This is to date the only film directed by Sean Mathias, who works primarily as a theater director in the UK. It evidences a filmmaker rough around the edges but with a strong visual sense. The edges are roughest where they involve the performances of his actors, which tend to be too broad, especially in the early scenes but occasionally the later ones as well. There is a pivotal scene that I won't give away, but I will explain that it bristles with tension, builds gradually and fills us with dread, until it's punctuated by one character screaming "Nooooo!" I was reminded of George Lucas, who seems to regularly update his "Star Wars" films with new scenes of Darth Vader bellowing "Nooooo!"
Roger Ebert has a useful phrase for such moments: a "Clang." In his review of "Tru Loved," he defined a "clang" as "a moment that breaks the fabric of a film with something that is impossible, illogical, tone-deaf, out of character, amateurish, or otherwise goes 'Clang!'" A character screaming "Nooooo!" at that moment, spelling out feelings that are already perfectly clear, makes a clang. I can't think of a movie intended to be serious that has been improved by someone screaming "Nooooo!"
But I'm dwelling too much on that clang. There are a few other such moments during the film, usually in dialogue or acting that strains with unnecessary melodrama ("It's your cheese! Choke on it!"), but the core relationship of the film is strong enough that despite the clangs this will be a generally positive review. Clive Owen stars as Max, a gay man living in Berlin in the 1930s. He and his lover, Rudy (Brian Webber) are forced into hiding on the Night of the Long Knives and must hide their sexuality because of a Nazi crackdown on homosexuals. Eventually they are captured, and Max meets Horst (Lothaire Bluteau) on a train to the Dachau concentration camp. That may sound like the makings of a love triangle, but for story reasons I won't reveal, the film is not a triangle but one love story followed by another.
The romance with Horst is the more compelling of the two. Horst is branded with a pink triangle identifying him as gay, while Max has convinced his captors that he is Jewish, believing he is safer as a Jew than as a homosexual. They are given a meaningless task designed to demoralize them – moving the same pile of rocks back and forth – which also provides the framework for the rest of their relationship. They are watched constantly and conduct their love affair with words, without touching; one such scene is full of erotic tension, and the next is unexpectedly moving and sad.
Based on a 1979 play by Martin Sherman, who also wrote the screenplay, the film is at its best when it's at its subtlest, its camera observant, its writing and acting direct and without embellishment. "I love you …" says Max at one point, speaking to Horst. "… What's wrong with that?" he adds, and now the screenplay seems to be editorializing to the audience. We needn't be prodded so blatantly with the Moral Of The Story; the story has spoken for itself.