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Don’t Overlook Austria’s Gay Prison Drama ‘Great Freedom’ in the International Oscar Race

"Transit" and "Undine" star Franz Rogowski gives yet another career-topping performance as a gay man living out his life in prison in post-World War II Germany.

Great Freedom

“Great Freedom”



In most stories, the liberation of the concentration camps is the beginning of the end of a nightmare. But Austrian film “Great Freedom” shows that the truth wasn’t as simple for everyone. In many cases, LGBTQ+ concentration camp inmates were simply transferred to prison cells.

That’s the most inhuman scandal explored in director Sebastian Meise’s Cannes Un Certain Regard winner: Germany’s Paragraph 175, a provision of a German criminal code that reigned from 1871 to (shockingly) early 1994, criminalizing all homosexual acts between men. The story is told through the eyes and heavy, wearied soul of the fictional Hans Hoffmann, who is repeatedly imprisoned over decades in post-World War II Germany for being gay. He’s played by Franz Rogowski, the muse of German director Christian Petzold (“Undine,” “Transit”) and one of the most striking actors working in European cinema and beyond.

Over the course of his imprisonment, Hans forms a deep but often volatile bond with longtime cellmate Viktor (played by fellow Austrian actor Georg Friedrich), at turns platonic, romantic, sexual, and parasitic as Hans slowly resigns himself to the belief that life won’t change and his may perhaps even be best lived out within the drab, crumbling walls of the dank prison.

Meise and co-writer Thomas Reider spoke to real men affected by the Paragraph while researching the film — and eventually shot it in an actual prison in eastern Germany, forgoing recreating the cells on a studio. This devastating movie is now Austria’s submission for the Best International Feature Academy Award, and last month landed on the shortlist of 15.

Rogowski’s training as a dancer shows in his physical commitment to the role — gaining and losing pounds across a shoot that took place before and then during the pandemic — while conveying his character’s broken interior through a somber, low-key, unmannered performance that suggests an actor who just shows up to set and does his job without pageantry. Meise, in our interview below for the film, confirmed that to be true.

Mubi releases the movie March 4 at NYC’s Film Forum, followed by a national expansion. Academy voters shouldn’t miss the vital “Great Freedom,” which tells a story of which not many of us — including even the filmmaker before he embarked on the project — are aware. While Paragraph 175 was repealed just over 25 years ago, the nation didn’t start owning up to its actions until just a few years ago, issuing long-overdue apologies in hopes of redressing the continuing pang of systemic national guilt.

IndieWire: What was your knowledge of Paragraph 175, in terms of the criminalization of homosexuality in Germany?

Sebastian Meise: Actually, I didn’t know so much about it. We came across these reports of gay men who were liberated from concentration camps and directly put into prison by the Allies, or put into prisons to serve their remaining sentences. We read that — it was an article in some book about being gay in Hamburg — and I couldn’t really believe it. It sounded so bizarre. I discovered I have more knowledge about the queer history of the United States. I knew about the Stonewall riots. I was not aware of the dimension of the persecution. I did not know that there was a Paragraph like this. It was just not in our consciousness, in Austria and Germany. We never heard about this in school. I talked about this with the older generation, like with my father, for example. He didn’t know anything about it, and he grew up at this time. We talked about this with a younger generation of gay people; they also had no knowledge. So we started researching, and the story grew more and more.

The story is fictional, but you did talk to a lot of actual people in the process. How did you find these individuals?

There’s a gay museum in Berlin, the Archive of the Memory. They conducted a series of interviews with people with personal experience. So we met these people. What we did in Vienna, there’s an old gay café, and there’s always some older gay couples sitting in the back. We just went to them and talked to them. It turned out that everyone had experience with law enforcement back in the ‘60s. There was one very moving situation where one man, he was there with his long-life partner, he never told his partner he was in prison back in the ‘60s. It was such a taboo for them because in Austria and Germany, the state never acknowledged the fact that [being gay] had been a crime.

Since this wasn’t abolished until the mid-1990s, what do you feel is the position toward the Paragraph is in Germany now?

Many things have changed in terms of LGBT rights, of course, but it was only 2017 that they took the first steps concerning apologies and things like this. In Austria, it was only this year that the Minister of Justice made an apology and declared officially that this was against human rights.

You shot the film before and during the pandemic, in an actual prison. Tell me about that atmosphere as a filmmaker where the actors are sharing a real cell, they’re sleeping in their cells, they’re smoking in their cells, just as you see in the movie.

There was a big discussion if we should shoot the cells in a studio, and I am not so much a fan of studio work because it’s just clean, and shooting in a real location does something to the atmosphere. Of course, it was a film set. It was an empty prison, and we decorated it and painted the walls and all that. It was cold. It was not easy to shoot. We had to bring the lights up. The real place did something to the team, and this is what I like about filmmaking: to have an anchor in reality somehow.

Great Freedom

“Great Freedom”


How did you come to cast Franz Rogowski? We know him from the films of Christian Petzold and Michael Haneke. It sounds like you had him in mind writing it.

Halfway through the script, you see this film is going to happen one day probably, and you start to think about the cast. As a couple, [Franz Rogowski and Georg Friedrich] were in my mind immediately… We were writing the characters for them, without knowing if they would even take the parts. But they did. Thank god. They came quite late, but there was space to improvise. Not too much, because it was a tight schedule, but we tried to give them places where they can find themselves or find the relationship.

The film tracks Hans’ persecution over the decades, as he is repeatedly sent back to prison for “deviant practices.”

This came quite early in the writing process because we were looking to translate the life he is in. I always said this is a story about two people who are stigmatized for life. Hans cannot change himself. The minute he walks out of prison, he is persecuted again. We were trying to find a way to translate this. He’s trapped in a time loop, somehow. This chronological way of telling the story we thought could be the best [approach].

Great Freedom

“Great Freedom”


The way the film moves between time periods is fluid and seamless. Were there subtle modulations Franz would do in his performance, whether between the ‘40s, ‘50s, or ‘60s, to mark the passage of time or a world-weariness taking hold?

It’s really subtle, but he lost like 12 kilos, in shooting from one era to another. It’s not too obvious, but we were trying to find a way that makes it real somehow in addition to all the makeup stuff, which is always fake somehow. We were trying to find a way that, every time we come into another time with him, he’s in a completely different stage of his life. He has a completely different energy. In the ‘40s, he’s more like this animal, full of fear. In the ‘50s, he’s full of energy, and in the ‘60s, he’s more or less calmed down, and not believing that things will ever change.

He seems like the kind of actor who just shows up to set and is effortless about his approach. He doesn’t seem like he’s doing a lot of method or obsession between takes. What is his style?

He likes to talk a lot. He’s completely contrary to Georg. The great thing about [Franz], what I really love about him, he always tries to find a way not to act — but just be the character.

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