A new film traces the many decades it took to abolish Paragraph 175, a measure criminalizing sex between men that was strengthened by the Nazis.
BERLIN — A turning point arrives for Viktor and Hans, the central characters in the new film “Great Freedom,” when Viktor sees the concentration camp tattoo on Hans’s arm.
It’s 1945, and Viktor has already forcibly thrown Hans out of the cell they share in a German prison after learning that Hans was jailed for having sex with men. But when Viktor, an ice block of a man with a murder conviction, discovers the tattooed number, he offers to give Hans a new design to cover up the past.
“They put you from a concentration camp into the slammer? Seriously?” Victor (Georg Friedrich) stammers in disbelief, more to himself than to Hans (Franz Rogowski).
The fictional character of Hans, liberated from a Nazi concentration camp at the end of World War II only to be sent directly to prison, is based on a chilling and often overlooked chapter in German postwar history.
Hans is repeatedly arrested under Paragraph 175, a law criminalizing sex between men that the Nazis expanded just a couple of years into their regime, and which was kept on the books for decades after.
The law was used, sometimes with elaborate sting operations, to convict up to 50,000 gay men in West Germany between 1945 and 1994 — roughly as many as were arrested during the decade in which the Nazis used it.
“For gay men, the Nazi era did not end in 1945,” said Peter Rehberg, the archivist of Schwules Museum, a gay cultural institution in Berlin.
When Sebastian Meise, the director of “Great Freedom,” read about the men who went from the concentration camps to prison because of their sexuality, it “really changed my understanding of history,” he said in a telephone interview from Vienna. The discovery set him off on an eight-year project that resulted in “Great Freedom,” which was Austria’s submission to the international feature category at this year’s Oscars.
Modern Germany has been praised for its efforts to keep the dreadful memory of the Holocaust present for the generations born after what Hannah Arendt called the “break in civilization.” The Nazi era is a mandatory part of school history curriculums, for example, and many schoolchildren and police cadets are obliged to visit former concentration camps. But for many decades, postwar Germany’s treatment of gay men was also neither liberal nor progressive.
In 1935, the Nazis strengthened Germany’s law criminalizing homosexuality, which was originally introduced in the 1870s. This allowed the regime to criminalize not just gay sex, but almost any behavior that could be seen to run afoul of heterosexual norms, including looking at another man. While East Germany had a slightly less restrictive version on its books, West Germany kept the strict Nazi legislation until 1969, when it was first reformed.
For West Germans like Peter Bermbach, Paragraph 175 cast a long shadow over the postwar decades.
In his senior year of high school in West Germany in the late 1940s, he was overheard turning down a date with another boy. School officials did not just suspend him, they also reported him to the police.
“It was the typical German sense of order and justice of the time,” said Bermbach, now 90, in a telephone interview.
The second time, he didn’t get off as easily. At 29, with a Ph.D. and a job in a publishing house, he was caught putting his arm around a 17-year-old at a public pool. Bermbach spent four weeks in jail and was fined 5,000 marks — a hefty sum at the time.
After he paid off the fine, he became one of the thousands of gay and bisexual men who fled Paragraph 175. He moved to Paris in 1960 in search of more freedoms.
Meise and his writing partner Thomas Reider collected many stories from Bermbach’s generation of gay men during the six years they spent researching and writing the script for “Great Freedom,” visiting the archives at the Schwules Museum and the Magnus Hirschfeld Foundation, which collects interviews with men affected by the law.
Still, Paragraph 175 did not stop gay culture from evolving in Western Germany; the German title of the film, “Grosse Freiheit,” is a nod to a venerable gay bar in Berlin where the penultimate scene takes place. But it did push many aspects of gay life underground, according to Klaus Schumann, 84. He remembered Berlin police pulling up in large vans in front of bars known to be gay hot spots in the late ’40s and ’50s. No one was criminally charged, he said, but everyone, including staff, were taken to the local police station to to be identified.
“It was basically a way to keep control over people,” Schuman said.
“Great Freedom” traces Hans’s many stints behind bars, where he was labeled a “175,” jumping between 1945 and 1969. To help mark that time shift, Rogowski lost more than 25 pounds during filming, to make himself appear younger (the later scenes were filmed first). Shooting in an abandoned prison close to Magdeburg in the former East Germany, Meise captures the slow course of incarcerated time, as well as social change.
“I would be very pleased if it was taken as a universal story,” Meise said of his film. “It’s so hard to disentangle the history and the current politics because it’s so virulent.” Meise noted that the issue is far from being a purely historical one, as there seem to be new pushes to reinforce heterosexual norms in places like some U.S. schools.
For the men whose lives were affected by Paragraph 175, much has changed. After he settled in Paris, Bermbach built a career as a journalist and filmmaker. Last year he wrote an autobiography, and later this month the high school that kicked him out more than seven decades ago has invited him to visit and read from the book.
“Honestly, I don’t really care,” Barmbach said of going back to the place that once expelled him. “As for being denounced for being homosexual, I’ve long forgotten about that.”
After Paragraph 175 was reformed in 1969 and again in 1973, the last vestige of it was taken off the books in 1994. In 2017, a year after Meise started writing “Great Freedom,” the German parliament said anyone charged under the law would have their record expunged. It also agreed to offer a meager settlement to those who applied.
Of the 50,000 men who might have eligible, only 317 had applied by last summer.