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14 April 2016

Stunned and Angry

Interview with Albert Knoll, historian and archivist at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site and guest at the V Side by Side, in Moscow. He will be talking after the screening of Sounds from the Fog.

Albert Knoll - Archivist at the Dachau Memorial

Many documentary films have been made relating to the crimes of the Nazi regime. What does the film, Sounds from the Fog, further add to the discourse and understanding of what took place? Is it an important film and if so why?

Documentaries about the Nazi times usually follow the thesis of historians. They are enriched with interviews of the victims. Their statements should support the thesis of the historians. Often this is a self-contained circle of argumentation. A good film should break through that chain of self-assurance. To understand the essence of anti-Semitism or homophobia it is necessary to carefully listen to what people say. This is the advantage of the film Sounds from the Fog. It is one of the very few films highlighting a topic that has been neglected and silenced over the decades. The author did this in a very personal way.

The persecution of gays (as with many other groups) under the Nazi regime has largely been ignored until very recently. Why is it important to recognize these groups and what has your work done bring about change regarding this question?

As the film shows, large parts of the German population refused to be confronted with the persecution of gays as they equated gays with criminals. Nearly no one of the gay survivors dared to draw attention to his own story such as Wilhelm Heckmann , Mr. Stanjeks uncle. Stanjek was brave enough to reveal the secret of his family (he calls Heckmann his secret-uncle). Stanjek´s attempt is unique among the relatives of gay victims and that shows how important his work is. What Stanjek discovers of his uncles personal history is so important because we gay historians cannot find anything about the private life of gay men in the Nazi-period. As in nearly all cases the only source that we have are police files, where people were reduced to being pieces of information that the police collected against them. For me, as I am dealing with the topic for more than 25 years, it is very hard to find information on a complete biography of a gay victim. This was my experience when I put together 15 biographies of gay men for the exhibition in the new Munich NS-documentary centre.

In the film, Klaus Stanjek uses both family interviews, his own memories and archival work as his research methods. Which method do you think works best for his film? How are these methods related and what are their advantages and disadvantages in terms of reliability when we want to represent history?

Stanjek is successful in getting his relatives and uncles neighbours to talk. They speak very openly because they trust him. He is shocked about their basic pro-nazi-attitude, when he sees that they had aligned themselves with the Nazi-regime and that they have not moved on from that time. They displaced all the political repression, the restriction of personal freedom, the persecution of Jews and of homosexuals from their memory. So the film recalls the position on the ground during the 1950s and 1960s when nobody in Germany wanted to be confronted with the dark history of their country and of him/herself. This is the strongest part of the film.

Stanjek also, and that is important, asked lots of survivors of Mauthausen who were politically resistant against National Socialism about their experiences and their attitude towards the homosexual group of prisoners then and now. He tries to track where the old and new prejudices come from. He does that work with his deep emphasis on the survivors and he never wants to unmask anyone for his attitude.

Stanjek is brave enough to question constantly his position to his family and to his uncle. He is aware of the fact that they were children of their time but he is always able to switch into the position of a distant observer. In this way he succeeds so that the viewer of the film can follow his arguments and doubts: gays were outcasts, his uncle had to play the role of the funny musician, nobody asks about the eight years when he vanished in the concentration camp and rumors that went around that he had committed something with a child. Stanjek takes the position to talk about everything that had been silenced till now.

What changes have taken place in German society regarding LGBT rights and issues over the last 30-40 years. How do you evaluate these changes and what remains to still be achieved?

It was a milestone in progress if you compare the situation of LBGT between today and 40 years ago. The development in Germany starts from the abolishment of the Nazi version of Paragraph 175 which had been in force until 1969 to the legalization of same sex marriage in our times. You can compare this with the development in the whole western world. Gays and Lesbians are visible in the public.

Historians and other scientists begin to discover the area of LGBT. Gay and lesbian history came into greater focus in science and research. More and more public funds were given to examine social, historical and gender topics.

At the moment no politician from the conservative party to the left wing would allow themselves to turn back the clock. In view of the crisis of mass immigration of refugees a new development could lead to a step backward. For example in Bavaria, the largest part of the federal republic, no public funds have been given for historical research of the persecution of gays and lesbians.

With what feelings are you coming to Moscow to Side by Side LGBT Film Festival? What are your hopes and maybe fears? What would you wish to the Russian LGBT movement?

In the German media Russia and other post Soviet states seem to be on the march back to dictatorial states where churches have too much influence. When I hear the reports of participants of LGBT activists who came back from Russia or Ukraine, Serbia or Hungary we feel stunned and angry about that violence and inhuman racism. I start my journey with a little uncertainty and fear.

All my hope is that the Side by Side Film Festival will be successful, will attract as many people as possible and that it will go forward calmly.

I hope that such a festival will help to establish a LGBT movement in Russian society. To compare it with Munich - as the Rosa von Praunheim film, Nicht der Homosexuelle ist pervers, sondern die Situation, in der er lebt (It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives) was in 1971 and the starting point for the Munich gay movement, carried by left-wing students.