‘Great Freedom’ Provides a Raw, Uncompromising Look at the Persecution of Gay Men in East Germany

‘Great Freedom’ Provides a Raw, Uncompromising Look at the Persecution of Gay Men in East Germany

Great Freedom takes its title from the name of a nightclub that Hans Hoffmann (Transit’s Franz Rogowski) attends in 1969 at the conclusion of Sebastian Meise’s wrenching drama (out now in theaters)—an establishment of uninhibited homosexuality, now that Germany’s anti-gay Paragraph 175 statute has been relaxed. Nonetheless, true freedom is a tricky and complicated commodity in the director’s long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s Still Life, especially for Hans, who’s repeatedly incarcerated over decades under the aforementioned law for the crime of wanting to be with other men. A portrait of liberation flourishing in unexpected places, it pulses with quiet anguish, longing and defiance, led by a Rogowski performance that conveys astonishing depths in minimalist gestures.

Hans is introduced in an opening montage of 16mm film clips shot from behind a cottage’s bathroom sink mirror; in each snippet, he engages in a sexual act with a stranger, thus making clear his proclivities. This surreptitiously recorded material is evidence in a 1968 court case against him, which ends with a swift conviction and a sentence of 24 months. In East Germany, Paragraph 175 outlaws such behavior, and Hans is sent off to prison, where he goes through an admittance process like a seasoned pro. Just as the authorities’ camera stared at him while he pleasured his paramours, so too do guards now stand by and watch as Hans strips out of his clothes and spreads himself for inspection, underlining how society systematically gazes at him (often in the nude, as when he’s later thrown into solitary confinement), and damns him for what it sees.

Hans operates a sewing machine in the laundry room, and it’s there that he notices Leo (Anton von Lucke), one of the men with whom he’d previously shared some bathroom-stall intimacy at the cottage. Though Hans may be the object of everyone else’s condemnatory scrutiny, he’s a man whose own eyes are intensely cagey and confident, sending coded messages through small, sly looks and likeminded expressions, such as the smile that sometimes creeps, almost imperceptibly, into the corner of his mouth. Rogowski’s turn is marvelous for being so coiled and yet so communicative, and no matter Hans’ persecution and demonization—including from fellow inmates who object to his homosexuality—he carries himself with unflappable confidence. He’s a man who knows who he is, what he wants, and how he can get it, even in a place where the concrete walls and humorless guards are determined to keep him alone and alienated from any spark of joy.

Though Hans has eyes for Leo—a timid teacher who’s spending his first stint behind bars, and who ultimately finds in Hans a reliable protector and partner—his lasting relationship is with Viktor Kohl (Georg Friedrich), who in 1968 is a junkie on the verge of a new parole hearing. Hans and Viktor’s connection is the narrative through-line of Great Freedom, which soon leaps backward in time to 1945 to witness Hans first entering the same prison as a mustache-free younger man. A recent resident of a Nazi concentration camp, Hans has traded one detention center for another, and he’s immediately placed in a cell with Viktor, who’s disgusted at having to share space with a homosexual man. Nevertheless, upon hearing about Hans’ WWII ordeal, he offers to tattoo something over the permanent identification numbers lining Hans’ forearm, thereby initiating a bond that will develop over the ensuing years.

Between Viktor’s tattoo needle piercing Hans’ skin, Hans’ straw poking holes in a bible in order to transmit a secret message to a lover, the cigarette that’s perpetually between Hans’ lips, a stirring paint brush, and a man blowing furiously into a saxophone, phallic and sexualized imagery abounds in Great Freedom, albeit with a subtlety that’s endemic to the proceedings. Meise often leans heavily on silence and lamenting trumpet to add weight and sorrow to his drama, as well as oppressive darkness that at times seems intent on swallowing Hans whole. In such a bleak environment, Hans’ matches provide the only flicker of light—an understated visual metaphor for his internal attempts to keep his true self alive in a world that seeks to annihilate it.

In a 1957 passage, Hans suffers in jail with boyfriend Oskar (Thomas Prenn), who articulates how much he admires Hans for his fearlessness, a quality which Oskar says he lacks. Great Freedom is a film about living and loving no matter the high cost, and the pain, misery and tragedy that doing so can entail. Hans is trapped between being himself and someone who can safely survive in a nation that despises him, and the path he charts is a jagged one, marked by pitfalls he doesn’t foresee or doesn’t care to heed. His rapport with Viktor is similarly ragged, with Viktor falling into substance abuse and dependence at the same time that he draws closer to Hans. Their union is forged through blunt sexual acts of need, power and desire, and Meise shoots them—and the rest of his trysts—with an explicitness that’s in tune with the overarching roughness and coldness of his story’s milieu.

In such a bleak environment, Hans’ matches provide the only flicker of light—an understated visual metaphor for his internal attempts to keep his true self alive in a world that seeks to annihilate it.

In a late scene, Hans and Viktor watch Neil Armstrong take his momentous first steps on the moon, to which Viktor comments, “I thought it would be more exciting.” Happiness, however, comes in discreet forms in Meise’s film, such as via Hans’ efforts to help Viktor shake his drug habit by first kneeling beside him as he violently pukes into a toilet, and afterward cradling him in a warm embrace. Great Freedom suggests that there’s freedom in giving and receiving selfless love, and thus it’s the sight of Viktor crawling into bed to spoon with Hans (on the night following the consummation of their relationship) that resounds the loudest, exuding an aching tenderness that’s far more profound than the prior carnality indulged by either man.

Meise’s habit of spying on his characters in doorways and windows, as well as through other visual frames, speaks to Hans and Viktor’s state of constricting confinement. Yet during the finale, Hans discovers that emancipation isn’t as clear-cut as it seems, and that perhaps the place where one feels most free has little to do with walls, bars, or rules. Great Freedom raises such questions but wisely refuses to offer pedantic answers, instead choosing to accept—as Hans does—the messy ambiguity of modern life.

Source: Culled From The Daily Beast.

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