We have a bad habit of over-segmenting our perception of the narrative of history, if that makes sense; pretending that advances in human rights can be identified by “clean breaks” that mark an immediate and permanent “victory” for the right side. But anyone who has experienced a genuine curiosity about our history, or even just movie nerds who consume a healthy diet of good documentaries, knows that this just isn’t true. As Ava DuVernay’s 13thdemonstrated, for just one example, the labor and bodies of African-Americans continued to be exploited well after the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. It took committed activism from generations of people even after they were supposedly “freed” to turn back that exploitation, which is still ongoing.
But this isn’t just limited to struggles in the United States. At the conclusion of World War II, the horrific concentration camps that perpetuated some of the most infamous atrocities of the 20th century were liberated. In recalling that time period, we picture battered but grateful Jewish, Polish, Romani, and Soviet prisoners being freed and able to live their lives in a hopeful future without fear of the Nazis. And this is true for many of the survivors of those atrocities… but not all of them. Shortly after their “liberation,” the homosexual prisoners went from places like Auschwitz and Dachau straight to slightly less awful confinement in criminal penitentiaries, as punishment for violating the provisions of Paragraph 175 banning “deviant sexual behavior.” Most of them lived the rest of their lives just as reviled and marginalized as they were before the conclusion of the war.
Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom tells the story of one of these prisoners. Hans Hoffmann, brought to thrilling life by Franz Rogowski, is an openly gay man who decides, unlike many of his peers during this time period, to not hide who he is, even if that decision guarantees spending most of the rest of his life in and out of prison as a result. Told in a nonlinear episodic format across decades, Hans strives to maintain his dignity and contentment with who he is in a world that does everything it can to grind that out of him.
If this sounds like a tough movie to watch… well, you’re not necessarily wrong, but what sets Great Freedom above most other prison dramas is the tenderness and humanity that pierce through such an unflinchingly cruel setting. There is a remarkable emotional clarity even as we jump between 1945, 1957, and 1968, because what we’re following isn’t the progression of a story, but the evolving relationships Hans forms with his cellmates throughout his multiple stints in prison, and how they keep him committed to his true self. This includes trysts with fleeting boyfriends (the most notable ones played by Thomas Prenn and Anton von Lucke), but the most significant friendship is one that forms between Hans and disgraced soldier Viktor, played by Georg Friedrich.
And this is where Great Freedom really shines as a character study. The bond that develops between these two perpetual convicts is a fascinating and moving one. It’s not a simplistic “homophobe learns to be more accepting” Oscar-bait arc, even if Viktor does come around to a more tolerant view of Hans’ sexuality. The relationship they have isn’t “romantic,” exactly, though there is budding intimacy between them that goes beyond mere platonic friendship but not quite an amorous pairing, either. It’s the kind of complicated, multi-layered human connection story that is only possible in these uniquely harsh circumstances.
The depiction of this relationship is aided tremendously by their actors. Rogowski, in particular, is exceptionally good here, and if this were an English-language film from a boutique American studio he would be guaranteed a Best Lead Actor nomination come January. He was a trained dancer and choreographer before picking up steam as one of Germany’s most interesting film actors over the last ten years, and that background shows in Great Freedom. There is a sunken, cowed interiority in Hans’ face and eyes, but his body moves with a wiry, coiled up energy – a sort of defiant swagger – that makes him captivating to observe on the screen. For Hans, sexuality is his means to connect to life, to still feel pleasure and joy and physical connection despite everything else, and the lively precision of Rogowski’s performance adds to the poignancy of that steadfast, sometimes aggressive commitment. Friedrich is also fantastic, communicating the ambivalence of Viktor with a stunted, gruff quality to his voice and body language, and both actors absolutely sell their thorny but undeniable bond.
But this film would not be receiving such an unqualified rave from me if this was only worth watching as an actor showcase. Indeed, despite the modest budget and credited crew, the craftsmanship on display here is pretty much unimpeachable. From Joana Scrinzi’s cuts threading a surprisingly clear emotional progression through its time-hopping structure to Kerstin Gaecklein’s excellent use of period-specific hairstyles to keep us apprised of the changing times, everything works to a degree that absolutely earned this film’s surprise Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and should have put it among the five nominees for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards earlier this year.
Great Freedom is the kind of complex, sobering, but deeply compelling human drama that asks a lot from its audience, but earns it by giving just as much back to those of us willing to invest in it, as well as announcing the electrifying Franz Rogowski as a future superstar of world cinema.
By the way, that Paragraph 175 Hoffmann was imprisoned for? It wasn’t repealed until 1994.