When I first saw this film, I found something insultingly "arty" about it: the way it abstracts real historical horrors, even the way the IRA guys paint Van Gogh sworls with their shit. But then I was reading about the IRA and their dirty protest in Long Kesh, and the author literally made a Van Gogh comparison, and it piqued my interest enough to revisit this film. I like it. It's history-as-body horror, revealing the depth of conviction one can muster in service of an ideal. Its study of the body in abject pain feels very Catholic, which of course fits (it reminded me specifically of Scorsese's sublime Silence, as well as Mel Gibson's more odious Passion play). 

This distinguishes it from McQueen’s own rather odious 12 Years A Slave, in which the human form's use as a vector for anguish does feel tacky, and pejoratively arty, bodies flayed and strung up in gallery-ready dioramas. The historical difference here is that Sands made a highly deliberated moral choice (which the film depicts with great subtlety in his dialogue with the priest) to subject himself to such anguish, and so watching it depicted feels like a way of understanding that choice, and not merely a way of affording us the space to marvel at the brutality of pain visited upon others and mumble, slack-jawed, “Well isn’t that just terrible...” 

And frankly, it's nice to think of a time when Fassbinder was an auspicious up-and-comer, and not merely a fixture of various film franchises. Still hate Thatcher, up the ra, etc.