I don’t remember the last time a film left me feeling this uneasy in a long time. It is not merely a ‘tearjerker’: by the final scene I had the feeling of nausea in the back of my throat for the scene’s entire duration. After it finished, the room sat in silence; the chaplain asked if I was alright and offered an ear if I ever need one.
It isn’t exploitative, it isn’t filled with physical violence; it is a far more sensitive portrayal of sexuality within the Nazi regime than The Night Porter (1974) offers. It’s clear Martin Sherman wrote Bent for the stage, but that doesn’t lessen it. Mathias presents a real sense of the physical isolation of the camps, but also the intimacy of the setting even if physical touch is non-existent. Max’s mantra of optimism he will survive is foolish, but still harrowing (and necessary). Human will tries to survive against all odds, even in the most extreme of situations.
That isn’t to say the film is amazing. The first act, showing the decadent, hedonistic queer counter-culture of Germany, feeling like a remnant of the expressionism and experimentation of the Weimar era, complete with orgies, cocaine, butts, isn’t a point of connection; however I’m sure there’s plenty of crazy parties today in which the exact same things happen. It feels generic: the SS don’t feel menacing, and Mick Jagger appears singing a song somehow. It takes a while to suspend disbelief to a Germany where everyone speaks English. But once we reach the border and we see intimacy – even in the slightest of ways – and persecution – the film’s power takes over. In the minimalism of a focus on essentially two characters, understanding their struggle in English somewhat works; it cements itself when we see Max and Horst pushing rocks between piles in futility.
The film is unique in a number of ways, not least because we see the Holocaust through the homosexual perspective, where the dominant discourse focuses on the Jewish experience. The fact we are able to explore the period prior to the installation of the death camps, and instead focus on humiliation within concentration camps where although death is the inevitable end, it is in a less systematic way. SS officers are far more brutal than faceless gas chambers: relying on bribery, rape and necrophilia, treating humans as objects and pets to play around with.
But there’s something still relevant today. There’s still a sense of being intimate behind closed doors in private, despite major societal progress. Asking for a discrete rent boy is exactly the sort of thing you’d search for on Grindr; intimacy in words bears similarities to sexting and long distance relationships. The passive use of the word ‘queer’ – re-appropriated as a community identification in the face of its use as a slur.