What does “Great Freedom,” the name of Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s new film, mean? It only appears onscreen 10 minutes from the end, as the name of a nightclub. Meise’s film devotes its first 105 minutes to something that looks like the exact opposite of freedom. Its protagonist, Hans (Franz Rogowski), is a gay man who was sent straight from the concentration camps to prison under Germany’s homophobic law, Paragraph 175. Over the course of “Great Freedom,” he serves three jail sentences — in 1945, 1957 and 1968 — for having sex with men. The film begins with Super-8 footage of his adventures in public restrooms, which turns out to be evidence at his trial.
“Great Freedom” shuts out the world outside prison. We never learn what Hans did for a living. When asked, he says “this and that” and changes the question. Despite a close friendship with his cellmate Viktor (Georg Friedrich), Viktor does not disclose that he’s serving a sentence for murder until they’ve known each other for decades. It introduces a different kind of Super-8 footage: home movies of Hans and his lover in the countryside. This is the only time we see the presence of nature, or even a real exterior.
“Great Freedom” cuts back and forth between its three time frames. With the passing years, hairstyles change. Hans grows sideburns and a mustache, while Viktor sports a ponytail. But the “groundhog day” effect remains. Germany may have changed greatly from 1945 to 1969, but Hans can only hear New Year’s Eve fireworks from behind bars and watch the moon landing in a collective TV room. The film avoids the temptation to load itself with pop music or other cultural signifiers to mark passing time.
The irony of making gay sex illegal and sentencing its practitioners to an all-male environment — where they spend much of their time locked in a cell with another man — is glaring. Shortly after arriving in prison, Hans starts cruising again. The film makes careful use of color. Much of it is monochrome, close to black and white. A great deal of it takes place in extremely dark rooms. But the early scenes play off the gender coding associated with colors. Wearing blue uniforms, the prisoners sew pink sheets. In earlier periods, they do the exact same thing, except that they’re making grey clothing.
It’s hardly uncommon for progressives who never would make rape jokes about women to scoff at the same thing happening to men in prison, as long as they think the men are scummy enough. The subjects of both sexual assault and consensual sex between men in prison have long been used for titillation and provocation: look at works as different as Jean Genet’s short “Un Chant D’Amour,” the HBO series “Oz,” and Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby” video. Even the straightest prison setting brings out the notion that under certain circumstances, most men would be willing to sleep with other men. That seems to be the case with Viktor. He and Hans sleep together once, but Viktor insists that he’s really heterosexual.
The most startling aspect of “Great Freedom” is its underlying sweetness. “Great Freedom” is far kinder towards its characters than Hanya Yanagihara’s novels, but it plays out a similar hurt/comfort dynamic, more emotional than sexual. Even if they’re not exactly lovers, Hans and Viktor’s relationship winds up looking like a marriage, as they take care of each other in their most desperate and vulnerable moments. Despite the state’s homophobic violence making up its backdrop, the characters manage to avoid tearing each other to pieces.
The final scenes of “Great Freedom” complicate its meaning. Explaining exactly how would be a spoiler, but they can be interpreted several ways: a case of Stockholm syndrome or a final act of rebellion. The film wonders what kind of life could be imagined by someone who has only known confinement. It finally introduces music, alternating between Peter Brötzmann’s dissonant jazz and a syrupy French love song. Just as the Allies’ liberation of the camps sends him back to prison, Hans’ great freedom may not be what he expects.
GREAT FREEDOM | Directed by Sebastian Meise | In German with English subtitles | MUBI | Opens March 3rd at Film Forum