‘Great Freedom’ movie review: Franz Rogowski stars as a German imprisoned for being gay

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(4 stars)

“Great Freedom” is set between 1945, the day after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated by the Allies, and 1969, when Germany’s law criminalizing sex between men – first instituted in 1871 and known as paragraph 175 – has been partially repealed. It follows the fictional Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski), a gay German who for most of the story is behind bars.

After a brief prologue in 1968, the film returns to the end of World War II, when Hans is remanded in custody from a labor camp. The story, from Austrian screenwriter-director Sebastian Meise (whose film was nominated for the 2021 Oscar for best international feature film), then jumps in time between the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the only initial clues as to the timeline coming from the protagonist’s hair. , sideburns and mustache.

But little by little, a story of bittersweet beauty and unexpected tenderness emerges.

The dark setting, whatever the time period, is the seemingly unchanging prison hell, in which Hans is shown thrown into the darkness of solitary confinement over a decade, only to emerge from the shadows into a another, in a story whose constants include the fact that Hans, for some reason, has resigned himself to his fate. Another mainstay is the character of Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a convicted murderer and junkie who evolves, over the years, from Hans’ homophobic cellmate to – well, something quite different. Friedrich’s complex and contradictory performance is a marvel, second only to Rogowski, who brings his trademark passion and soul to the role.

Being rejected by society is all Hans, a repeat offender if ever there was one, seems to have known. We learn little about his life outside confinement; he mentions, cryptically, at one point, that his former life consisted of doing “this and that”. At another point, Hans is incarcerated with a man (Anton von Lucke) who was arrested in a public restroom for having sex with him. Years later, he is shown living in prison with a lover (Thomas Prenn) with whom he once shared an apartment outside. Their relationship will end in heartbreaking tragedy.

In all of this, Hans is (mostly) indomitable. But this is not an endurance saga. On the contrary, “Great Freedom” paints a psychological portrait of someone who has been around so long that he looks like him. The title is ironic and refers, on the one hand, to the name of a gay bar that Hans visited in 1969, when he was freed, and on the other hand, to what the poet Robert Frost once called the freedom that comes. to be “easy in the head”. harness” – that is, the level of comfort that arises, paradoxically, in a state of restraint. Hans is what he is and will be what he will be, unalterably, whatever his state of captivity. For him, love will bloom where it is planted.

But it’s a sick and desolate state of mind to be content with, Meise reminds us. One of the finest scenes occurs after Hans and his fellow inmates watch the 1969 moon landing on television. Viktor complains that the historical event seems anticlimactic, while Hans silently gazes out the window of their shared cell at the distant moon, as if thought were no further – or more inaccessible – than the room in which it turns out that.

It’s tempting to say there’s a kind of admirable resolve in Hans’ embrace in the face of adversity. But his situation is also devastating. Hans’ condition is not at all “easy” in a harness. On the contrary, he is a man who has been so warped and twisted by a society that insults him that he can only stand up when he has been kicked out of it.

Not rated. At the Angelika Film Center mosaic. Contains coarse language, nudity, sex, drug use, smoking, mature thematic elements, and brief violence. In German and a little in English with subtitles. 116 minutes.

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