A Conversation With Sean Mathias and Martin Sherman of "Bent", Part I
by Brandon Judell
Before December 2, 1979, the fact that thousands upon thousands of
homosexuals were gathered up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps
was a well-guarded secret. Historians either didn’t believe the subject
merited their attention or they were afraid to tackle the matter. Then
there were the other groups who’d been decimated by the Holocaust. The
survivors felt that if homosexuals were said to have also been victimized
by the Nazis, that would devalue the memory of their own loved ones who’d
However, after that December 2, the cover-up was swept away by Martin
Sherman’s brilliant play “Bent“. Starring Richard Gere as a gay man who tries
to pass as a straight Jew in a camp, suddenly the truth burst forth. In the
aftermath of that production, there are now a few books dealing with the
matter, many articles, a forthcoming documentary, and even plaques at a few
of the camps.
But it has taken almost two decades to get the film version made. At one
time Werner Fassbinder was to direct with Gere reprising his role. Now
instead the director is the outrageous Sean Mathias. Mr. Mathias previously
adapted David Leavitt’s novel “The Lost Language of the Cranes” for BBC TV
and the WNET Playhouse. He also helmed “Indiscretions” on Broadway —
Cocteau’s “Les Parents Terribles” — and it received nine Tony nominations.
Mathias is currently preparing his second feature, “Quadrille.”
As for Sherman, he left us for London 16 years ago to write plays and
screenplays in peace. His original screenplay for “Alive and Kicking” was
released earlier this year, truly one of the best films about AIDS yet
made, and his play, “A Madhouse in Goa,” has just opened in New York.
indieWIRE: Was there any factual basis for the mind games played by the
Nazis in the concentration camp you depicted, and what about small events
such as prisoners receiving mail?
Sean Mathias: Yes, it’s all true.
iW: Wouldn’t anything valuable sent to these people have been extracted
beforehand by the Nazis?
Sherman: The film takes place very early on in a detention camp. This was
before the camps became extermination camps. In those days, you could
receive mail some times. You could even be released some times. You mention
the mind games. All of that information, the mind games and the mail, is
based directly on Bruno Bettelheim’s book “The Informed Heart.” Reading
that book educated me as to what went on in those days and in those camps,
and what the Nazis did. Bruno Bettelheim himself was released after two
years from such a camp.
Mathias: Also at that point, the Nazis made the rules up as they went
along, so they were formulating their tortures. They were learning, and
they learned quite early on that terrorizing the prisoners on the trains
broke them down, and that was a great way of controlling them when they got
to the camps. The Nazis could take a carriage and pick just one victim in
the carriage, and by that example, control the mass. What they had done
would spread when the prisoners got to the camp. People would compare
stories of what went on on those trains I’m sure later on. This was a way
of controlling. All this the Nazis were experimenting with.
Sherman: They were psychologically brilliant. It’s absolutely astonishing
to realize what they achieved.
Mathias: Although it seems quite easy to be cruel when you start being
cruel. You say “psychologically brilliant” which is true, but in a way,
it’s quite easy to perpetrate that kind of psychological cruelty. Once one
starts, it takes hold very quickly on the victim.
Sherman: What I think I meant by the “psychological brilliance” is that
they found a way of controlling a great many people using very few
resources. They didn’t have many guards at the camp, and yet they managed
to control all of those people brilliantly.
Mathias: And the earlier camps were far less structured, the detention
centers, and the structure grew as the numbers poured in. Therefore the
need for structure. So one fed the other which is an irony if you like.
iW: The actual setting of the movie, was that an actual concentration camp?
Mathias: (Laughing) It felt like one. It was depressing. I, however, was
not Adolf Hitler. More like Eva Braun. No, God! It was in a cement factory.
When you asked about the research, my entire approach to the movie was that
I didn’t want to approach the story in a literal fashion or a naturalistic
fashion. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t do research.
Of course, we did because without some facts and some truth, one couldn’t
make the art. But it’s impossible to compete with any of the realistic
images of the Holocaust. The documentary footage that we’ve all seen is . .
. I mean it so impinges upon the imagination and so terrified the psyche
that it’s impossible as an artist to compete with that kind of imagery.
So it seemed to me essential to create an imagined world. To create a new
world. A surreal one if you like. I think of the film more as a stylized
version of the truth. Therefore, that gives me the ability as an artist to
communicate the story to the audience.
That’s not just in my film. That’s come from Martin’s writing. Martin’s
play when I first read it in 1978 — before it was first produced, and I
was pretty young — it seemed from my little knowledge of theater, that the
play was breaking form. It was trying to do something different with
theatrical form beyond its context. Beyond the fact that it was put into
the genre of a gay play — which was a fairly new genre which was
completely exciting — there was this playing with theatrical form. So the
stylization was already in the first writing. I took my cue from that if