Review: Poignancy of 'Bent' plays better on stage
December 4, 1997
A scene from "Bent," featuring Lothaire Bluteau and Clive Owen
Web posted at: 1:31 p.m. EST (1831 GMT)
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Once again, purply stage theatrics don't translate to the less-forgiving movie screen.
"Bent," the film adaptation of Martin Sherman's powerful 1979
play about the atrocities visited upon a group of gay men by
Hitler's brutal SS, is yet another textbook example that what
plays beautifully on the stage does not always play when
projected 30 feet high at the cineplex.
"Bent," in fact, would seem to be a highly unlikely
candidate for a reverent film treatment, but director Sean
Mathias has done everything in his power to make sure that
the play's least cinematic qualities make it to the screen
intact. This is a big mistake, but not completely
unforgivable given the first-rate quality of the performances
and the undeniably moving material.
Jagger tones down his act
The opening sequence, an intriguing modern equivalent of
German Expressionism, is a surreal, carnival-like
presentation of the gay underworld in late-1930s Berlin.
Wildly done-up dancers and circus performers alternate with
patrons partaking in various sorts of public "debauchery,"
while a transvestite nightclub singer named Greta (Mick
Jagger) warbles a tune about all the beautiful boys and the
intoxicating nightlife of that soon-to-be-trounced-upon city.
Jagger is amazingly subtle considering his costume and
often-absurd inclination toward playing to the bleachers.
It's here that we meet Max (Clive Owen), a promiscuous
partier who ends up taking a man home from the club, then
seeing him murdered by Nazi troops as they embark on the
infamous Night of the Long Knives. This is the moment when
Hitler decides that homosexuality is an unforgivable state of
being, and anyone living in such a manner should be
imprisoned or executed.
Max and his lover, Rudy (Brian Webber) flee into the woods,
only to be caught and shipped in a boxcar full of prisoners
to the concentration camp at Dachau.
Their time in the woods, which alternates between sheer
terror and the gentle prayer of their love for each other, is
handled well by Mathias, as are the blindingly horrific
events of the train ride. At one point, Max is forced to beat
his lover to death, then prove his manhood by having
intercourse with a young girl who's been shot in the head.
Dachau torture merely tedious on big screen
But Max's final destination at Dachau is the most stage-bound
portion of the story. This is where the film can become
trying to a movie audience for reasons that are not
altogether the fault of the Nazis.
It is here that Max and another prisoner, Horst (Lothaire
Bluteau, who gives a shrewd, often darkly comic performance)
are tortured in a manner that smacks of Samuel Beckett when
viewed on stage, but becomes terribly monotonous in movie
Their captors have decided that, to drive the two men insane,
they will force them to carry huge rocks from one side of a
wide open area to another. Once the pile of rocks has been
moved, the prisoners must pick them up, one at a time, and
move them back to their original location. Then the process
is repeated, for hours on end.
Max and Horst attempt to ease their torture by carrying on
limited conversations -- overheard only in snippets -- as
they pass each other, but the dull throb of their movements
begins to overtake much the interest you have in hearing what
they have to say. They also are allowed, every two hours, to
stand at attention (shoulder-to-shoulder) and "rest" for two
There is a terribly moving scene during which the two men use
this opportunity to "make love" to each other by describing
various sex acts sotto voce as the guards look down on them,
but even this sort of thing begins to get on your nerves
after a while.
What you're experiencing is two men moving rocks and
periodically describing things into the unblinking camera
lens. It is supposed to be torture, and, eventually, it is.
It's just too bad that you're the one sweating it.
Attempts at tenderness are lasting memory
As I've already said, all of the performances are strong.
Jagger displays a pragmatic, nasty streak when he casually
burns all his dresses and begins a new life as "George," and
Ian McKellen has a tasty cameo as an uncle of Max's who can
see all too clearly that the nights of fun have abruptly
But it's Owen and Lothaire's desperate attempts at
communicating tenderness in a living hell that stick with
you. The pink triangle that the gay prisoners are forced to
wear to denote their sexuality has become a badge of pride
for homosexuals in recent years, and this film, more than any
other, explains a unique bond that can often seem alien to a
"Bent" imparts a significant message that's sometimes
presented in an uninteresting way, but it's ultimately a
message of love. And a message of love deserves to be
"Bent" is no picnic by any means. There are sex and nudity,
of course, but there also are unspeakable acts performed by
the Nazis as well as their dehumanized prisoners. Systematic
violence and humiliation are rife. Not for the
closed-minded. Rated R. 104 minutes.