Review of ‘Great Freedom’: A homosexual perseveres in post-war Germany

A film that both cherishes the lifespan of a lit match and respects the patience it takes to endure a prison sentence, “Great Freedom” makes an exquisite case of the impossibility of caging the heart, even when love itself is criminalized.

The countdown to a drama by Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise – sadly absent from this year’s Oscar nominees for an international feature film – traces the repeated imprisonments of a gay German played by Franz Rogowski between the end of World War II and the emergence of a new gay outspokenness in the late 1960s. German penal code that imprisoned homosexuals – paragraph 175 – was passed in 1871 and saw its most brutal prosecution during the Nazi years, it remained on the books for decades after the war.

It’s 1968 when we meet Hans (Rogowski), who seems unfazed by the prospect of being tried and convicted for having sex with men. We can sense his familiarity with life behind bars: he’s casually acclimated to the routine of the treatment exam, he’s a whiz at the prison sewing machines, and he knows an inmate – a burly murderer named Viktor (Georg Friedrich) – good enough to have a teasing “I miss myself” exchange. He is also ready to protect a handsome young schoolteacher (Anton von Lucke) whom he recognizes from the seedy public toilets where they were caught.

The particular type of prison hard case that Hans is, however, is signaled by the first flashback, which provides the psychological window framing the entire film’s portrayal of identity and adaptation. As the narrative shifts to 1945 through a transition Meise uses throughout – the pitch black of confinement – ​​we find Hans a younger but skinnier and sicker inmate, a mark of time spent in a camp of concentration. When his cell door is opened to reveal an American soldier, we learn that Hans is not free, but rather sent to prison to serve out the rest of his Paragraph 175 sentence.

This shocking reality for gay people in the camps — that Allied Liberation did not include them — is what prompted Meise and co-writer Thomas Reider to write “Great Freedom.” But instead of a miserable, predictable historical drama, they crafted an unusually tender, even emboldening story of resilience and love in a cold, dehumanizing space. In Crystel Fournier’s careful and textured camerawork – images one might imagine earning the admiration of Jean Genet – the film highlights Hans’ perseverance in countering institutionalized injustice with what his heart tells him. to be and what he must do to facilitate the passion. (Hans’ manipulation of prison rules to conjure up overnight “dates” is the closest thing to prison drama to feeling romantic.)

The nervous and magnetic Rogowski – whose eyes are a world of his own – has already made a name for himself in convincing turns for Michael Haneke (“Happy End”) and Christian Petzold (“Transit”, “Undine”). Here he powerfully conveys 25 years of an ostracized and rebellious soul, someone whose sensitivity and desire are tools for survival, not weaknesses – ways to always feel human. One of the film’s arcs is how it slowly breaks down Viktor’s homophobia over the years – a gentle campaign of compassion that dates back to when they met as cellmates in 1945 and Friedrich’s portrayal matches steel and vulnerability. Their scenes remind us why movies are such a rich art of storytelling: we can see time unraveling into subtle, sometimes overt but beautifully weighted gestures of connection, moments that make sense.

When ‘Great Freedom’ finally depicts literal freedom, following Germany’s partial repeal of the law, Hans is confronted with what men like him sacrificed themselves for, and Meise’s epilogue is presumably bittersweet about this impact. But what resonates is seeing Hans as he sees himself, why he could transcend the brutality of any unjust law: life for him is not marked by prison sentences but by time spent nurturing the love that he knew to be true freedom.

“Great Freedom”

In German with English subtitles


Operating time: 1 hour 56 minutes

Playing: Begins March 11, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena

About Victoria Rothstein

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