It’s Beastly German week at the movies with the arrival of two feature docs: Mark Jonathan Harris’s Into the Arms of Strangers, about the flight of Jewish children from the Third Reich, and Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Paragraph 175, on the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.
Harris’s accomplished film is concerned with the “Kindertransport,” a rescue operation that took place shortly before the outbreak of World War II. In an act of mercy unequaled elsewhere, Great Britain opened its doors to over 10,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. They left with the hope that their parents would follow; within a few years, most of the parents departed from the same railway stations on their way to the death camps. In this country, a congressional bill that would have allowed entry to the young refugees was killed in committee as Washington’s powerful anti-immigration lobby opined that “accepting children without their parents is contrary to the laws of God.”
Strangers is largely devoted to the moving testimony of witnesses—a dozen of the surviving “Kinder,” together with a few of their rescuers—and although much of it observes the unobtrusive talking-heads format of a TV movie, it’s worth shelling out to see this doc on a theater screen: The enthralling archival footage of Germany in the 1930s is rare stuff indeed, of superb photographic quality.
Paragraph 175 was launched after a meeting of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (Common Threads, The Celluloid Closet) with historian Klaus Muller, a project director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum; Muller had been researching the persecution of homosexuals under the Third Reich. He serves as interviewer in their film, which is built around the striking, often devastating accounts of a half-dozen elderly survivors.
The doc opens with carefree scenes of Berlin nightlife during the Weimar Republic, when gay men and women lived openly. Everything changed with the Nazis’ assumption of power and the enforcement of paragraph 175, an anti-sodomy provision of the penal code that dated from 1871. Between 1933 and 1945, 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality; some were imprisoned, others sent to the camps. Far from being Manichaean, the directors’ expert multilevel narrative reflects their attraction to the gray areas of the story. They touch on gay resistance fighters and victims, but also gay Nazis and sympathizers. The tales told are bitter, horrific in detail—yet often leavened with irony and humor (Rupert Everett’s low-key narration serves the film well). An indelible high point is the salty recollection by irrepressible octogenarian Jewish resistance fighter Gad Beck of his first visit to a gay bar.
Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s Oscar-winning 1984 doc, The Times of Harvey Milk—about San Francisco’s first openly gay official, assassinated by a fellow city politician in 1978—was originally released in 16mm. It’s on view for a week at Film Forum in 35mm for the first time (September 15 through 21) and really does look better than ever.