We've Got Hollywood Covered

‘Great Freedom’ Film Review: Decades-Spanning Drama Explores Injustice of German Anti-Gay Laws

Franz Rogowski (”Transit“) stars as a man who spends his life behind bars for loving men

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

“Great Freedom” begins with grainy color footage of Hans in a public lavatory as he hooks up with a series of men, and the furtive vibe is erotic until we are made to realize that what we are seeing is film being used against Hans in court. It is 1968 in Germany, and Hans is being prosecuted under Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality. He is sentenced to 24 months in prison.

The style of “Great Freedom” is cool, measured and austere, with near-invisible editing and barely any score. When Hans is stripped on entry to prison, Rogowski makes us see that his character has a quiet kind of defiance, almost as if he is back in the lavatory, and he is treating this as just another aspect of a sexual encounter. Hans jokes with an old 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 stands up for Leo in the yard, which results in him getting placed in solitary.

Meise flashes back to 1945, when a younger Hans looks far older and more wasted because he has just been let out of a concentration camp. His heterosexual cellmate Viktor is contemptuous of Hans at first, but Viktor softens when he sees the tattooed number on Hans’s arm, and he offers to tattoo something over it for him. This is the first inkling we get that Viktor is good-hearted.

Hans can be tactless, and Rogowski, who was the lead in Christian Petzold’s “Transit,” gives him an opaque quality that does not let us in on his thought processes; there is an implacable and somewhat sleazy aspect to Rogowski’s Hans that does not prepare us for the more intimate reveal that Meise has set up for the character.

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 live-in boyfriend Oskar (Thomas Prenn) both find themselves in prison for violating Paragraph 175. We see a home movie that Hans and Oskar took of an idyllic vacation trip, and even though it has the look of the surveillance footage from the lavatory we saw at the beginning of the film, the effect is totally different: romantic and sweet. Meise really twists the knife here by making us see what Hans’s life might have been before going back to immersing us in what it is: time-serving and isolation.

There comes a point in “Great Freedom” when sentimentality starts to creep in as we observe the deepening bond between Hans and Viktor, who gets up in the yard and embraces Hans after a devastating loss and cries out against the heartless guards who separate them and put them both into solitary confinement. It’s not that this embrace from Viktor is implausible, but anyone who has seen a few hard-as-nails films directed by German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder is likely to raise an eyebrow here occasionally at the slightly hokey simplicity of the behavior between these two men over the years.

When Hans sees the cover of a magazine 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 whatever they want, when and if it is convenient to them, and Hans knows this.

The ending of “Great Freedom” is bleak, and it is believable that someone like Hans would not want freedom when it is offered to him, because that would mean his whole life had meant nothing. It would mean that all his suffering had just been a case of bad timing; the suffering must be made to mean something again for him. The conclusion of “Great Freedom” manages to finesse the flaws of the movie, and it winds up feeling genuinely tragic.

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