Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paragraph 175

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Probably history was after all, meant to be a study of human consciousness in guilt. Of course, there is always a need to realize something valuable out of the past, that a study about the past is after all a human being’s reverse-troubleshooting guide. Probably that’s the reason why there are beautiful pictures of stoic, stiff-lipped people in our high school history text-books. We like to think of ourselves as the descendants of glorious generations, men and women valiant in their own right, contributing their bit to the proud bloodlines we carry today. We read on these people, associate ourselves with the affairs of their lives, judge them for their actions, name calendar days after them, hate them, worship them, write books on them, film biopics on their lives, name our babies after them… The reason we can’t forget these people could be because they’ve either given to or taken from this world in proportions far greater than what you or me have.
Between the years 1933 and 1945 one man changed our world because he believed in something that seemed stupid at first. As time rolled into horrorfest mode, it turned into mankind’s worst-ever mistake. Something that psychologically stopped time and spun it backwards. We remember that man either because he took away from this world a chunk of our moral fiber, the scars forever etched in our minds, or probably because he gave this world freedom from the ideologies of mankind’s vilest prodigy when he hanged himself.
Today, history attests the importance of this period of madness with facts and figures that might seem absurdly horrible for our generation. We’ve all probably read enough to forget about a past like this. Biopics and documentaries have already dry-choked our tear glands at the horrifying experiences recounted by jewish survivors. Pictures of gas chambers and mass-graves have already made us numb. And just when we thought that we kneww too much to burden our consciences, comes a movie about this small group of men who disappeared off the face of the earth because of something that disturbs, intrigues and thwarts us till this day: Love, and all the stigma it carries. And for something so simple and subtle as love to take place between two people, there lies an even more absurd reasoning as to why the two people shouldn’t be of the same sex. That’s the Nazi regime’s code of stigma, also known as Paragraph 175. And no, your fat, dog-eared history text book does not consider the lives of one hundred thousand men who lived during that time, loving others…. worth mentioning. These men died unnoticed and in secret captivity, so secret that even those labor camps within which they died are today not preserved for posterity. Few of those numerous men survived. Fewer live today. And fewer still are willing to come out of their dark closets of tears and share their experiences, unscripted and undistilled to a camera crew detwrmined to make known to us such a vital, forgotten part of man’s history.
It’s pretty obvious what the contents of Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code contained, judging by the number of innocent lives it consumed, it would be more appropriate if you’d watch the movie and learn rather than have me explain it to you in a website review. What’s most unsettling is interestingly, not Paragraph 175 itself, considering the circumstances under which it took form. Rather, it’s the fact that a law that was so fatal took a hundred and twenty three years from the time it was adopted in 1871, to be finally revoked in 1994. Even after the fall of the nazi government in 1945, it still took close to fifty whole years and six amendments to finally strike it down.
Nazis killed plenty of men, women and children. You certainly wouldn’t expect the most powerful and conservative army in the world to go soft against gay men and women and suddenly endorse mutual love. Not at a time when your first-duty towards the people you love was replaced by the pride of the country and certainly not at a time when race was more important than gender. So in short, nazis did what nazis do best: kill. But, even after we thought the horrible era of an insane ideology was over and done with, heads of government still remained conservative and chose to ignore the ills of their pasts, dragging their feet through the marshes of sludge-bureaucracy.
Rob Epstein conveys all of these truths with anger and emotion, throughout while interviewing these survivors. Some, among them is a half-Jewish gay resistance fighter who posed as a Hitler Youth member to rescue his lover from a Gestapo transfer camp in an ultimately futile effort; Annette Eick, the Jewish lesbian who escaped to England with the help of a woman she loved; there’s a young man who was freed from a sentence at Dachau only to be interned again at Buchenwald, the German Christian photographer who was arrested and imprisoned for homosexuality, then joined the army on his release because he “wanted to be with men” and Pierre Seel, the French Alsatian teenager, who watched as his lover was eaten alive by dogs in the camps.
Perhaps the problem was that there were just not enough men alive today who were willing to talk about their experiences. From the outset, the pool of interviewees was certainly going to be limited, but also limited is the actual archival footage of life in the concentration camps. Instead the directors have chosen to pepper the film with well-preserved family photographs, and lively footage of gay and lesbian culture blossoming during the days of the Weimar Republic after WW1. When the inadequacy of photographic technology left us these photos of brotherly love, it’s even more bittersweetly touching. Each weather-beaten photo has a iridescent moment behind it. The everlasting intimacy and beauty in these photos already suggested love is universal.
The statistics are staggering: Between 1933 and 1945, some 100,000 men were arrested for homosexuality, roughly half of them were sentenced to prison, and from 10,000 to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps. The camps were used for re-education, slave labor, castration and sadistic medical experiments. It’s believed only about 4,000 survived their ordeal. It is interesting to note that the penal code didn’t cover lesbians. The Nazis considered lesbians to be “curable.” Women were regarded, as vessels of motherhood – increasing the German population was top priority – therefore, they were exempt from mass arrest. Most lesbians went into exile or quietly married gay men. One woman, who tells her story in the film, was given exit papers and was lucky enough to escape to England.
There are only about 10 homosexuals left from this tragedy, and they interviewed eight for this special film. It was incredible and moving and, if you are not touched by their stories, then you are cast in stone.

By Fazil (at
To view the original article, click here
Wiki Paragraph 175

Monday, October 12, 2009

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman

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This is a grim yet utterly riveting film about the infamous executioner and hangman, Albert Pierrepoint. Timothy Spall delivers a compelling and outstanding performance and a surprisingly complex executioner, in surely his finest ever performance. The delightful and enchanting Juliet Stevenson is perfect as Pierrepoint's wife, Annie.

Like his earlier Danielle Cable: Eyewitness (2003), the Granada TV director Adrian Shergold has surpassed himself in his favourite genre of crime. This offering was filmed at Ealing Studios, of all places.

Pierrepoint is a fruit and veg delivery man in the humble, northern English streets of Rochdale, normally, except when he gets the call to go and hang someone, usually in London or HMP Strangeways in Manchester. He is unsurpassed as a technician of death, perfectly estimating the length of rope, etc., depending on the height and build of the person to be executed. You could call him the L S Lowry of killers, an ordinary man with a certain skill when it comes to looking at and handling other people.

He begins as a sort of trainee - who would be the instructor is this line of work? - yet sees each of his peers fade once confronted with the absolute horror of their new job, leaving him the consummate professional, always on hand when the Home Office needs a job done. For Pierrepoint, it is a vocation.

Pierrepoint always takes a deep professional pride in his work, seeing the condemned person as deserving of dignity and respect in death, no matter what their deeds in life. This creates a strange paradox, as he is forced to be clinical and brutal in helping that person to their end. However, given his professional expertise, that end is much quicker and more comfortable than other executioners and methods.

So, after 13 years in the job - merely half way through his career, which saw him hang an incredible 608 people (including the innocent Timothy Evans, and also Ruth Ellis, amongst others) - Pierrepoint is called upon to be the official British hangman at the Nuremberg Tribunals in the aftermath of World War Two. This is where he has to dispatch truly monstrous and evil people; extermination camp guards and the like. This is also where, for me, the film steps up a level.

In Nuremberg, Pierrepoint has to dispatch up to ten war criminals a day. It is a massive job on a scale for which he did not go prepared.

The British army have constructed a scaffold above ground – unlike the usual discreet prison cell and trap-door gallows – and the guilty are to go by the couple, side-by-side. And this is all to take place in one enormous, cavernous – and very apt, if you excuse the pun – aircraft hanger. The British have created a vast cathedral of hanging, the scaffold as its pulpit and Pierrepoint as its archbishop of retribution.

Nevertheless, Pierrepoint performs his dreadful task with professional brilliance, at great pains to insist on the dignity of the guilty once dead; he is horrified when some are expected to be disposed of without even a wooden coffin: 'No, that's not right', exclaims Spall, the epitome of northern disdain.

For me, the shot of the film – the true emblematic, classy shot that shows the difference between Pierrepoint and everyone else, not least his assistant (a military attaché) sitting beside him as they relax with a cigarette after yet another execution – takes place in this hanger, the cathedral of execution, the height of Pierrepoint's career.

In a close shot, Pierrepoint and his military assistant sit at either end of a table, enjoying a smoke. The military man attempts a philosophical discussion of the magnitude of what they've done. Pierrepoint has no comprehension at all, separated as he is from his assistant by the contents of the rest of the screen – the scaffold in the background, deserted after a day's work.

Pierrepoint was a lonely man yet had a typically northern showman's instinct; with his friend Tish, they perform a Flanagan and Allen style musical medley in the pub. Tish is his only friend in the world, probably more so than his wife.

The most touching scene of the film is at the end when Pierrepoint has to execute James 'Tish' Corbitt (he never knew his true name until then).

By frankiehudson from UK