By Gregg Shapiro
Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
It’s been said that timing is everything. The new Blu-ray reissue of Sean Mathias’ 1997 film adaptation of gay playwright Martin Sherman’s Tony Award-nominated play “Bent” (Film Movement Classics/MGM) arrives at a time when brutal homophobic and anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise. It is a terrifying reminder that the past is never that far behind us.
Max (Clive Owen) wakes up in his flat after a night of debauchery. A Berlin grifter, Max revels in the decadence of the period. At a nightclub where drag diva Greta (Mick Jagger) makes her performance entrance by being lowered from above, Max is hit on by hot SS man Wolf (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his boyfriend Rudy (Brian Webber). But that doesn’t stop Max from bringing Wolf back to their shared apartment.
This sets a series of unfortunate events in motion. Wolf, the boyfriend of high- ranking Nazi deputy Karl Ernst is killed by a pair of soldiers. Max and Rudy are on the run. They get to Greta’s, now dressing like a man and going by George, just in time to see her set fire to her makeshift drag wardrobe. George declares that suddenly “queer is out, queer is dead”, but is good enough to give them some money.
On the lam and homeless for more than a year, Max meets with his gay Uncle Freddie (out actor Ian McKellan). Freddie can only provide Max with one new passport and identity, but Max refuses to leave Rudy behind. Estranged from the rest of his family for 10 years for being a “fluff”, Max promises to marry (which would be good for the family business) and be discreetly queer. But shortly thereafter, Max and Rudy are found by Nazi soldiers.
In a cattle car on the way to a camp, Rudy is badly beaten by soldiers. Gay prisoner Horst (Lothaire Bluteau) saves Max’s life by stopping him from going to help Rudy. A former nurse, Horst fills Max in on their situation, gives him the lowdown on the code of the yellow stars and pink triangles. Ultimately, a sadistic Nazi officer (Rupert Graves) forces Max to beat Rudy to death, and then rape a woman to prove he isn’t queer.
At the camp, Max is given a yellow star, while Horst is presented with a pink triangle for having signed a Magnus Hirschfeld petition. Horst wants nothing to do with Max for not admitting to being gay. Max, who has been given rock pile duty, involving moving boulders from one side to the other, bribed a guard to get Horst to work with him, desperate for human contact and conversation. The long shift, which includes a three-minute rest period every two hours, is designed to drive them mad. Horst is furious with Max for having him brought there.
Eventually, the reach détente, and so begins the series of scenes for which Bent is perhaps best known. Without making eye contact, they use erotic language to “make love” to each other. At one point, Horst even tells Max he loves him and creates an eyebrow rubbing signal to represent an expression of love for Max.
During the winter, their pointless work shifts to moving piles of snow from one side to the other. Horst’s health begins to fail. Max provides comfort and support, he gets medicine for Horst, whose health improves. Of course, Horst is upset when he learns that Max blew one of the evilest captains in order to get the meds. It is the same sadistic captain who eventually brings about the film’s tragic finale.
Mathias’ adaptation opens up the play, but it still feels stagey, especially the dialogue. Owen and Bluteau do their best to do the difficult material justice, but in the long run, this adaptation falls short. Nevertheless, the timeliness of the subject matter makes it worth seeing. Blu-ray bonus features include behind the scenes footage, cast and crew interviews, a music video of Mick Jagger performing “Streets of Berlin” and a new essay by Steven Alan Carr.
Rating: 2.5 Peaches – A nearly ripe peach