In post-war Germany, Hans ends up imprisoned again and again for being gay. His desire for freedom is systematically frustrated when he is found to be in breach of the German Criminal Code’s paragraph 175. The one steady relationship in his life becomes his long-time cellmate, Viktor, a convicted murderer. What starts as revulsion grows into something called love.
Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise takes the helm for his second fiction feature, premiering in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section where it won the Jury Prize and since then has been collecting award after award on the international festival circuit.
Franz Rogowski is one of the most exciting young acting talents working today. With each role, he brings new, strange facets and subtleties to his craft, like chemical elements yet to be classified and named. He has played a menace (in Victoria), a tragic-noir romantic lead (in Transit) and now, in Great Freedom, a character brimming with virtue.
Rogowski’s character, Hans Hoffmann, is the ultimate individual who was ‘arrested one morning without having done anything wrong,’ to quote the famous opening sentence of Kafka’s The Trial. The supposed ‘crime’ in Hans’s case is having homosexual relations.
Great Freedom is a work that perfectly balances several themes and strands. It takes an in-depth look at Germany’s post-war history, queer life before decriminalisation, and how the deadening logic of incarceration creates a mental prison, rendering the physical prison almost irrelevant. It doesn’t delve into why Germany remained so intolerant after the Allied victory but, fascinatingly, this doesn’t come across as an awkward omission. Meise doesn’t skimp on the more formulaic pleasures of the ‘prison flick.’ He appropriates them for his own ends: we have scuffles in the ‘yard,’ nights in the ‘hole’ and hints at a possible breakout. It is not an entirely bleak experience: there is levity and, by God, there is sex.
In three intertwining timelines, nested like Russian dolls, Hans repeatedly finds himself in the same high-security prison for a succession of homosexual acts. He is reprimanded specifically for being caught in the act (there are no Orwellian thought police here). A figure who appears in each historical era – 1945, 1957 and 1968 (the year prior to decriminalisation) – is Viktor, played by similarly acclaimed Austrian actor Georg Friedrich. He is serving a life sentence for murder and is, initially at least, a raging homophobe. The relationship between the two men develops fascinatingly into something that is almost, but not quite, a romantic bond.
David Katz, Cineuropa
Great Freedom is a co-production between Austria and Germany. It was produced by FreibeuterFilm (A) and Rohfilm Productions (DE). International sales are handled by The Match Factory.