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Salt Lake City Weekly Defiantly Bent

Sean Mathias' screen adaptation of "Bent" reaffirms the power of love, even in the bleakest of times.

By Mary Dickson

MAY 11, 1998:  Shot in silhouette, a woman with long, shapely legs, suspended on a moon-shaped swing floats overhead as the music plays in the smoke-filled warehouse below. On a stage in the center of the cavernous cabaret, rouged men dressed as women, women dressed as men, and women draped in little more than fishnet dance in the smoke. Off-stage, men and women drink, smoke, snort cocaine, caress, kiss and writhe in impassioned unions in which the only goal is satisfaction.

They revel in the nightclubs of Berlin, oblivious to the reign of terror that is about to consume them. All that matters at the moment is that the senses are sated. As light and color settle on the face of the woman on the swing, we see that nothing is what is seems. Identity has become elusive in this era. The woman with the shapely legs is Mick Jagger, who plays the owner of this club, symbolizing a period of decadence and depravity in which survival takes many forms.

Greta is really George, a married man, a father, a church-goer, an average guy who has had every prostitute in the streets of Berlin. He can burn his wardrobe of feather boas and gowns, and along with them his sexual proclivities, then disappear into his respectable life where he will be safe. "Streets Of Berlin," he sings. "I must leave you soon ... Streets of Berlin, where boys are pretty, find me a boy with two ocean-blue eyes ... they'll eat you alive in the city."

In Nazi Germany, identity became the difference between life and death. To survive, friends would forsake friends, lovers would deny lovers, victims and oppressors alike would eat you alive. "Fluffs" and "queers," homosexuals were considered the lowest of the low by the Nazis, ranking below Jews. If you were "bent," you were doomed. The Night of Long Knives, in which associates of homosexual commander Ernst Rohm were murdered by the S.S., heralded the end for thousands of homosexuals. Heinrich Himmler claimed such systematic murders were not punishment but "more the simple elimination of this particular abnormality. These creatures must be exterminated."

When Bent, Martin Sherman's ground-breaking stage play premiered in 1979, many people were unaware of Hitler's systematic extermination of homosexuals. While no longer ground-breaking, Sean Mathias' film adaptation of Sherman's play (for which Sherman wrote the screenplay) is as powerful and deeply affecting as the play itself. It's a brilliantly executed film translation, from the striking cinematography to Phillip Glass' haunting score to the riveting performances and the raw power of the words themselves.

Clive Owen plays Max, the debonair hedonist used to the decadent life until the Night of Long Knives, when he finds himself hiding from the S.S. and running for his life with the dancer who is his lover. Sleeping in culverts in the forest, they talk of escaping to Amsterdam and getting a dog. But the dogs they get are Dobermans, guiding the S.S. to them.

On the train bound for Dachau, the Nazis brutally beat the dancer, as Max is forced to watch in silence. "This isn't happening, this isn't happening," he chants to himself. But it is happening, and to save himself, he must deny his friend and even deliver the final fatal blows. In this act of denial, he forsakes his own identity and his own humanity. It's a vivid portrayal of the nightmarish choices people made to survive.

Max has amazingly strong resolve to survive. He denies his own nature and his dead lover not only to protect his physical well-being, but also his psyche. On the train, Max meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who teaches him that to survive you must harden your heart and do as you are instructed. "Friendship," as Horst knows, "lasts about 12 hours in this place."

As the prisoners who survive the brutal train ride climb off the train and are paraded to their barracks, a cheery German couple enjoys a picnic nearby and little German boys jump into a pond, giggling. It's a brilliant juxtaposition, this idle happiness of passive onlookers as doomed prisoners march by.

Directed by
Sean Mathias
Lothaire Bluteau
Clive Owen
In the camp, Max opts for a yellow star instead of a pink triangle. It is better, he says, to be a Jew than a queer. He stands a better chance of survival if he conceals his true nature. When he is assigned to carry rocks from one pile to another, he bribes the guards to pair Horst with him in this Sysephyian task. The camera moves far overhead to show them like little ants moving their load from there to here and back again, like an existential scene straight out of Samuel Beckett. "They do it to drive us mad, but it's the best job to have," says Max.

In this endless task, they are forbidden to look at or touch each other. They can talk to each other as long as the guards don't hear them. Over the months they develop a powerful bond, giving each other the will to survive and restoring their humanity in an unbearable place where no one knows what minor offense will result in an immediate and arbitrary death sentence. As they work, the "rat-tat-tat" of gunshots ring. In a hellish place like this, where they've been stripped of everything, the only act of free will left to prisoners is suicide.

The film portrays the desperate clinging to life and the profound love that comes from it. Above all, Bent is an unusual and intensely moving love story. Horst's simple gesture of touching his left eyebrow is the only way he can tell Max he loves him. The film's most erotic scene comes when the two prisoners standing at attention side by side don't even touch. Standing there in the quarry, describing in slow detail what they're doing in their imaginations, not even their eyes meeting, they prove that the most intense sex occurs not below the waist but between the ears. It's an amazing scene. "We made love," Horst says. "We feel we're human. They're not going to kill us."

The film's NC-17 rating comes, no doubt, from its homosexual subject matter and a few fleeting scenes in the opening sequence. The rating is unfortunate, as this is a brutal though ultimately transcendent film that reaffirms the power of love even in the bleakest of circumstances, and shows that admitting who and what you are can be the most defiant and liberating act of all.

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