Bent (1997): Film of Sherman’s Play about Homosexuals in Nazi Germany Starring Ian McKellen

Watching Bent, the screen adaptation of Martin Sherman’s play about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, makes it clear right away that tyro filmmaker Sean Mathias (an experienced stage director) doesn’t know much about film. His erratic approach and inconsistent visual style bring to the surface the weaknesses rather than strengths of the original work.

Clive Owen gives a decent, though by no means engrossing, performance in the lead role, played by Ian McKellen in London and Richard Gere in New York. With no strong critical support, Goldwyn should face tough challenge in taking the film beyond the gay milieu, its primary target audience.

Sherman’s long-running play was never great, but it was dramatically powerful and quite touching. Perhaps more importantly, the play made a significant contribution to the then meager literature on the Holocaust, which dealt for the most part with the Jewish angle, but neglected other groups victimized by Hitler, such as homosexuals and gypsies.

Bent should be sent back to the editing room to amend its particularly weak opening, which is meant to establish the decadent and corrupt–Cabaret-like–atmosphere of Berlin during the early years of the Nazi regime. With heavy reliance on crosscutting and montage, initial scenes are too rambling in depicting protagonist Max (Owen), a rotten man by his own description, who’s sexually promiscuous and not terribly alert to the changing political climate.

When German soldiers invade his loft and slaughter his trick from the previous night, Max and loyal b.f. Rudy (Brian Webber) quickly escape. In a brief park meeting, Max asks his gay uncle (Ian McKellen) to help him obtain two passports and two tickets for the neutral zone of Amsterdam, but to no avail.

To get some food, Rudy signs up for construction work, but later that night he and Max are arrested in the forest by German troopers and thrown onto a train headed for the Dachau concentration camp. On the train, Max experiences the first of many traumatic debasements: He is not only forced to deny any link to Rudy, but also asked to fatally beat him. To prove that he is not queer and get the yellow rather than pink triangle, he undergoes further degradation that results in a curious mix of self-loathing and strong determination to survive at any cost.

Scripter Sherman follows quite faithfully his stage production and picture’s second part settles into a more claustrophobic theatrical mood. In these episodes, which are rather stagnant, Max develops a unique friendship–and eventually true love–with a sensitive fellow inmate, Horst (Lothaire Bluteau), who wears his pink triangle with pride, reproaching Max for denying his sexual identity and opting instead for the Jewish label.

Due to Mathias’ lack of technical skills, the play’s most riveting scenes (which reduced theatergoers to tears) are not exploited for their inherent dramatic merit. In the emotional highlight of the piece, Max and Horst, who have been carrying rocks back and forth for days, engage in an unusual love-making, a act that’s totally reliant on suggestive dialogue and creative imagination, precluding any physical touch or even exchange of looks between them.

Other sequences, in which the duo declare love and vow commitment, are also poorly executed, with the camera positioned in the wrong place or observing the protagonists from a distance. Excessive cutting, often in the midst of crucial monologues, prevents the viewers from watching simultaneously–in the same frame–the reaction of one character to another.

It doesn’t help that neither lead is particularly compelling. Though looking right physically, Owen lacks the lyricism and range to convey the pain of a cynical self-absorbed gay who’s transformed into a loving and politically committed man. Bluteau, still best-known for his role in Jesus of Nazareth, is slightly hampered by his French accent and also seems unable to fully realize the potential of his arduous role.

McKellen, as the flamboyant Uncle Freddie, and Mick Jagger, as a transvestite cabaret singer (who performs a newly-written song, “Streets of Berlin”), do the best they can in their limited screen time.

Production values are moderate as befit the material, though Philip Glass’s post-modernist score may not be the best choice for such work. Even so, it’s an indication of Sherman’s writing that despite helming and acting deficiencies, his anti-dictatorial statement and tribute to the indefatigable human spirit remain most powerful.