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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Review: ‘Great Freedom’ paints a haunting portrait of an imprisoned gay man

Franz Rogowski and Georg Friedrich in director Sebastian Meise’ “Great Freedom.”  (Mubi)
By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

“Great Freedom” takes place between 1945, in the immediate aftermath of the Allies’ liberation of Nazi concentration camps, and 1969, when the German law criminalizing sex between men – first instituted in 1871 and known as Paragraph 175 – was partially repealed. It follows the fictional Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski), a gay German who, for most of the narrative, is behind bars.

After a brief prologue in 1968, the film backtracks to the end of World War II, as Hans is being remanded into civilian custody from a work camp. The story, by Austrian writer-director Sebastian Meise (whose film made the 2021 Oscar shortlist for best international feature), then hops around in time between the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, with the only initial clues as to chronology coming from the protagonist’s hair, sideburns and mustache.

But gradually, a story of bittersweet beauty and unexpected tenderness emerges. The grim setting, regardless of time period, is the seemingly unchanging hell of prison, in which Hans is shown being thrown into the darkness of solitary confinement in one decade, only to emerge from the shadows in 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’s homophobic cellmate to – well, something else entirely. Friedrich’s complex, contradictory performance is a marvel, second only to that of Rogowski, who brings his characteristic passion and soulfulness to the role.

Being cast out by society is all that Hans – a recidivist if ever there was one – seems to have known. We learn little about his life outside confinement; he mentions, enigmatically, at one point that his life before consisted of doing “this and that.” At another point, Hans is incarcerated with a man (Anton von Lucke) who was picked up in a public toilet for having sex with him.

Years later, he’s shown living in jail with a lover (Thomas Prenn) he once shared an apartment with outside. Theirs is a relationship that will end in heartbreaking tragedy. Throughout it all, Hans is (mostly) indomitable. But this is no saga of endurance. Rather, “Great Freedom” paints a psychological portrait of someone who has been down so long it looks like up to him.

The title is ironic and refers, on one level, to the name of a gay bar that Hans visits in 1969, upon his release, and on another level to what the poet Robert Frost once called the freedom that comes from being “easy in your harness” – that is, the level of comfort that arises, paradoxically, in a state of restraint. Hans is who he is and will be who he will be, unalterably, regardless of his state of captivity. For him, love will bloom wherever it’s planted.

But that is a sick and a sorry state of mind to have to settle for, Meise reminds us. One of the loveliest scenes occurs after Hans and his fellow inmates have watched the 1969 moon landing on television. Viktor complains that the historic event feels anticlimactic, while Hans, in silence, looks out the window of their shared cell at the distant moon, as if the thought of it were no farther away – or more unattainable – than the room he is in.

It’s tempting to say that there’s a kind of admirable resolve to Hans’s embrace of adversity. But his predicament is also devastating. Hans’s condition isn’t really being “easy” in a harness at all. Rather, he is a man who has been so deformed and twisted by a society that reviles him that he can only stand up tall when he has been cast out of it.