INTERVIEW: In The Nick of Time: Rob Friedman and Jeffrey Epstein Document Gay Victims of the Holocaust

by Aaron Krach

(indieWIRE/ 9.19.00) -- ""Paragraph 175" could have been just another holocaust documentary -- reverent, somber and chilling. But soon after taking on the project, about the mistreatment of gay men and lesbians in Germany during World War II, filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman decided to go another route. They wanted to tell a bigger story about how gay life in Germany changed from wide acceptance at the beginning of the 20th Century to total imprisonment under Hitler, followed by continued persecution after the war until the anti-gay statute, Paragraph 175, was finally repealed in 1969.

The film covers the entire time frame, but the years during World War II when gay men were carted off to concentration camps is given the most attention. That the nightmares are in direct contrast to the happier years before the war only highlights the tragedy.

"Paragraph 175" won the directing award at Sundance 2000, a critics prize in Berlin and the Teddy Award for Best Gay Film and numerous other prizes at smaller festivals this summer. While preparing for the theatrical release ("Paragraph 175" opened last week in New York and San Francisco before it plays on HBO in the Spring of 2001), indieWIRE spoke with both directors about how to make a meaningful film about such an emotionally charged subject, all in a foreign tongue.

indieWIRE: The film begins with a very unsettling fact about how close the story came to never being told. Less than a dozen gay victims of the Holocaust are still alive, let alone interested in retelling their story on film. How many were you actually able to speak with and for those that declined, what was their reason?

"Once we started working on the project, it changed a lot. It became about more than just about victims. We have an interview with the Jewish lesbian, an interview with a half-Christian, half-Jewish, gay resistance fighter. . ."

Jeffrey Friedman: There are ten or eleven that we know of. But you have to take into account other factors when considering that small number. The best numbers we have are that 100,000 men were arrested, half were convicted and of those, 10-15,000 went to concentration camps. Then, once in the camps, they had among the highest death rates of any non-Jewish inmates. So there were very few survivors, while at the same time those who did survive had very good reason to not come forward after the war. They were stigmatized. The laws under which they were convicted were still on the books. The judges who sentenced them were in many cases still the judges. Some were even re-arrested after the war. Those that declined to talk on camera did so for different reasons. One was a health issue and the other was a personal issue.

iW: What was your timeline -- from preliminary decisions to premiering at Sundance --for making the film?

Rob Epstein: It began in 1996. We were in Amsterdam with "The Celluloid Closet" which was opening theatrically there, we got a letter at the hotel from a Dr. Klaus Muller asking for a meeting. The letter was on United States Holocaust Memorial Museum stationary. We met with Klaus for a couple of hours and he outlined for us the research he was doing over the last couple of years. He said that he had found a couple of men who were willing to come forth for the first time and tell their stories on film. All of which immediately impressed us. We got some start up money from Channel 4 in England and the project was launched.

Friedman: Klaus had been doing this research for a while. That's his thing, his area of interest. He's the US Holocaust Museum's point person for gay stuff. He basically knew all the research that was out there and had contacted some of the people. Once we started working on the project, it changed a lot. It broadened. It became about more than just about victims. We have an interview with the Jewish lesbian, an interview with a half-Christian, half-Jewish, gay resistance fighter. Some of these people we met through Klaus and other we met through other ways.

iW: Since neither of you speak German how did you handle the interviews, and more importantly the editing?

Epstein: Klaus was there and we had another translator as well. We were listening on a headset to simultaneous translation. While we were editing, our producer (Michael Ehrenzweig) speaks German and we had an intern who was invaluable, a German intern who did a lot of the subtitles.

iW: Perhaps as integral to the film as the interviews is the archival footage of gay life in the early part of the century. How difficult was it to find?

Epstein: We looked at archival footage there, at the Bundesarchive, which is the national archive of Germany. We looked at a lot of footage there, got some sense of what was available. A lot of it we were then able to find here, through the National Film Archives. Some was from private sources and collections. Probably the most amazing fact in the archival research story is that the footage we got from Germany, specifically the Nazi propaganda film, we actually had to pay the German government to use. It's free everywhere else in the world, but to use it in Germany, you have to pay the German government.

"We fully immerse ourselves in the subject and we are willing to spend as much time as it takes to get it to the point where we want."

iW: When "Paragraph 175" played at the Berlin Film Festival, what was the German audiences reaction to the film and to the fact that it was made by Americans?

Friedman: The reaction was very strong. It played at the Zoo Palast, which was the first time that a documentary ever played there. Two of the guys from the film attended the screenings, Gad Beck and Pierre Cille. Pierre is the one who claimed he would never shake hands with a German again. It was very emotional, especially when Pierre was introduced to the audience. The entire auditorium stood and gave him a long, sustained applause when he came on stage, and then he gave a very moving speech of reconciliation.

Epstein: I don't think there was any interest in this story until the film was made, though. We didn't get any German television money. With the "Celluloid Closet," we put together financing from England, Germany, France and HBO in the US. In this case, we had UK involvement very early on and then HBO came in, but no German support.

iW: You guys are two of the most successful, well known documentary filmmakers working today in spite of the fact that you have always made films about traditionally marginalized topics, from AIDS to Gay Rights. How do you think you have managed to not only survive but achieve a great deal of success?

Friedman: We don't have a clue. It always feels like a struggle.

Epstein: We've always made films that people respond to.

Friedman: I think it's for other people to analyze. We fully immerse ourselves in the subject and we are willing to spend as much time as it takes to get it to the point where we want.