Sebastian Meise’s masterpiece of restraint, Great Freedom, opens with a series of police surveillance footage of a men’s public toilet, where Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski) is caught on camera engaging in various sex acts with other men. Cut to a courtroom where the footage is being shown as evidence, with Hans in the dock, leading to a conviction and a 24-month prison sentence. It’s Germany, 1968. Over two decades after the end of the Second World War, during which Hans was held in a Nazi concentration camp for being gay, he is still being persecuted by the authorities for his sexuality under the pernicious Paragraph 175. The law, explored in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 2000 documentary Paragraph 175, made sex between men illegal and had been adopted by the German Empire in 1872, and wasn’t fully repealed until 1994.
Determined to live his life truthfully as a gay man despite the legal consequences, Hans has become caught in a three decade long cycle of being incarcerated and released. Meise’s screenplay, co-written with Thomas Reider, focuses on his years in prison, shifting backwards and forwards through time. This impactful structure suggests drifting memory, a hellish time loop that Hans has had no choice but to succumb to. Glimpses of bright, colour-drenched home video take us back to his time with an old lover, Oskar (Thomas Preen), whom he dreams of sharing an apartment with again on the outside. Then there’s Leo (Anton von Lucke), a young school teacher who has had his life destroyed by Paragraph 175, caught on camera in an interaction with Hans in the same police footage. Over the years, there are some desperate, beautifully romantic moments between these two men and Hans as they manage to steal time together under the brutal circumstances of being locked up.
An unlikely friendship builds throughout the film from the 40s to the late 60s, between Hans and an older inmate serving an extended sentence, Viktor (Georg Friedrich). Initially, when Viktor learns that he is to share a cell with a 175er (a man convicted under paragraph 175), he throws out Hans and his belongings, but gradually a close, complex relationship develops between the them. At one point, just a comforting embrace between them after Hans has suffered a traumatic loss, is deeply moving.
With these three relationships that Hans experiences in prison, comes a delicate tenderness and palpable love that’s powerful and affecting amidst the inhumanity that the men are treated with by the authorities. There’s also hope in Viktor’s ability to see Hans as more than the numbers he’s been branded with, both figuratively and literally, with Viktor helping to cover up the concentration camp tattoo onto his forearm.
Not for a moment does Meise fetishize the men behind bars in love scenario; it’s suitably bleak, with a muted colour palette, naturalistic, unshowy cinematography by Crystel Fournier (Girlhood, Tomboy), spare dialogue, and a stripped down score by Peter Brötzmann and Nils Petter Molvaer. Yet, at the heart of the film there is a fire raging inside Hans, subtly portrayed by Rogowski in a devastating, nuanced tour-de-force. Despite the years of incarceration, the beatings, and the torture he has suffered, his spirit has not been broken, nor has his capacity to love. It’s that spirit, and Rogowski’s captivating performance, that propel the film and prevent it from becoming too somber, despite his horrific circumstances. When we are allowed outside, it’s to an icy cold courtyard, while many scenes are set at night, and at several times throughout the film the screen turns pitch black as Hans is thrown into solitary confinement. This deprivation of the senses make us feel those warm touches, even the looks, between the men all the more potent.
Deeply affecting with terrific performances, Great Freedom—which won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes—is a work of understated power, that left me with a profound sadness about the treatment of our queer ancestors, and how prison life so often leads to institutionalization rather than rehabilitation. While state legislated persecution of gay men may now be part of Germany’s history, alarmingly in 2022, 71 countries still criminalize being gay, and in many more it is unsafe to be openly LGBTQ. While in the United States, anti-LGBTQ legislation continues to rear its ugly, regressive, and damaging head in many states.
By James Kleinmann
Great Freedom opens theatrically in New York on Friday, March 4th 2022 at Film Forum, and in Los Angeles on Friday, March 11th at Royal, followed by a national expansion. Streams on MUBI from Friday, May 6th, 2022. Head to the official Great Freedom website for more details.