In most post-World War II stories, the liberation of the concentration camps is the beginning of the end of a nightmare. “Great Freedom” shows that the truth wasn’t that simple for everyone. In many cases, LGBTQ+ concentration camp inmates were simply transferred to prison cells. That’s the inhumane 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. Exclusively on IndieWire, watch the trailer for Austria’s 2022 Best International Feature submission, “Great Freedom,” below.
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. 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 during the pandemic — while conveying his character’s broken interior through a somber, low-key, unmannered performance.
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 crumbling walls of the dank prison.
Meise and co-writer Thomas Reider spoke to men affected by the Paragraph while researching the film and eventually shot it in an actual prison in eastern Germany. “It was an empty prison, and we decorated it and painted the walls and all that,” Meise told IndieWire. “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.”
Meise added of his lead, “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.”
MUBI opens “Great Freedom” March 4 at Film Forum in New York, followed by a Los Angeles and nationwide expansion.