Drama spanning decades explores the injustice of Germany’s anti-gay laws

Watching director Sebastian Meise’s “Great Freedom” is a process of watching the main character, Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski), be brutalized and dehumanized. The narrative takes place almost entirely in prison over a period of around 25 years, with Hans repeatedly put into the darkness of solitary confinement, and this return to solitary confinement acts as a bonding device for Meise, whose the screenplay with co-screenwriter Thomas Reider is complex. structure.

“Great Freedom” begins with grainy color footage of Hans in a public restroom as he hooks up with a series of men, and the stealthy vibe is erotic until we realize what we’re seeing is a film used against Hans in court. . It’s 1968 in Germany and Hans is being prosecuted under Section 175, which criminalizes homosexuality. He is sentenced to 24 months in prison.

The style of “Great Freedom” is cool, measured and austere, with almost invisible editing and almost no sheet music. When Hans is undressed upon entering prison, Rogowski makes us see that his character has a kind of silent defiance, almost as if he’s back in the toilet, and he treats this as another aspect of a sexual encounter. Hans jokes with a former cellmate named Viktor (Georg Friedrich), but he soon has his eye on Leo (Anton von Lucke), a cute young music teacher who has also been imprisoned under Paragraph 175. Hans defends Leo in court, which leads to him being placed in solitary confinement.

Meise returns to 1945, when a young Hans looks much older and more frazzled because he has just been released from a concentration camp. His heterosexual cellmate Viktor despises Hans at first, but Viktor softens when he sees the number tattooed on Hans’ arm, and he offers to tattoo something on it for him. This is the first time we learn that Viktor has a good heart.

Hans can be tactless, and Rogowski, who starred in Christian Petzold’s “Transit,” gives him an opaque quality that doesn’t let us into his thought processes; there’s a relentless and somewhat sleazy aspect to Rogowski’s Hans that doesn’t prepare us for the more intimate reveal Meise has set up for the character.

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Viktor warns Hans not to get involved with Leo, telling him to remember what happened before, a cue for another flashback, this time to 1957, when Hans and his boyfriend Oskar (Thomas Prenn) get together. both end up in jail for violating paragraph 175. We see a home movie that Hans and Oskar filmed while on an idyllic vacation trip, and even though it looks like the toilet surveillance footage we saw at beginning of the film, the effect is totally different: romantic and soft. . Meise really twists the knife here by showing us what Hans’ life could have been like before going back to immersing us in what it is: past time and isolation.

There comes a point in “Great Freedom” where sentimentality begins to seep in as we watch the deepening bond between Hans and Viktor, who stands up in the yard and hugs Hans after a devastating loss and yells at the guards. heartless that separate them and put them both in solitary confinement. It’s not that this hug from Viktor is implausible, but anyone who’s seen a few nail-biting movies directed by German prodigy Rainer Werner Fassbinder is likely to raise an eyebrow here every once in a while at the slightly hokey simplicity of behavior between these two men. over the years.

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When Hans sees a magazine cover announcing that Paragraph 175 has been revised, he brings it to Viktor and says, “I’m legal now. Viktor is incredulous: “Is this a joke? They can’t just abolish a law, can they? Of course, “they” can do what they want, when and if it suits them, and Hans knows that.

The ending of “Great Freedom” is dark, and it’s believable that someone like Hans doesn’t want freedom when it’s offered to him, because that would mean his whole life had meant nothing. That would mean that all his suffering was just a bad moment; you have to make the suffering mean something to him again. The conclusion of “Great Freedom” manages to refine the film’s flaws, and it ends up feeling genuinely tragic.

“Great Freedom” opens Friday in New York and March 11 in Los Angeles before expanding nationwide.

About Victoria Rothstein

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