If Berlin in the twenties was “a homosexual Eden,” as we are told early on in the absorbing documentary Paragraph 175, there was a dreadful string attached. That string was an article of the German penal code, criminalizing sodomy, that had been on the books since Bismarck back in 1871 and would stay on those books in both Germanys until the late sixties. So the Weimar of gay bars and cross-dressing, of Marlene Dietrich, Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, and Cabaret, existed on sufferance. Ambiguity of law enforcement matched ambiguity of gender roles. Sexual politics meant fugitive cultures.
Nazis, of course, were afraid of everybody – socialists, Communists, scientists, artists, writers, Jews. And so they sought to burn them all in one big Reichstag bonfire. And never mind that the very first storm trooper, Ernst Roehm, was himself a well-known gay. Hitler protected him until the Night of the Long Knives, after which Paragraph 175 would be expanded to include not only acts of sodomy but also looks and gestures, attested to by gossip and innuendo, suggesting the possibility of such acts. While lesbianism was still considered “temporary” and “curable,” male homosexuality became a “contagious disease.” Between 1933 and 1945, 100,000 gay men were arrested. Paragraph 175 is fuzzy on just how many were sent to color-coded concentration camps, where they were required to wear pink triangles. But that 4,000 survived can probably be attributed to the fact that most were Christians.
Of those 4,000, ten were alive when Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who produced and directed Paragraph 175 (their previous credits for HBO include The Celluloid Closet and the Oscar-winning Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt), began filming. They talked to six survivors. Thus, with Rupert Everett setting the scene and introducing the principals, we will spend equal time with Albrecht Becker, Gad Beck, Heinz Dörmer, Heinz F., Pierre Seel, and Annette Eick. We look into their photo albums and follow them to Berlin, for which there is plenty of vintage film footage. Except for Eick, who escaped to England, and Becker, who was lucky enough to land in a regular prison, they did their time in such designer hells as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen. If not the gas chamber, they faced torture and medical experimentation. They have tried to hide out since in marriage, the Army, or Israel. The stories they tell – of Boy Scouts and Hitler Youth; of a “singing forest” with prisoners hanged to scream from hooks in trees – are the twentieth century’s atrocious soundtrack.
I suppose that this is where we avert our eyes and try to get another purchase on the same old horror by thinking sideways – about, say, Weimar as an epidemic of transgressive energies, of Dolchstosslegenden (“stabbed-in-the-back stories” as told by the men who came back maimed from World War I) and Lustmord (sexual murder in paintings by Otto Dix and Kurt Schwitters, novels by Alfred Döblin and Hermann Hesse, films by Fritz Lang, and plays by Frank Wedekind); of the odd correspondence or conjoining of fascism and modernism (letters from the same camp, with its weak male-ego boundaries and chimney smoke of human cinder). But all such guff is just Cultural Studies, a postmodern alibi. Most remarkable of all the ugly facts insisted upon by Paragraph 175 – an obscene absurdity – is that, to this very day, gay victims of the Nazis have not only been denied any reparations by any German government, but the time they spent in concentration camps is deducted from their pensions.
Since CSI on CBS is in reruns, those of you in need of a regular fix of forensic pathology could do a lot worse than tune in on Tuesday nights to Secrets of the Dead, which this week tries to solve the mystery of “Murder at Stonehenge.” A body discovered near the famous megaliths, apparently beheaded, was first thought to be the leftovers of some pagan ritual sacrifice and is now believed instead to be evidence of a public execution by the Romans bringing law, order, and aqueducts to the blue-faced Druidic Britons. While the archaeologists are playing private eye, we are reintroduced to all the things we still don’t know about the ruins themselves. Forthcoming in the public-television series are: the truth behind the extermination of 1,300 British redcoats, by Zulu warriors, in South Africa in 1879; what infrared thermography and photogrammetry can tell us about whether the body of a dead Jesus Christ ever lay in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; and an inquiry into the origins of syphilis, as deduced from enamel analysis and Latin texts.
Memories of Oz (july 3; 7:30 to 8 p.m.; TCM) goes behind the scenes to chitchat with various Munchkins, Bert Lahr’s daughter Jane, and one-man cult John Waters; finger one of Dorothy’s pinafores; and reveal for the very first time the guilty secret of the blue ducks – before a commercial-free telecast of the movie.
An All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson (July 4; 8 to 10 p.m.; TNT) is worth browsing even if the whole idea of Ricky Martin singing “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda” sends you screaming into the forest primeval or the tar pits. Still, you won’t want to miss Heart, Jubilant Sykes, and the Harlem Boys Choir doing “Good Vibrations” or Elton John and Brian himself teaming up for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”
Dinner for Five (July 7; 8 to 8:30 p.m.; IFC) sits Jon Favreau, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Peter Berg, Joey Lauren Adams, and Kevin James down at a table in a restaurant to eat, smoke, and tell unrehearsed stories about agents, auditions, nude scenes, Golden Globes, cow-tipping, and Harvey Weinstein. I’m sorry they included the very sad Dick Van Dyke anecdote, but Tripplehorn is a delight.
Murder in Mesopotamia (July 8; 9 to 11 p.m.; A&E) follows David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot to a Tunis pretending to be Iraq, where at an archaeological dig he uncovers more murder suspects than there are mummies in the Middle East. A nice surprise twist for those who haven’t read the Agatha Christie novel.
Paragraph 175 Monday, July 9; 8 to 9:30 p.m.; HBO.
Secrets of the Dead Tuesdays, through July 31; 8 to 9 p.m.; Channel 13.