Great Freedom is a tender celebration of unconventionality, in all its complex and varied incarnations.
Paragraph 175 was a provision of the German Criminal Code enacted in 1871, in which homosexual acts between two men were made a crime and punishable by a minimum six-month prison sentence. In 1935, the Nazi party altered the law, increasing the maximum penalty to five years imprisonment and removing the stipulation that it only be applied to cases involving penetrative sex, with many of the convicted forced into concentration camps during WWII. In 1969, the law was reformed once again, limiting jail time to those individuals who engaged in homosexual prostitution, sex with a man less than 21 years of age, and the exploitation of a relationship of a dependency. Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom follows one German man over the course of twenty years as he faces imprisonment on three separate occasions for the “crime” of being gay.
The film opens in 1968, and we immediately witness Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski) engaging in a number of sexual acts with various men in a non-descript restroom, the footage caught on camera by local police. As he is booked and processed into the prison system, it’s obvious that this is not Hans’ first foray into incarceration. Little is said as he systematically enacts the required rituals before making his way to a cell that will serve as his home for the next year. The guards know him by name, as well as numerous prisoners, including Viktor (Georg Friedrich), an older gentleman with whom laughs and hugs are exchanged. It’s only when Hans is subjected to solitary confinement that the film jumps back to 1948, where we witness him enter prison for the first time as a physically slight and jittery man lacking in any sort of confidence. It’s also here that his relationship with Viktor is born, one that begins in a place of hatred and disgust and slowly transforms into something like shared empathy, as Viktor learns of Hans’ former imprisonment in a concentration camp (their bond is further developed in 1957 upon Hans’ second incarceration, and finally again in 1968).
Aside from the opening moments and the film’s final ten minutes, Hans is never seen outside of prison walls: he is a man completely defined by his lack of freedom, a fitting metaphor for homosexuals in Germany during the era of Paragraph 175. Meise and co-writer Thomas Reider set out to highlight a deplorable period in gay German history, one that made the very act of love illegal, but their choice of (sub)genre within which to frame their explorations, unfortunately, comes beholden to no small number of limiting conventions and cliches. But despite the distracting prison-flick template, Great Freedom is still an affecting treatment on the strength of its two main players: Rogowski once again crafts a soulful performance, thanks largely to his soft, delicate voice and ever-haunted eyes, while Friedrich transforms what could have been stock caricature into something both layered and nuanced. Their relationship forms the film’s crux, even turning into something resembling a profound love by film’s end; their bond is never judged, and instead presented with a matter-of-factness that ultimately renders it all the more heartbreaking. Theirs is a relationship born out of necessity, but director and writer understand, and clearly articulate, that this doesn’t make it any less genuine.
Meise’s direction, for its part, is unobtrusive, lacking in showmanship as it opts for a committed observational mode. Any stylistic devices are saved for film’s end, as Hans makes his way out of prison and into a gay club for the first time in his life, where men openly dance, kiss, and hold one another. As Hans is beckoned into the nether regions of the club by a handsome stranger, the viewer is treated to sights of various men engaging in graphic sex acts, with the basement made to resemble a prison, filled with brick walls and steel bars. The metaphor is heavy-handed, to be sure, but somehow Meise is still able to find a certain beauty within it, as Hans finally becomes cognizant of the cost of his happiness, leaving the audience in a rather conflicted emotional state as the credits roll. Freedom doesn’t innately exist in the absence of prison walls, and specifically not in the immediate wake of inhuman laws that seek to condemn nontraditional love. Yet Great Freedom is nothing if not an ode to that very unconventionality, with specificity here, but extending in celebration to all of its complex and varied incarnations. It’s a film that understands and captures how the heart can soar even as it breaks.
Originally published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 7.