Take it from someone who has lived here for all of his twenty-five years: Englanders, for the most part, are so blinded by exceptionalism as to pretend that the state has never sinned. When I visited Berlin for the first time some years ago, I observed a stark contrast. This city, the epicentre of some of the last century’s greatest evils – scarred by Nazism, two World Wars, and a conflict decidedly more cold – wears its blemishes with deliberate candour. To be in the presence of a totemic fragment of the Berlin Wall, or stood in an unassuming car park sat atop the cemented-in Fuhrerbunker, is to experience the relentless currents of time. One assumes this to be the point: we learn from the past to better inform the present, and how better to experience history than to stand amid its ruins?
Paragraph 175, an article of the German penal code abolished in 1970, is a lesser known historical fault: for decades, it was used to incarcerate thousands of gay men. Some were liberated from Auschwitz straight into the darkness of a brick-and-mortar prison, their tattooed identification numbers still raw. The question of whether this episode was deliberately concealed is never explicated in Great Freedom, the brutally sore sophomore feature from Austrian director Sebastian Meise, who has claimed his film not to be political. But by dint of this exhumation – bringing to light a history which challenges the narrative of the state – one wonders if it has to be, regardless of Meise’s intent.
It’s 1968. Hans (Franz Rogowski) cruises a public bathroom, sharing slapdash rendezvouses with a series of anonymous men. As the grain and flicker of an antiquated handheld camera would suggest, we observe him – and all the coy coitus – through a two-way mirror. Cut to a courtroom: the clips are being presented as evidence of Hans’ sexual transgressions to a panel of stoney-faced judges. With the strike of a gavel it’s straight to jail for the next twenty-four months; that he falls so quickly into a knowing rhythm, spreading his buttcheeks for the guards quicker than they can say “achtung,” tells us this isn’t his first rodeo. And indeed, we soon flash back to 1945: Hans, plucked out of a concentration camp by the Allies, has been unceremoniously dumped into the same prison.
It’s in the same year that the seeds are planted for what will become a decades-long, blistering companionship, one which defies any sort of categorisation, because true intimacy is very scary, and seldom finds itself beholden to rules. Enter cell/soul-mate Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a capricious biker type with a face so haggard as to be carved by an amateur sculptor. Unlike Hans, he’s in here for the long run, his fatal crime less … morally ambiguous, today’s ethical standards having shifted less on murder. They couldn’t be more discordant, not least because only Hans explicitly considers himself, and quite unashamedly, to be gay. But opposites attract, or so the saying goes; which is rarely actually true, until it is.
Our primary orbit is around Hans, which could never be a bad thing, given how tremendous Rogowski has consistently proven himself to be. It’s in Transit that he first sprung to the international stage with his compelling physical presence and elite-tier eye fucking, his reputation only strengthened by his second collaboration with Christian Petzold, 2020’s Undine. This role is less handsome, steelier, and one suspects far more demanding: across the two-and-a-half decades Great Freedom is set, his body undergoes drastic change, from the skin-and-bones frailty of an Auschwitz survivor to the bulkier, assured macho en vogue for gay men in the late Sixties.
This transformative quality bleeds from the central performances – Friedrich too undergoes quite drastic metamorphoses, losing considerable weight as he succumbs to drug addiction – to the film’s formal methodology. In each of Great Freedom’s three eras, subtle production tweaks demarcate the prison’s own evolution. Lighting fixtures are changed from harsh fluorescents to warmer, candle-like bulbs, and kinder cell furnishings imply broader institutional reform, telling of the shifting political mood outside the concrete tomb.
The central relationship is the film’s tender core: these are men bonded by brutality, like brothers at war. And fraternity is only a stone’s throw away from eroticism; a line crossed, exclusively at Viktor’s insistence – of course – numerous times. They meld into one another as if metal rods beaten into confluence by a blacksmith, shooting off incandescent sparks. This cannot come without the greater tragedy at play, of course – a man persecuted by the state for being, well, who he is. But given the opportunity to jump out of the brutal dance and pursue their great, great freedom, both choose a window with bars. Not only has Meise unearthed a vital historical moment, he has done so with deft, soul-grabbing tenderness.
This review is from the BFI London Film Festival. Great Freedom will be released in the U.S. by MUBI.