The last of the Nazi concentration camps were liberated in 1945, but not all of their survivors were freed. For many gay men born during the Weimar Republic — who had been disqualified from Hitler’s master race no matter their religion — the end of the Holocaust marked the beginning of another, longer sentence, as both sides of post-war Germany continued to enforce the criminalization of homosexuality under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code (with West Germany adopting the Nazis’ aggressive revisions to the 1871 law). Already hollowed and dehumanized by their suffering in the Shoah, these men were shuttled directly from Auschwitz or Dachau to prisons in Munich or Berlin without so much as a sniff of the new world order. As the rest of the planet spun forward into the second half of the 20st century, they remained shackled to a statute that belonged to the 19th.
That atemporality is at the heart of Sebastian Meise’s “Great Freedom,” a tough but powerfully tender prison epic that adopts a Tralfamadorian approach to its portrait of a repeat “offender” — a man who’s only free to express his natural love and desire while locked up in the same purgatory that was built to deny them both. The film thaws across three separate decades of a single life, melting through time like the errant memories that visit Hans Hoffmann (“Transit” star Franz Rogowski) in the darkness of the cell where he’s often sent for solitary confinement.
Hans doesn’t necessarily take pleasure in disobedience, but he refuses to live in shame of his nature. Not after the Nazis almost killed him for it. It almost seems as if he’s mugging for the hidden police camera in the Super-8 surveillance footage that opens the film, and he barely flinches at the verdict when his conviction for cruising in a public bathroom lands him another two years in prison during the winter of 1968.
That reaction owes something to Rogowski’s unparalleled gift for stillness, as the actor’s sinewy frame and smooshed features continue to make him a perfect vessel for characters whose exterior passivity functions like a fallout shelter for their soft inner feelings. The same face that seems to feel nothing at the start of a movie can seem paralyzed with longing by the end of it, an invisible gradation profound enough for Hans to become his own man in a movie that operates on a broadly symbolic level (Rogowski’s performance is so raw and alive that you may not even notice how little we learn about Hans’ occasional life outside the jail, compromised as it must be).
But Hans’ stoicism can’t be attributed to subtlety alone. He’s a deeply heartbroken man, though it will be a while before Meise shows us why. Likewise, prison is ironically the only place where he can reliably develop relationships that won’t be ripped apart by police interference, though violence abounds on both sides of the law, and it won’t be until the film’s wrenchingly underplayed final scenes that we understand how Hans’ most life-affirming bond emerged from the same prejudice he found on the outside.
By the time Hans gets locked into a cell with a hulking murderer named Viktor (the excellent Georg Friedrich) in 1945, Meise has already made it clear that the two men will have a flirty rapport come 1968 (“Did you miss me so bad?” Viktor gulps when Hans is dragged back to jail for the umpeenth time. “Just your cock,” Hans replies with a smile that hints at the rich history shared between them).
In the beginning, Viktor calls Hans a pervert, and jabbers on about women with such hostile insistence that it’s hard to tell if he’s setting boundaries for his roommate or if he’s setting them for himself. It’s only when he discovers the numbers etched into the fleshy part of Hans’ forearm that he lowers his guard and offers to tattoo something over them. There are some things these men cannot and would not change about themselves — there are others that they must if they hope to embrace whatever spare freedoms they have left.
In lesser hands, “Great Freedom” might have belittled history’s most severe persecution of gay men into a convenient backdrop for a story about a hateful beefcake who’s redeemed by the power of a few good blow jobs, but Viktor’s sexuality is sketched with beautiful messiness, Meise’s elliptical prison anti-drama owes considerably less to the Hollywood storytelling of Frank Darabont than it does to the forbidden intimacy of Jean Genet or the dislocating remove of Michael Haneke. Meise’s script is short on words and long on stolen moments; much of the information we’re given is encrypted in prison code and untranslated by a score that tells us how to feel (there’s no non-diegetic music except for a few isolated appearances by a mournful jazz horn, which aren’t used to augment a certain emotion so much as they are to detail its absence).
We learn to tell time by the mustache on Hans’ face, and the immaculate makeup work that so believably ages Rogowski and Friedrich across the decades. So long as 175 remains in place, it doesn’t really matter what year it is — Viktor appears to be serving a life sentence with minimal chance of parole, and Hans is such a staunch recidivist that the guards probably don’t even bother to change out the name card on his cell. One scene finds the men watching footage of the Moon landing on TV with the same passive detachment that might fall across their faces during a screening of “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” Some of the only reprieves we get from the film’s severe compositions and sour green color palette come during shots of Hans squatting over a lit match in the pitch-black darkness of solitary confinement, his world no larger than the flame allows him to see.
It goes without saying that the intense romance he shares with a handsome young inmate during the summer of 1957 is a major change of pace (there’s something irresistibly romantic about poking holes in a prison Bible in order to pass a secret message between cells), but even such wild confessions of love are defined by the circumstances that allow for them — ditto the late-breaking details about how they were persecuted elsewhere.
Time may exist separate from history in Hans’ prison (just as homophobia continues to outlive the edicts that legalize it), but love and freedom remain eternally inextricable. If “Great Freedom” is a subdued film more interested in studying old scar tissue than licking up fresh wounds, the rare instances when it draws blood — such as the shattering scene in which Viktor, resentful that Hans could theoretically hide his homosexuality and live as a “free” man, confronts the flaws of that logic at the expense of his own body — are all the more bruising as a result.
“Great Freedom” is now playing in theaters.