Great Freedom review: A powerful drama
Direction / structure8
Matthew Turner | On 07, May 2022
Director: Sebastian Meise
Cast: Franz Rogowski, Georg Friedrich, Anton von Lucke, Thomas Prenn
Co-written and directed by Sebastian Meise, this powerful prison drama takes place in Germany between 1945 and 1969, a time when homosexuals could be arrested and imprisoned for “deviant practices”, under a law known as Paragraph 175.
The film begins in 1969, with handheld footage of a series of toilet-based sexual encounters revealed to be the evidence in a police sting that incarcerates Hans Hoffman (Franz Rogowski) and a younger man. On arrival at the prison, Hans has a friendly exchange with an older man, Viktor (Georg Friedrich), indicating that this is by no means his first arrest.
After Hans ends up in solitary confinement for defending a younger inmate in a prison yard fight, the story flashes back to 1945 – using the darkness of the solitary cell as a link – and it’s revealed that Hans was transferred directly from a concentration camp, with Viktor as his initially hostile cellmate. As the story flashes between 1945 and 1969, with occasional interludes in 1957, the friendship between the two men gradually evolves over time, alongside Hans’ other relationships with inmates.
Meise structures the film in an intriguing way – the shifts in time frame aren’t always obvious, requiring the audience to pay close attention. The seemingly fluid time shifts also underscore the central idea, that Paragraph 175 is a seemingly endless imprisonment in and of itself, no matter what decade it happens to be.
Hans has touching and tender relationships with other inmates, but it’s the friendship with Viktor that forms the emotional heart of the film, as the older man moves from overt homophobia to a measure of understanding and sympathy, initially prompted by catching sight of the concentration camp number tattooed on Hans’ arm. There are genuinely romantic moments too, such as the way Hans finds to send messages via pinpricks in book pages.
Rogowski is terrific as Hans, wearing a perpetually haunted expression that really gets under your skin – you can practically feel the passage of time (and the implied lost years of his life) weighing on his shoulders. To that end, it’s significant that the script never gives you any real background to Hans – we barely know his former profession, let alone anything about his life outside the prison walls, which reinforces the idea that Paragraph 175 utterly prevents him from being able to live his life.
Friedrich is equally good, generating touching chemistry with Rogowski and convincingly portraying the gradual shift in their friendship. There’s also strong support from Anton von Lucke as Leo, a young teacher initially arrested with Hans.
The title of the film comes into its own towards the end of the film, when Hans visits an oppressive-looking club called Great Freedom, with the audience left to ponder both the implied degree of irony and also the lasting traumatic effect of criminalisation and imprisonment. Similarly, although the film ends at a time when Paragraph 175 was somewhat relaxed, a final caption delivers the sobering note that the law existed for a further 25 years and wasn’t fully abolished until 1994.