After the Nazis were defeated in Germany, not everyone they held was immediately set free. Prisoners who belonged to the gay community were moved to the country’s regular prisons to serve out the remainder of their terms, since homosexuality was still considered a crime. Sebastian Meise’s moving film Great Freedom focuses on one of these poor souls, as he finds himself in and out of jail for “perversion”.
In 1968, Hans (Franz Rogowski) is arrested in a sting operation that catches gay men engaging in sexual acts in a public restroom. In prison, he is greeted by Viktor (Georg Friedrich), who isn’t especially surprised to see him return. He also encounters Leo (Anton von Lucke), one of the other men nabbed in the same sting. As he begins to grow closer to Leo, Viktor warns Hans off of the relationship, reminding him of “what happened last time.” And so we flash back to Hans’ first visit to the prison in 1945, where he is assigned a cell with Viktor. Upon learning that Hans was arrested under Paragraph 175, which criminalizes homosexuality, Viktor at first tries to force him out of the cell. Gradually though, he softens on his cellmate while still clinging to some degree of homophobia, and even performs an act of kindness for him by tattooing over Hans’ Nazi prisoner numbers. We are also shown Hans in 1957, when he has been arrested along with his lover Oskar (Thomas Prenn), who prison officials try to keep separated. When their attempt to keep their relationship going ends in tragedy, it is Viktor who is there to comfort Hans.
The growth of the central relationship between the two seemingly opposite prisoners is portrayed flawlessly by the two actors. Rogowski’s Hans is an unabashed optimist, always kind and gentle to those he encounters, while Friedrich’s Viktor is gruff and aloof but with slowly revealed depths and heart. In a society that wants to see them both as not worthy of love or even basic human dignity, they manage to find some comfort and affirmation in each other. This is a largely quiet film, filled with beautifully ponderous shots in which little action occurs, and it takes place almost entirely within the prison walls, but the story it tells still feels epic in scope, and in light of increasing threats to civil rights, it also feels very necessary. ★★★★★
NOT RATED. CONTAINS STRONG SEXUAL CONTENT, GRAPHIC NUDITY, LANGUAGE, VIOLENCE, THEMATIC MATERIAL, DRUG USE, AND SMOKING.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor