A powerful moving story of love between men in a time of great horrors
In post-war Germany, liberation by the Allies does not mean freedom for everyone. Hans is imprisoned again and again under Paragraph 175, a law criminalizing homosexuality. Over the course of decades, he develops an unlikely yet tender bond with his cellmate Viktor, a convicted murderer.
Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes and starring an exceptional Franz Rogowski, Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom is a searing depiction of love in the face of injustice
The law used by the Third Reich to oppress gay men continued long after its downfall. Director Sebastian Meise on Great Freedom, his searing film about a man incarcerated almost all his life
Ryan GilbeyMon 14 Mar 2022 08.00 GMT
Paragraph 175 sounds innocuous enough. A minor piece of legislation, perhaps, or part of those terms and conditions that any one of us would be forgiven for skimming over. But as the award-winning new film Great Freedom makes clear, it was in fact a vindictive article of the German penal code that criminalised male homosexuality and blighted the lives of 140,000 men, more than a third of whom received prison sentences. As well as remaining in force for more than a century, Paragraph 175 exposed a tacit accord between the Nazis – who lowered the threshold for punishment while raising the sentence – and the postwar liberating forces.
“Other laws were reset after the war to how they had been before the Nazis,” explains Sebastian Meise, the film’s 46-year-old Austrian director, when we meet in a London office. “But 175 just continued.” A “pink list” of known gay men, which the Nazis had compiled, was still in circulation by the late 1970s, Meise says. “It’s absurd the lengths the state went to in persecuting these men. What struck me most was the allies. For me, they’ve always been the liberators – they freed us from fascism. But in this case, they were on the same level as the Third Reich.” Some men who had been imprisoned in concentration camps were simply transferred straight to prison following the end of the war. In Great Freedom, this is the fate of Hans, played by Franz Rogowski, who spends most of his adult life behind bars. When we first meet him, he is being sent down in 1968 for lewd conduct in a public toilet. Shot by police from behind a two-way mirror, the Super-8 footage of his cottaging exploits carries the frisson of a peep show.
Meise used Tearoom, William E Jones’s film containing footage of a real-life 1960s sting operation in the American midwest, as a reference point. A ‘pink list’ of gay men, compiled by the Nazis, was still in use in the late 1970s
If Hans doesn’t look perturbed by his sentence, that’s because he knows he will be reunited with his old cellmate Viktor, played by Georg Friedrich. It is their enduring bond, their acts of selflessness and sacrifice, that suffuse the film with hope where it might have been simply harrowing.