunately “un-curable.”
Beyond that, there’s an issue of the double minority represented in Paragraph 175. If a person was gay during the Nazi regime, they were obviously punishable by the law, but lets not forget who a majority of the persecutions were against – Jewish people. Epstein touches on the notion of double minority through Eick and Gad Beck, a Jewish man who spent a majority of his time trying to help refugees escape persecution in Berlin. For me, the notion of being a double minority was incredibly impactful; it made me think of the modern equivalent of an LGBT person who is also a racial minority.
Paragraph 175 has given me the most authentic exposure to gay issues within World War II. Epstein and Friedman’s film is incredibly impactful in it’s ability to highlight such a crucial element of gay history. While it’s tone is cathartic in nature, it succeeds in humanizing the survivors and documenting the few moments of positivity that are celebrated post World War II. Paragraph 175, the law, has been repealed and Germany has become far more tolerant. The city of Berlin is arguably one of the most LGBT-friendly communities within Europe. In my time there, I was exposed to a vast amount of German history that the film documents, but I was also able to truly explore my queer identity. Paragraph 175 reminded me of such an important part of my life, while also conceptualizing an element of history that deserves so much more exposure