Interview: Director Sebastian Meise on ‘Great Freedom’ and discovering a widely forgotten part of German LGBTQ+ history
Great Freedom is the latest film from Vienna-based Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise. Meise first came on to the international film scene when his acclaimed debut feature film Still Life (also known as Stilleben) premiered at San Sebastian International Film Festival in 2011. After the success of his debut feature, Meise took a break from fiction and made Outing in 2012, a documentary about a pedophile who opens up about struggle against his forbidden, illegal desires.
After nearly a decade without any new films, Meise returned to the film festival circuit last year with Great Freedom. The film premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, where it won the jury prize. After a successful film festival run, it also won the top prize at the Seville European Film Festival, Meise’s film is set to debut in movie theaters in the US later this week, and in the UK next week. It was also Austria’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards and went on to be shortlisted among many other great, international films.
I recently sat down with Meise in anticipation for the release of Great Freedom. Our conversation was fascinating and gets into the motivation behind the choices made in the film, his intentions and the research process of talking to older people in the LGBTQ+ community who went through what happens in the film.
Ben Rolph: I really enjoyed your film, I saw it at the London Film Festival in October, it’s stuck with me since then. How did you first go about researching the events that transpired in Great Freedom and did you know about Paragraph 175 before?
Sebastian Meise: Well, actually, I didn’t know so much about it. I heard about it once and I knew that homosexuality was illegal at one point, but it seems so far away. I was not aware of the whole dimension of the persecution in the meticulousness the state took in pursuing so many harmless men for loving somebody and locking him up. This was something I was not aware of. Then, I talked to many people around us, in the queer community, here in Vienna. And they also didn’t know it, it’s really a blind spot in history. I even talked to people like my father, who grew up in the 50s and 60s, even he had had no knowledge about it. Then I started wondering, why? Why is this a blind spot? It affected so many people, not only those who were imprisoned back then, but all gay life.
BR: You’re right, Paragraph 175 is a big blindspot in history and it was very insightful to watch and learn about it, I guess, in the same way that you did when researching. So, did you find your personal connection in Great Freedom‘s story through your research?
SM: Well, the research was the basis, I knew I wanted to make a film about this. But the personal connection came with the characters, of course. Also, with the story between between the main characters between Hans and Victor, this was the point where I thought this is going to be good.
BR: In regards to filming Great Freedom, I heard that you filmed a lot of it in an actual prison, not a built set. Can you talk about the challenges of working in such an environment?
SM: Well, it is challenging, concerning the space as it was really limited shooting in those small cells. The location wasn’t big. It was cold in winter, very cold, and it was dirty. Then we had to bring the lights to the second floor, it was really complicated. But on the other hand, we had the discussion if we should build the cells in the studio, but I was against it because I think shooting in a real location does something to the atmosphere of the filming process. It was, in the end, a film set as it was not in real, functioning prison. But, it’s a place with a lot of history, which does something not only to the actors, but also to the whole team.
BR: Talking about your team, can you talk about your work in collaboration with Crystel Fournier, your cinematographer?
SM: Crystel came quite late in the project, we had another DP working on preparation but she had to drop out, unfortunately. Then Crystel came to the rescue and we had only like three weeks of preparation, but she came in and everything was clear. That was really great about her, she’s really sensitive. For me, the story was also always a mix between a prison film and a love story. So, there’s the ugliness and the wrongness of law enforcement and on the other hand, we have our characters longing for closeness, relationships and love. This is what we were trying to create, to have this ugly, limited place then with the light you get some of the romance and beauty of the story.
BR: The way that the film is structured is over three time periods, what was your approach to creating that jump between World War II and the late 60s?
SM: Well, I knew I wanted to start it after the war, this was always clear. As this was the starting point that that gay people were liberated from concentration camps, but were put directly into prisons after. Then I wanted to cover the old, post war era until the amendment of the paragraph in ’69. So, ’45 was clear and ’69 was clear, then in ’57 there was an amendment in the GDR of Paragraph 175, that’s why we used that year.
BR: Also, in terms of visually creating those years, were you thinking of making any notable differences?
SM: In a prison, things don’t tend to change too much. This is what I also liked about the location because it’s somehow universal as there are bars, cells and solitary confinement everywhere. It has a kind of universality to it, it’s timeless, in a way. But we did try to make some differences, very subtly in the lightning. In ’45, we just used bulbs with yellow-ish, tungsten light. Then, in the 50s, we had fluorescent lights with a yellow, green tint. It gets colder in the 60s, creating a feeling of modernity. But, we agreed to keep it simple and as subtle as possible. It’s more or less in the little details. If you look closely, you can see the differences.
BR: With the production design, in terms of the actual prison set, did you have to change lots or was it already there for you?
SM: We did adapt it, but mainly with the paintings and some of the props. But the structure was there, that was the most important thing.
BR: Let’s talk a little bit about the cast, did you always imagine Franz Rogowski as the leading character or did that come with his casting at a later stage?
SM: No, writing the script, I had him in mind, actually. Also, I had Georg [Friedrich] in mind, I really wanted them as a couple. Because that’s what I imagined back then, that there could be an energy coming from them, and chemistry between them, which is really important for the film.
BR: To create that chemistry between the two of them, did you do rehearsals or was it all on the spot?
SM: Georg Friedrich is allergic to rehearsals (laughs). He’s a very intuitive actor. But we met a lot of times together and the preparation was more or less to get to know each other and become friends. Then, of course, he’s doing a lot of preparation for himself. He has a sewing machine at home and lost, like, 12 kilos for the part. Also, I gave him a couple of books.
BR: In regards to the story, it’s quite immediate. But, it’s also shocking because it lasted for so long and, as you mentioned earlier, not many people are and were aware of this, so how do you wish audiences respond to Great Freedom?
SM: I’ve been asked this question once. I think, maybe it’s something utopic to think about but maybe 40, 50 to 60 years in the future we won’t need to use these forms of identities anymore. Because whose business is it to bother if someone is straight or queer, or whatever? I mean, why is this so important to define? Isn’t it all about just loving a person? And that’s it?
BR: That’s very interesting. I was wondering, did the intial idea for the film come from researching online?
SM: I read it in a book about the queer history of Hamburg, actually. There were these stories of gay men who were liberated from concentration campsthen put directly in prison. This was was the starting point of the research.
BR: Did you talk to any people who were imprisoned during these times?
SM: Yeah, we did a lot, actually. So, there’s the gay Museum in Berlin, where they conducted a series of interviews. So, we watched those videos and then we said we have to talk to these people in real life. We found them and talked to them. In Vienna, there’s an old gay bar, which is more so a cafe. I’ve been there for many, many years and there’s always some older couples sitting in the back, who are not involved with the younger crowd and none of us ever spoke to them, not a word. And there, we just went to them and for the first time I got involved in discussions and talked to them directly. They all said they had experiences with law enforcement back in the 60s. Almost all of them were imprisoned, at least once, some of them even more often. Then I started wondering why, they’ve always been there sitting there, nobody ever asked them about their life? This was so strange, in a way.
BR: Did your research include any kind of references to films, where you’re looking at others as inspiration?
SM: A lot of prison films, actually. I wonder why?
BR: Did you look at any other LGBTQ+ films?
SM: Not so much. I mean, there’s of course, Brokeback Mountain. But, not so much.
BR: That’s interesting. In terms of your overall experience, working on Great Freedom, did you feel like you learned anything that you will take on to your future projects?
SM: Yeah, I mean, you learn a lot. Personally and as a filmmaker, there are a lot of things. Yeah. I can’t start mentioning them, there are just so many. This project was like six years and in six years, people change, a lot.
BR: Thank you very much for your time, have a good rest of your evening in Vienna.
SM: Thanks for your interest in the film.
Great Freedom will open theatrically in NY on March 4, 2022 at Film Forum and expand nationwide.