Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Surviving Berlin

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Surviving Berlin

Article excerpt

When the directors of The Celluloid Closet headed back to the Berlin International Film Festival with Paragraph 175, their new documentary about Nazi persecution of gay people, they feared a hostile response, But as filmmaker Jeffrey Friedman relates in his diary of the trip, they were in for a few surprises

Saturday, February 19

Berlin must be the coolest city in the world right now. Things are changing so fast, especially in the former East, where creativity seems to burst from the cracks in the streets.

I'm here with Rob Epstein, my filmmaking partner, for the European premiere of Paragraph 175, our new film about the experiences of gay people in Europe under the Nazis, as told through the stories of the handful of men and one woman we were able to find who were still living and willing to talk about that time.

We've been here often enough to be aware of the head-spinning rate of change. Our first visit was to show our film Common Threads in 1990, when the Berlin Wall was being dismantled (you could buy graffiti-colored fragments of it from street vendors) and Westerners were speculating grimly about the inevitable reunification with the East. That year we used our film festival accreditation to pass through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin to visit a couple of gay bars. One was a dark, tiny stand-up bar under train tracks with a bunch of dour, dark men not talking; the other was an anonymous door on a typically dark street that opened into a bunch of rooms filled with friendly guys at tables and at bars drinking beer and chatting. You had to wait in line for five minutes for someone to come and unlock the door when you wanted to leave.

When we came back in 1997 to start shooting Paragraph 175, even as foreigners we could easily tell who was from the former East and who was from the West--by the clothes, by the slightly dazed look in the eyes of the newly capitalized. That was still true as recently as 1998, but now it's all mixed up, and there's great energy as one new hip neighborhood springs up farther east than the last one. The usual pattern: Young hipsters move into amazing old buildings with no heat, fix them up, start funky little shops and restaurants in alleyways, prices go up, the hipsters and artists move on.

Sunday, February 20

Today we had our press screening, followed by a press conference. Rob and I were both nervous about how Germans would respond to American filmmakers' bringing this film about an ugly chapter in German history to the scene of the crime, as it were. So we were braced for hostile reactions, but it all went off pretty smoothly.

A question about finding gave us the opportunity to complain about not getting any German financing for the film. A young woman's comment about the way we used archival footage in new ways gave our Austrian-American (Jewish, gay) producer Michael Ehrenzweig the opportunity to vent his pet peeve: Not only did we get no financial support from Germany, but we actually had to pay the German government a hefty license fee to use footage from their old Nazi propaganda films. Both these points were enthusiastically picked up by the German press over the next few days.

Tuesday, February 22

We had our posse over for cocktails at the hotel before heading over to the premiere. The Zoo-Palast is a true movie palace, a vast expanse of seats sweeping back from a giant screen. Before the festival moved to its new home at Potsdamer Platz, which wasn't built a year ago, this was where the big-budget movies in the festival competition section had their premieres. The screening of Paragraph 175 would be the first time that a documentary would premiere there. The place was full and buzzing.

We had been warned not to expect a lot of emotional response from German audiences. Indeed, we screened Common Threads here ten years ago, and when it got to the really sad parts, the audience started coughing. …

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