The opening credits are silent, mirroring the acquiescence of those who stood by in shame, fear and sheer cowardice as millions of victims were hauled off to concentration camps by the Nazis. Jews, yes, but also political prisoners and gay men, those accused by The Third Reich of being denizens of society. Watching this scene, I was reminded of the saying, “What scream can ever be louder than silence?”
Clive Owen is Max, a bon vivant living in Weimar Berlin. Max’s appetite for sex is epic. His dashing good looks land him many male tricks. Sex for Max is fast, dirty, and furious. In fact, he is acting out the life he sees swirling all around him—a jovial abandonment of gay cabarets where decadence and menace rule, and pleasure and the pursuit of it become the game of the day. We see it reflected in the character of Greta, an aging drag queen ably played by rock icon Mick Jagger. Suspended high atop the crowd on a circus high wire, his lips as red as a wound, dazzlers hanging from his ears and throat, a certain Dietrich-esque world-weariness curling his infamous Jagger lips, he seems an epitome of bored sensuality. Below, beautiful, leather-bedecked bodies swirl and twirl in defiance, in “Come Hither” sin. The tasty fruits they offer know no end and show no mercy. This is clearly Max’s heaven. He picks up a German soldier so gorgeous he blinds Max to the reality of his already live-in lover, Rudy, even going so far as to have sex with the soldier right in front of Rudy’s disbelieving eyes.
Dance and movement play an integral part in Bent, as pastiche, as tongue-in-cheek fear, and as a Greek chorus of feet and legs, arms and thighs rather than voices, writhing off of past and present actions, in flashback (much of the movie is delivered in flashback, a handy tool that makes the viewer wince and cringe at the poor decisions that put these men in peril, lead them into prison.) They highlight Max’s sexcapades. This frivolous, promiscuous cad lies with abandonment and sleeps with anyone he pleases. He is indeed an unapologetic hedonist of the first order.
I worried that Bent would seem tame, perhaps, when viewed in the light of the pan-embrace of gender and sexuality in 2016. A mere twenty years ago, it shocked audiences and critics alike with its brazen, unsparing portrayal of gay life in Hitler’s Germany. Martin Sherman’s original hit Broadway play (which starred Richard Gere) was daring. Here, director Sean Mathias has been able to explore his story more explicitly, open up the action to include more characters and geographical landscapes than the bare-stage play could expose. Contrasts are drawn between warring sensibilities: a leafy green city park, whose trees tickled by flirty breezes, cowers suddenly under the stark gray of a factory tower, with the factory whistle foreshadowing alarm. The darkness of our tale in direct opposition to the white of the rocks Max is forced to carry from one end of a cavernous stockade to the other, a useless assignment designed to punish captives and drive them mad. The paranoid, almost funny fear endangering both Max and Rudy as they try to find a way out of the capture that encroaches upon them. They bicker and trade bitter barbs, but their genuine love for each other envelopes them in tenderness and hidden kisses. Their love is their hope. It is, though, this very love, this cooing and coital serenading inside the darkness of a barrel that does betray them. In Bent, love cannot be trusted.
Max’s cowardice when asked if he is Rudy’s friend is understandable. So many scenes of unrelenting brutality make us want to look away but we can’t. Each time one of these men lets down his guard or reveals his love for another man, he and the man are punished for it, wickedly. Here love is the poison that leads to possible extinction. The more these guys love men, as dictated by their very nature, the more they are crucified. This paints for us more than any Holocaust movie of the blackness of Nazism—that your physical features, religion, Jewishness, and queerness can undo you. Nazism asked you to apologize for the very blood that ran through your veins and when you could not, it drained it from you. In people’s very natures lay their own inescapable extinction.
The cast is superb. Every actor shines from first-to-last reel. Clive Owen’s performance as Max is sterling: watch his anguish as his whole face contorts in remorse at having denied the man he was captured with was his friend. Owen goes corpse-like with grief. His mantra throughout—“I’m going to stay alive!” becomes the mantra of anyone challenged with persecution, him or us, his audience. I know a woman who actually sent cancer scurrying away to remission by watching Bent repeatedly.
The movie holds many cinematic epiphanies— the balletic parade of prisoners ascending and descending a gangplank, the sight of Mick Jagger on the cabaret swing suspended high above an adoring crowd, a vision of lurid decadence and duplicity. And whereas love develops as a result of genuine sexual union in the beginning of our story, the love between prisoners, to whom physical love is forbidden, must become verbal, mental, spiritual. These scenes, both on Broadway and in the film, are scenes so powerful, with pain and joy standing side-by-side, blind, that love transcends the corporal, reaches out and up and over, heavenward. We bear witness to the unsurpassed power of any love, not just gay love.
Not surprisingly, wit, too, rescues the sameness of these men’s days, affection, loyalty. When the brainwashing that “Queers aren’t meant to love” seizes Max’s thinking. Horst’s reaction is to declare his love for him, whether he wants it or not. Lothaire Bluteau brings deep conviction to his character in revealing to Max that his love exists for Max, yes, but also for himself. It is his rescue raft in this sea of insanity—he loves himself.
In stockade scenes, Max and Horst are emaciated and boneless yet conversations between them are plump with love and charged with eroticism. Their words eat each other like a delicious meal, their comic, playful bantering bats back-and-forth between them like a ping-pong match or a long-married couple. “I can’t. I have a headache.” They bicker like a bitchy, campy husband and wife. Their union exists in disunion. Audiences come away from Bent with the lesson, among others, that love is pure and knows no boundaries. There need be no lips-on-lips, fingers entwined, cock-against-cock, not even eyes staring into eyes. The only penetration needed is one heart melting into another’s. In a moving scene, Horst wins a small but exhilarating victory against oppression, against those who would stop him from loving. The men of Bent slip the shackles that imprison them by pretending the shackles are not there.
I saw two young men this summer at an amusement park. Their boat emerged from a Tunnel of Love. They held hands as if each other’s hand was a rose. They looked sweetly into each other’s eyes. They sweetly kissed and cared nothing for anyone watching them as if nothing more than their own company and love mattered. Even 20 years ago, such a sight would have been unheard of. They are, without a doubt, able to experience such freedom, such open queerness, such direct and unashamed devotion because of movies like Bent which bravely led us from the dark corridors of ignorance and hatred out into the light.
Bent never flinches or sinks into cliché. It is brave, rueful, and liberating.