Flash, flicker, flash, cut to black. We’re watching grainy film of men walking in and out of the stalls in a West German public toilet, casting glances at each other, maybe a fumbling feel; a reverse angle shows us the camera behind the mirror. The men can’t see it, but some of them must surely guess it’s there and defy the odds anyway. Because without defiance, without desire, what are they? Without those things, they know they will only ever be half-alive.
In Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom, which is Austria’s International Feature Oscar entry, Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski) looks into the mirror as he washes his hands, smirking: he knows. Cut to the inevitable court room, where he is found guilty as charged under a notorious statute known as Paragraph 175. “Back again,” grunts his old cell-mate Viktor (Georg Friedrich) when he sees him in the prison exercise yard. Viktor is a junkie, a murderer, a self-declared hater of “perverts.” They have known each other for over 20 years.
Under the Nazis, the much-contested Paragraph 175 law of 1871 was invoked to justify the persecution and incarceration of homosexuals. Hans first comes to this prison from a concentration camp. After the war, the regime changed, but the notorious law remained in force until 1969. Great Freedom’s timeframe keeps moving back and forth between Hans’ spells inside. It’s easy to lose track of where — or more precisely, when — we are but, of course, that is part of the point.
The years may accumulate, but there is not much to distinguish the Hans and Viktor of 1968 from their 1957 or 1945 selves. Prison garb changes, though everything is so drab you may not even notice. There is a mustache era somewhere in the middle; by 1968, Viktor has acquired a ratty ponytail to go with the Asian religious trinkets on his bedside table. A flush toilet has replaced the 1945 bucket. Maybe the toilet was already there in 1957? It doesn’t matter. Prison encapsulates a unique sort of tedium. The same meals, the same tasks, the same fights, the same grey light. It can even come to feel safe.
Without these actors, a film so uncompromisingly true to its subject would wither on the vine. With these two, however, the subtle play of feeling between them is gripping. Friedrich is a volcanic rock: heavy, solid but unpredictably explosive and, like a live volcano, compels you to look at him. Rogowski has always had a bravura capacity to flit up and down scales of emotion like a concert pianist playing Rachmaninoff, but he excels himself here. When Hans arrives from the camp, he is thin, cringing, unable to lift his eyes from the ground. But then there are the times when he spots the possibility of love in the middle of all that transactional sex; at these moments, he is ebullient, reckless, cocky.
“You don’t care, because you’re fearless; I want to be fearless, too,” says his lover Oskar, whom we see first in a startlingly colorful home movie of a day at a lake. After all the scenes of the prison yard, the green grass by the sunlit water is dazzling. He’s wrong, though. Hans is not fearless. We see him scream as the guards tip him into “the hole”: a punishment room with no window, no light and no bedding. We see how he looks at the camp number tattooed on his arm, see how his face twitches when Viktor asks him “if that place is really as bad as the Yanks said it was.” He is actually terrified, yet still keeps running up against the wall.
Quite how Meise and cinematographer Crystal Fournier manage to make the interiors so rich and fascinating over a two-hour stretch will remain one of life’s mysteries. Prisons are designed to be dehumanizing and gloomy, but no shot is dull. Great Freedom’s shadows are sensuous, the flesh tones insistently alive, the occasional shafts of light through the window glorious.
And when Hans’ day of great freedom arrives, the daily round of the gay bar scene looks neither better nor worse than life inside. In fact, just as the decades blurred into one, it looks very much the same. Hans has already found his freedom within himself by breaking another law, the prison dictum that nothing comes for free. Over and again, he has given — to Viktor, to his lovers — without asking for anything in return. Nobody can take that away from him.
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