1997, NC-17, 104 min. Directed by Sean Mathias. Starring Clive Owen, Lothaire Bluteau, Ian McKellan, Mick Jagger, Brian Webber.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 20, 1998
The most amazing thing about Bent is that it has been tagged with those scarlet letters of the film industry: the NC-17 rating. It's a grim film from start to finish, yes, but the violence is contextual and inherent to the story, and the brief orgy scene that opens the film is hardly as disturbing as all that. Based on the play by Martin Sherman, Bent is the story of Max (Owen), a gay man and bon vivant amid the erotic decadence of pre-WWII Berlin, who finds himself ensnared in the Nazis' systematic extermination of homosexuals. Arrested with his boyfriend Rudy (Webber) before he can finalize plans to leave Germany, the pair are shipped via cattle-car to Dachau. Rudy doesn't survive the rail ride, and Max's spirit is nearly extinguished as well, though a brief exchange with Horst (Bluteau) helps him cement a plan. Horst tells him that the pink triangle -- the Nazi emblem indicating homosexuality -- is the very worst marking to have, even worse than the yellow star that denotes the Jewish prisoners. Taking this to heart, Max labels himself a Jew, receives his yellow star, and is put to work in the endless, frustrating, and utterly pointless task of moving stones from one pile to another and back again. With the aid of some money he has managed to smuggle into the camp, Max arranges to have Horst work alongside him, though his new partner is at first resentful: Like the legendary Chinese Water Torture, the meaningless movement of the rocks from place to place is an exquisite horror and certain path to madness. Working in tandem day-in and day-out, the two men gradually forge a slim bond of both respect and romance. In the film's most controversial scene, they stand side by side and vocalize the various aspects of making love, eventually climaxing without ever having touched. It's one of the most erotically charged scenes -- gay or straight -- in recent memory, and it drives home the loveless reality of the camps and the indomitability of which the human spirit is capable when placed in the spitting cauldron of a hell on earth such as Dachau. Although the vast majority of Bent focuses on Horst and Max in the camp, Matthias wisely sets things up in an extended sequence set in a Berlin nightclub (run by Jagger's transvestite Greta, who dangles perilously above the crowd while sitting in an ornate swing and singing crack-voiced odes to the decadent city). McKellan is also here as one of Max's dandified family friends; it's he who promises to help spirit Max and Rudy out of town before their time runs out, which, eventually, it does. There's no question that Bent is a viscerally affecting film, ripe with sadness and pungent with the scent of misery and suffering. There are times here, though, when Max and Horst dig deep in their psyches and come up with huge gobs of over-earnest pedantry. More Sartre, less filling? No, it's just leftover dialogue from the stage that could just have easily been excised; the film is a punch in the gut and a kiss on the lips, and it works despite these flaws.