Andrea’s film review – Great Freedom

Great Freedom ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Review by Andrea Carnevali

In post-war Germany, liberation by the Allies does not mean freedom for everyone. Hans is repeatedly imprisoned under Paragraph 175, which criminalizes homosexuality. Over the decades, he develops an unlikely bond with his cellmate Viktor. Out this week in selected Cinemas and on Mubi.

On the surface this may look like your typical prison film: the grim settings, the man who spends time in the solitary “hole”, the harsh guard, the fights in the courtyard and all the other tropes of the genre are all there. But Austrian director Sebastian Meise uses these elements in an understated way, pretty much in the background, to focus instead on the much more tender story about a friendship between two cellmates and about gay love in a time when any homosexual contact between men was not only outlawed but also punishable with time in prison and by stripping you from your civil rights under the now infamous “Paragraph 175” of the German penal code, which predated the Nazis (in fact it was written in 1871) and was only erased in 1969.

The film constantly jumps backwards and forward between various timelines through the several arrests of Hans. These, as we’ll learn, are more like acts of protest and defiance against the system.

We first meet him in 1968 when he’s arrested for engaging in sexual acts in a bathroom with a stranger. We instantly understand from him behaviour that he has been in this situation before. In fact the story soon shifts to 1945 to reveal that he has indeed been in this same prison, finishing another sentence after being held prisoner in a concentration camp. His scrawny body bears all the scars of the horror he’s been submitted to. Apparently Franz Rogowski, who plays Hans, lost more than 25 pounds for the part (or 11 kilos if you’re hopeless with pounds like me).

It’s in the new prison where Hans first meets his cellmate Viktor, a drug addict who at the beginning is horribly homophobic towards Hans. Their relationship, and of course eventually friendship, splendidly underplayed by both remarkable actors, becomes the beating heart of the film, through the ups and (several) downs of prison life. Even though it’s easy to predict most of the twists and turns of the story itself, the depth of the film is actually rather complex and the emotional core is very powerful indeed.

It’s a rather slow film, shot with a stark and unfussy realism (apparently an abandoned prison was used as the set) which kept me hooked all the way through, moved me and shocked me like only the best films do.

Not an easy watch, but surprisingly sweet and thought-provoking.

Andrea Carnevali is a Bafta winning film maker who lives in Chiswick.

Great Freedom is out this week in selected Cinemas and on Mubi.

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See also: Theatre review – Running with Lions at the Lyric, Hammersmith

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