Great Freedom (2021)

SEBASTIAN MEISE

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

Original Title: Große Freiheit

/, 2021. , , , , , , , , , , , . Screenplay by , Sebastian Meise. Cinematography by . Produced by , , . Music by , . Production Design by . Costume Design by , . Film Editing by .

Footage taken in secret in a men’s public latrine reveals Hans Hoffmann () to have been a frequenter of the place, meeting men there for sex on numerous occasions. The footage is being played at the beginning of this riveting drama for a judge in a courtroom, who then sentences Hans to months in prison for illegal homosexual activity. It’s 1968 and we realize quickly that this isn’t the man’s first rodeo, the ease and quiet with which he goes through processing in prison details the regularity with which he finds himself in this same situation.

When his defense of a fellow younger inmate gets Hans thrown in solitary, we are taken back to 1945, when Hans is liberated from the concentration camps, having been sent there under Paragraph 175 (the Germany law’s criminal code for homosexuality) before being transferred straight to state prison at the end of the war under the same criminal code. He is placed in a cell with an accused murderer named Victor Bix (), who doesn’t take well to being bunked with a “pervert”, but the vulnerability of the ragged, half-starved man eventually melts his intolerance and the two strike up a rough friendship that carries them through the years.

In the interlude between these two periods, we catch up with Hans in the late fifties, when he is sent to prison after having been discovered living with a partner, Oskar (), who is also incarcerated but doesn’t have Hans’ instinct for sticking true to his desires despite its making him an outlaw.

When the world changes in the late sixties and Germany joins other countries dissolving the legal prohibition against specific sexual acts, the future beckons to our silent but soulful hero, but what place does he have relating to men like himself when the parameters around which he has learned to define himself have been completely removed? That’s the question that caps off the brilliant ending of this very powerful and turgid drama that laughs in the face of anyone who thinks that positive representation of sexual minorities needs to be pure and heroic. Sure, love is love, but sex is life, and Hans loves it and isn’t a less self-respecting person for it, in fact there’s a plucky bravery to the fact that he’s ready to get it on with the men he feels a connection with even if he knows how likely it is that he will get thrown in the klink.

Lest you think the whole movie is about reckless rebellion, however, the central relationship that breaks him in two is actually the nerve centre of the entire piece, a lesson in harsh reality that leaves Hans with no illusions about where he fits in to a society that wishes he didn’t exist. It’s a magnificent and moving film, and often very sexy (sometimes a bit too sexy, in many ways prison seems like a nice way to meet guys), and has a full-bodied, earthy and powerful performance by Rogowski in the lead. Sacrificial but never self-pitying, he performs the character’s pulsating yearning for a physical connection as a constant throbbing beneath his skin, his large eyes telegraphing naked, vulnerable emotions and shrewd confidence at the same time.

European Film Awards: Best European Cinematographer; Best European Composer
Nominations: Best European Actor (Franz Rogowski)

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