Martin Sherman’s play about the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany makes its transition to the big screen with triumphant results. Reveling in the bawdy burlesque world of gay Germany during the mid-1930’s, Max (a piercingly compelling Clive Owen) drinks life to the fullest, living in a bohemian loft and seducing buff young cruisers with Dionysian vigor. But in an instant, Max’s fruitful world comes crashing down on him, during the “Night of the Long Knives,” when Hitler ordered the systematic murder of hundreds of known gays. The event generated chaos and disorder among the gay community, prompting many of them to sheathe their sexual desires and capitulate to the Nazi regime – thus inspiring the Act Up phrase “silence equals death.”
As both a “Jew” and a “queer,” Max finds himself a dislocated soul in a harsh new landscape. And when the Nazis finally catch up with him, he chooses to enter a concentration camp as a “Jew” (yellow tag) rather than a lowly “queer” (pink tag). To survive, Max suppresses his sexual identity and forsakes his then-lover, when he admits he is a homosexual and is subsequently and brutally exterminated. The event renders Max a burnt out shell of a human being until a fellow prisoner, Horst (Lothaire Bluteau) reaches out to him, and shows him how to live and love freely even under the oppressive and constant threat of death.
The acting is superb and the ingenious score by Phillip Glass adds a haunting, surreal texture to director, Sean Mathias’ opulent, Greenway-esque production. Ian McKellen pops up in a cameo as Max’s uncle, Brian Webber makes for a delectable, one-night conquest, and Mick Jagger makes a near spectacle of himself, appearing as a drag cabaret singer named Greta.