Bent but not broken

Bent press release photo James Kleinmann

Winner of the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes last year, Bent is essentially the powerful love story of two gay men, who help each other to cope with the tortures of living in a Nazi detention camp. Sean Mathias originally directed Martin Sherman’s play for the stage in 1990, and he was the only person whom the playwright would allow to direct a film version.

Mathias began acting when he was seventeen and has remained in the theatre to enjoy the most distinguished of directorial careers. As Bent is his first feature, he is in a good position to compare directing for the stage and screen.

“With both film and theatre you have to have a deep understanding of the writing, and to have close collaboration with the actors and designers. With film you have to work with other groups and there’s an even stronger sense of collaboration. Film is much more technical, and I don’t know if even now I could say why I picked one shot over another.”

Mathias is now living in Cape Town, unfortunately I’m speaking to him on the phone from Camden Town, though he is looking forward to returning to the capital. “When I come to London I’ll be able to pop into the Curzon, and go and see it if I want to. And that’ll make it all a bit more real seeming, because until now it hasn’t been.”

When Mathias directed Bent for the stage he did not see it as an obvious choice for film. “The whole relationship of the two men falling in love whilst moving rocks, means that Bent is not about action or variety, but more about interior landscape. This isn’t exactly the stuff from which great cinema is made.”

Although the film is often stylised in terms of the acting and set, this is not a result of Mathias failing to adapt his theatrical techniques, but a conscious decision by him. “I decided not to make it cinematographic for the sake of opening it up or giving it variety. I wanted remain true to the writing and really examine the relationship between the two men. I wanted to discuss the universality of oppression. Although they are in prison it often does not feel like one, they’re left to themselves by the guards a lot of the time, yet are in a nightmarish scenario of oppression. If anything I wasn’t brave enough. If I had my chance to do it all again, I’d probably make it even more stylised.

“There are some differences between my stage production and the film. The sexually explicit scenes weren’t there before. With the film, I was more daring and defiant. Then the later scenes work in a more spiritual way, they keep suggesting that there is a resonance beyond the physical world. When Max and Horst have sex without touching, it’s just saying that physical life isn’t the be all and end all. Though God knows physical pleasures are very enjoyable too.

“There is a scene in the film where Max is moving rocks on his own, and you hear the Philip Glass cello coming in, and every time I see that I just think ‘thank God that I live in what’s called a free world.’ I hope that I will never take that for granted. And that’s what making Bent has brought up for me now. Before it had just made me feel proud to be a gay man.”

When the play was first staged in 1979, it was the first time that many people heard about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. Even today Mathias feels that this broadening of awareness makes Bent a worthwhile project. “At a screening in Italy, this very bright nineteen year old kid came up to me and said ‘I had no idea that queers were persecuted like this.’ So there are still more people out there who need to know what happened.”

What does Mathias want his audience to take away with them? “There is an ending beyond the obvious. I hope that enough people see this and go away from Bent, not depressed, but actually uplifted.”

Film


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