Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
1½ stars out of 4
In 1979, Martin Sherman's "Bent" broke new ground. His play boldly
addressed Nazi persecution of homosexuals during World War II, with a
strong subtext about gay pride. At a pivotal moment, a character comes to
terms with his homosexuality, saying "What's wrong with it?" That
statement may have shocked audience members in those days, but that was
then and this is now. Nearly twenty years later, "Bent" has finally hit
the big screen and the film, while certainly admirable, feels more than a
little dated. Through "Schindler's List" and many other fine works, the
nightmares of the Holocaust are well documented. The goal of the
survivors has been realized: we will never forget. The battle for
societal acceptance and equal civil rights for gays continues, but few
will argue that tremendous progress has been made. As for the fundamental
message of gay pride, one has only to flip on a television to see dozens
of positive gay role models on popular shows.
So where does this leave "Bent?" In an awkward position, to say the least.
The people who still need to be exposed to the film's message generally
don't attend gay-themed movies, while many of those sympathetic to the
concept will likely think "been there, done that," and opt not to attend.
It's a shame, really, because there are some good moments in "Bent." The
film begins at a gay cabaret, as young men cavort under the watchful eye
of the club's owner, Greta, a haggard drag queen played by Mick Jagger.
The sight of Jagger in women's clothing is startling. Remember the
episode of the Andy Griffith Show when Barney Fife went undercover
dressed as a woman? That's exactly what Jagger looks like here.
But I digress. At the club, Max (Clive Owen) picks up the wrong man, a
Nazi Stormtrooper, at the wrong time, the Night of the Long Knives, which
marked the beginning of the Nazi's antigay campaign. After a night of sex,
Max wakes to the sight his irate lover Rudy (Brian Webber) staring at
the drunken soldier in Max's bed. Their quarrel is interrupted when Nazis
burst into the room to execute the soldier. Max and Rudy barely escape
and find scant help. Greta offers a little cash and Max's uncle (Ian
McKellen, who played Max in the original London production of the play)
does what little he can. Eventually, the two are arrested and thrown on a
train to Dachau. Rudy quickly falls victim to the Nazis, but Max, who
prides himself on being a shrewd deal-maker, survives by "proving" to the
soldiers he's not gay by having sex with the corpse of a Jewish girl (off-
screen, thankfully.) He is rewarded with an upgrade to a yellow star (the
designation for Jews) rather than a pink triangle (the gay symbol) for
his prison uniform.
While traveling to the prison camp, Max meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau,) a
gay prisoner who detests Max for denying who he is. The two end up
assigned to the same task: moving rocks from one pile to another, then
back again. The chore is designed to drive the men to madness, but as
they labor, they gradually grow closer.
The men are afforded a short break every two hours. During this time they
must stand at attention side by side, forbidden to touch, or even look at
one another. The centerpiece of the film comes during one of those breaks,
when the men talk each other to orgasm.
At its core, "Bent" is a love story set against a nightmare. Owen does a
fine job portraying Max's growth from a callow, self-centered hedonist to
a man who puts love ahead of his own safety. Bluteau is effective as
Horst, whose pride and defiance balance his sanctimonious outbursts, and
Webber convinces as the fragile Rudy.
Director Sean Mathias tries to open up the play for film, with mixed
results. The early scenes at the cabaret are excessive, but credible
enough and the young men's flight from the Nazis is believable, but once
the story moves to Dachau, things change. Max and Horst are always shown
isolated from the other prisoners, in settings that look overly
theatrical. Too often, the characters fall into that clipped, rapid
exchange of dialogue that one only hears during plays. And the ending,
while certainly true to the original, comes off like the overwrought
climax of a high school drama production.
As a play, "Bent" was a landmark. As a movie, it's an anachronism. The
years have not been kind to Sherman's work. The lessons of his story
remain vital, but over the ensuing years we've seen them presented in
better forms. All good intentions aside, "Bent" is a classic example of
too little, too late.
Copyright © 1998 Edward Johnson-Ott