In this moving period drama, a German gay man repeatedly declares his independence in a country that criminalizes his desire and his identity.
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The first time you see the exhilaratingly stubborn hero of “Great Freedom,” he is moving around a grubby public bathroom. Fit and jaggedly handsome, with short hair and sideburns, he looks coiled with impatience, restless yet confident. A trim mustache frames his sensual mouth, and his biceps are set off by his short sleeves. He paces, occasionally drawing on a cigarette, and at one point stands in the open doorway looking out, as if waiting for someone.
Other men soon enter the bathroom and with shared, feverish purpose and practiced gestures, they and Hans (the indispensable Franz Rogowski) have sex, a basic human act, if one that challenges the state. It’s 1968 and the West German law known as Paragraph 175 prohibits sex between men, with offenders subject to imprisonment. Incorporated into the German criminal code in the 1870s, the law was expanded and viciously enforced by the Nazis; shockingly, a version remained on the West German books for decades after the war.
Low key, affecting and insistently unsentimental, “Great Freedom” is a fictional story of resistance against this inhumane law, a story of salvation told one caress and sexual encounter at a time. For Hans, the bathroom is a refuge, a necessity, a pleasure zone and merely one of the many restricted, otherwise unloved spaces — almost all in prison — that he occupies and, in his way, liberates. Shortly after the movie opens, he is sentenced to two years without probation, a penalty that he doesn’t bother to challenge in court. Hans has his own way of protesting: He loves and has sex with who he wants, when he wants, how he wants.
And he does so again and again as the years and prison terms slip into one another. He falls in love, has different partners and lives his life. There are beautiful, ugly and nondescript men, alternately caring and cruel lovers. Hans opens himself to these different souls even as he keeps to himself, generally revealing little to others. He’s beaten and abused, and keeps on going. He paces and smokes in the yard, and is repeatedly thrown into solitary to languish in a hellish, unlit pit. As the punishments and years mount and his hair turns gray, you wonder how he can stand it. Until, that is, you remember that outside is a type of prison, too.
The director Sebastian Meise, who wrote the script with Thomas Reider, tells this story with open feeling and steady, emphatic calm. Emotions run predictably hot in the prison — there are beatings and a horrible death — but Meise doesn’t amp the violence or use it as a crutch. Instead, he uses the prison’s claustrophobia, its confining rooms and darkness, and Rogowski’s immaculately controlled performance to create an aura of intimate reserve that draws you to Hans, though at a slight remove. You grow fond of Hans, but you also remain an outsider, watching as he weathers prison, faces existential threats and finds furtive joys.
These hard-won pleasures are sprinkled across the story’s two well-paced episodic hours, which jump around in time and span several decades. Kinked timelines have become a wretched cliché, but here the jumbled chronology expresses the associative flow of memory, how one face evokes another and one touch summons up a lost world. In one flashback, Hans appears as a wincingly thin captive who, after serving time in a Nazi concentration camp, has now been imprisoned by the Allies. In another flashback it’s 1957 and Hans is now buoyed by his relationship with Oskar (Thomas Prenn), who’s nowhere as resilient.
There are other men and other entanglements, including with a sweet-faced young schoolteacher (Anton von Lucke), whom Hans meets in that bathroom in 1968 and later poignantly serves time with. Hans’s most consistent if unlikely relationship, though, is with Viktor (a fantastic Georg Friedrich), a rough, brutishly charismatic slab of a man serving a life sentence for murder. Covered with jailhouse tattoos and plagued by a series of sad, greasy haircuts, Victor is at once repulsed and transparently captivated by Hans. For his part, Hans carefully navigates the other man with his well-honed faculty for self-preservation.
“Great Freedom” is an unexpectedly tender movie. This gentleness is a welcome relief — narratively, emotionally — from the canned barbarism of many prison movies, with their exploitative jolts, their shanks, cruelties and grim, casual sexual violence. It’s also fundamentally political. The inmates brutalize one another, but there’s love here, too; the most horrific violence originates from the prison itself and, by extension, the state that dehumanizes these men (or tries to), criminalizing both their desires and their very personhood.
Meise and Reider don’t burden the characters with chest-thumping or expository speeches; there are no title cards crammed with encyclopedic histories or triumphant flag waving. One of the few nods in the movie toward the future (though this may be a matter of translation) is tucked into a prisoner’s plaintive question: “Why do you always act up, Hans?” He does, unreservedly, but part of his appeal is that he doesn’t always say what he thinks, which intensifies your interest. Other people are invariably a mystery, but one thing you do know: Even as the world closes around him, legally and physically, Hans remains free.
Not rated. In German and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. In theaters.