Gay life in a German prison

What does “Great Freedom”, the name of Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s new film, mean? It only appears on screen 10 minutes from the end, like the name of a nightclub. Meise’s film devotes its first 105 minutes to something that feels like the exact opposite of freedom. Its protagonist, Hans (Franz Rogowski), is a homosexual who was sent directly from concentration camps to prison under Germany’s homophobic law, paragraph 175. During “Great Freedom”, he is serving three prison sentences – in 1945, 1957 and 1968 — for having sex with men. The film begins with Super-8 footage of his adventures in public restrooms, which turn out to be evidence during his trial.

“Great Freedom” closes the world outside of prison. We never learn what Hans did for a living. When asked, he says “this and that” and changes the question. Despite a close friendship with his cellmate Viktor (Georg Friedrich), Viktor does not reveal that he is serving time for murder until they have known each other for decades. It presents a different type of Super-8 sequence: family films of Hans and his lover in the countryside. This is the only time we see the presence of nature, or even a real exterior.

“Great Freedom” goes back and forth between its three time slots. With the passing years, hairstyles change. Hans grows sideburns and a mustache, while Viktor sports a ponytail. But the “Groundhog Day” effect remains. Germany may have changed a lot from 1945 to 1969, but Hans can only hear the New Year’s Eve fireworks from behind bars and watch the moon landing in a communal TV room. The film avoids the temptation to take on pop music or other cultural signifiers to mark the passage of time.

The irony of making gay sex illegal and condemning its practitioners to an all-male environment — where they spend much of their time locked in a cell with another man — is stark. Shortly after arriving in prison, Hans starts sailing again. The film makes careful use of color. Much of it is monochrome, close to black and white. Much of it takes place in extremely dark rooms. But the first scenes play on the gender coding associated with the colors. Dressed in blue uniforms, the prisoners sew pink sheets. In earlier periods they did exactly the same except they made gray clothes.

It’s not uncommon for progressives who would never make rape jokes about women to laugh at the same thing that happens to men in prison, as long as they think the men are filthy enough. The subjects of sexual assault and consensual sex between men in prison have long been used for titillation and provocation: watch works as diverse as Jean Genet’s short “Un Chant D’Amour”, the HBO series “Oz” and Lil Nas X’s. “Industry Baby” video. Even the simplest prison setting drives home the idea that under certain circumstances most men would be willing to sleep with other men. This seems to be the case with Viktor. He and Hans sleep together once, but Viktor insists that he really is heterosexual.

The most surprising aspect of “Great Freedom” is its underlying sweetness. “Great Freedom” is much kinder to its characters than the Hanya Yanagihara novels, but it plays out a similar pain/comfort dynamic, more emotional than sexual. Even though they’re not exactly lovers, Hans and Viktor’s relationship ends up feeling like a marriage, as they care for each other in their most desperate and vulnerable times. Despite the homophobic state violence that is its backdrop, the characters manage to avoid tearing each other apart.

The final scenes of “Great Freedom” complicate its meaning. Explaining exactly how would be a spoiler, but they can be interpreted in many ways: a case of Stockholm Syndrome or an ultimate act of rebellion. The film wonders what kind of life could be imagined by someone who has known only confinement. He finally introduces the music, alternating between the dissonant jazz of Peter Brötzmann and a syrupy French love song. Just as the liberation of the camps by the Allies sends him back to prison, Hans’ great freedom may not be what he expects.

GREAT FREEDOM | Directed by Sebastian Meise | In German with English subtitles | MUBI | Opening March 3rd at the Cinema Forum

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