Set almost entirely inside a West Berlin prison between 1945 and 1969, Great Freedom follows Hans as he serves several sentences for the crime of “deviant sexual practices” — gay acts criminalized under Paragraph 175 of the West German penal code. The film jumps around audaciously within these sentences, and the lack of access we have to Hans’s life before or between them effectively renders his imprisonment a constant state. Our best sense of chronology is derived from Rogowski’s physical form, as he goes from svelte and graying to shaven and gaunt and back again, replete with sideburns and a period-appropriate moustache. While the events inside the penitentiary are less a cumulative progression than a series of looped acts, Great Freedom goes to great lengths to maintain its sense of historical accuracy, setting each era apart whenever possible. This upkeep of verisimilitude is important, as the real-life inhumanity toward gay men in 20th-century Germany remains under-discussed to this day.
Paragraph 175 was codified into law in 1871, only two years after the word “homosexual” first appeared in print. For several decades, enforcement against “unnatural fornication committed between males” was relatively lax, and it was not until the end of the Weimar period that the country went from having one of the most open sexual environments of its time (including the first recognized gay rights movement) to one of the least. This regression directly mirrored the rise of fascism. Nazis considered gay men as detrimental to German society as they did Jews, and enacted similar operations of interrogation and segregation like forcing the accused to wear pink triangles on their clothes in the same manner as the Stars of David. After World War II, the Allies, overseeing the transition of West German society, ordered the abolition of all laws implemented during the fascist regime. But when they came to Paragraph 175, they declared that the measure was “not influenced by National Socialist politics to such a degree that it would have to be abolished in a free democratic state,” allowing the Germans to keep it in place. In the wake of Allied victory, gay men who had survived the concentration camps were transferred directly into Allied-operated German prisons.
This startling and horrific aspect of postwar denazification is one that many would prefer to ignore. For decades, gay men have been denied recognition and restitution from the crimes of the Holocaust, and the Allied complicity in their continued persecution — the most severe criminalization of homosexuality in the Western world — was conveniently forgotten, even in the wake of Paragraph 175’s effective reforms in 1969 and 1973, and comprehensive repeal in 1994. Gay men continued to be convicted through the postwar era in West Germany and were not officially pardoned by the government until 2016.
In Great Freedom, Hans is one of these survivors; the earliest chronological scene in the film shows him exiting solitary confinement, overseen by none other than an American soldier. “Look, we ain’t trying to hurt you,” the solider says, in English, “But you can’t be running away like that.” His German counterpart translates the directive more bluntly: “If you try to run away again, they’ll shoot you.” Hans is then escorted into a new cell, which is shared by a man named Viktor (Georg Friedrich), who we learn was himself a former Nazi infantryman. Our shock at Hans’s emaciated state is expressed through Viktor, who soon spies the numbered tattoo on his forearm. “They stuck you in jail straight from the concentration camp?” he asks, in complete disbelief. “Seriously?”
Like the continued persecution of gay men after fascism, the use of Super 8 to secretly document incriminating sexual acts is another historical detail Great Freedom takes great pains to emphasize; Meise has stated in interviews that the bulk of the extant recordings of this violating practice comes not from Germany but the United States, dated to the mid-1960s and ’70s. The economy and mobility of Super 8 allowed investigators to probe places like public restrooms in the state’s zealous regulation of sexuality, where once they had needed to trespass into homes. An investigation into underrepresented aspects of the history of queer repression is an important theme which runs throughout the length of the film.
Yet, Super 8 is also used throughout Great Freedom in its more common contemporary purpose: to visualize nostalgia and longing. When Hans gets locked up again in the darkness of solitary confinement, uncropped frames of film stock dance across the screen. This time, however, they depict a day in the country, which Hans shares with Oskar (Thomas Prenn), a cherubic boy lounging lazily in a field. We later learn, in a somewhat expository “letter,” from Oskar, that this is footage Hans himself shot, wanting to preserve his sensations of love and liberation in the idyllic forest. Viewers of contemporary cinema have by now grown used to seeing the muted tones and stippled grain of Super 8 stand in for the colors and texture of memory, but it’s no mistake that, in Meise’s film, this format is made indistinguishable from the criminal evidence that sent Hans to prison. Throughout Great Freedom, Meise hammers home for us how, for gay men of the period, desire was inextricable from crime — and gestures at the havoc such self-incrimination can wreak upon the psyche. Here, the capture of cherished images by the paramour becomes synonymous with the capture of the criminal by the state.
The only hope of resistance against the control of physical imprisonment is through the mind’s faculties of memory and fantasy, as Hans demonstrates during his solitary confinement. But, for some, the prison itself is a fantasy — a site which metaphorically enacts and erotically charges the conditions of homosexual desire in a world of entrenched homophobia. In Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950), one of the foundational testaments of queer cinema, and the famous French writer’s only directorial effort, the prison becomes an ideal setting for his themes of control, repression, domination, and longing — both the obstacle to and impetus for his characters’ furtive hopes of great freedom.
In Un chant d’amour, two men are situated in solitary confinement, sharing a cell wall. Though they cannot see one another, the older prisoner (an actor known today only as Bravo), is hopelessly love-struck by his handsome younger neighbor (Lucien Sénémaud). With a piece of straw, the former wheedles a hole in the wall, and blows cigarette smoke to his crush. The younger prisoner — the more conformingly masculine of the two — pettily ignores his delirious neighbor, except to inhale and partake in the smoke. The older prisoner, overcome by the imagined doings of the younger, becomes aroused and begins to caress himself against their shared wall. A guard walking the corridor between cells begins spying on the inmates through peepholes. Everyone, it seems, is masturbating to fantasies of men, and thus the voyeuristic guard begins to masturbate as well. But the guard is also a sadist, and enters the older prisoner’s room, gun drawn, to beat him with a belt. As the older prisoner takes these lashes, he is visited by fantasies of running away, into an idyllic forest with his neighbor friend. A bouquet of flowers protrudes from the young prisoner’s belt, and Bravo removes it in the fantasy, clutching it to his chest. The erotic dream is broken only when the guard sticks the barrel of his gun into the older prisoner’s mouth, with the expression of a man now receiving fellatio. His fantasy of freedom was nothing more than that.
Genet spent most of his early life in jail — for crimes of vagabondage, prostitution, “lewdness,” and theft. His early novels, Our Lady of the Flowers (1943) and The Thief’s Journal (1949), were written in and about his formative imprisonment. In his late 30s, Genet’s life sentence was commuted, thanks to an outpouring of support from France’s literary scene. He was released in 1949 and never went back. But he did look back, and it is telling that he chose to stage one of the most audacious paeans to gay desire ever put on celluloid inside prison walls.
Everything in this movie — from cigarettes to guns to flowers to holes in the wall which separate and connect (a point of voyeurism much like the camera itself) — is erotically charged, with explicit emphasis on the phallus and the hole. The confinement of the characters in Un chant d’amour is the very basis for their sexual tension. And the torque of sexual tension is the unlikelihood of its fulfillment. In this film, the fantasy of fulfillment becomes indistinguishable from the fantasy of escape — and therein lies its potency. Genet suggests that the prison is the site of gay fantasia because being gay in a straight world is itself a form of imprisonment. How can anyone, so long as their desires are condemned, ever be free?
This too is the central devastation of Great Freedom, though, unlike in Genet’s film, a form of freedom actually arrives. With a historical narrative to weave, Meise prioritizes the quotidian details leading up to Paragraph 175’s reform over his characters’ most private yearnings. Hans is a nearly silent, passive figure throughout his several sentences — we sense that any form of open resistance he once had was quashed in the concentration camp — and a good deal of what makes Rogowski’s performance so riveting are his minute gestures of assertion. The film’s central concern remains the paradox Hans faces between autonomy and desire. He seems comfortable in prison, and finds his fair share of pleasure there, but the force of Rogowski’s small gestures add up to a sense of great longing to be free and in love. And the conditions of his time are such that it seems impossible to have one without sacrificing the other. It is not enough to say that Hans was sentenced to decades in jail simply for being gay — we are shown, time and again, how every part of who he is puts him back inside the cell.
Like the two prisoners in Un chant d’amour, Hans and Viktor forge a relationship around shared cigarettes. Viktor’s first reaction to discovering Hans is inside for Paragraph 175 is violent, calling him a pervert and throwing him out of their cell. Mere minutes later, however, he offers to tattoo something over Hans’s concentration camp number, perhaps to atone for his own actions in the war. As Viktor sticks a contraband needle into Hans’s arm, Hans spots a tattoo on Viktor’s own arm, which appears to be a crude image of a phallus (almost identical to the cock that has been scratched into the young prisoner’s wall in Genet’s film), even more crudely tattooed over with fins and wings to approximate an airplane — the ultimate vehicle of freedom. “What’s that?” Hans asks, in one of the only moments of the film in which he initiates dialogue. “This?” Viktor says, “From me, when I was still young and stupid. You can tell what it is, right?”
In moments like these, the straight-faced historicism of Meise’s film seems to shimmer, and the more fantastically metaphorical elements of a film like Genet’s suggestively appear. At times, the possibility of love between these two prisoners — one a former Nazi, the other a survivor of the camps — seems almost offensively unlikely. But the potency of its suggestion is impossible to ignore. In Meise’s film, the relationship between Hans and Viktor could be read as a stand-in for the entire history of gay men and the straight world — a slow progression from abjection and abuse to negotiation and, finally, compelling mutual interest. The realization is passed, from one to the other, that both are locked up in the same cell of sexuality.
Near the end of Great Freedom, in 1969, Viktor arranges for Hans to share his cell again. The ostensible reason is that Viktor needs to get off heroin in order to have a chance of getting successfully paroled. Hans offers to help him detox. Suddenly, they are back in the sleeping arrangement they began with in 1945. Hans does help Viktor stay off heroin — and the extent to which sex between them becomes a comfort to Viktor, an element of exchange for Hans, or a mutually engaged desire between both of them, is left starkly ambiguous. Nevertheless, we understand that Hans, probably for the first time in decades, is falling in love — which we recognize because he begins thinking about their escaping together. When Hans picks up a copy of Der Spiegel and discovers that Paragraph 175 has been abolished for cases like his, the look on his face is not one of a person receiving good news. He shows the magazine to Viktor, who mirrors his disbelief. “They can’t just abolish a law,” he says.
In Genet’s film, the promise of love and the fantasy of freedom become indistinguishable inside the prison of sexual control. Meise, aligning the climax of his film with Paragraph 175’s repeal, ingeniously twists this notion, placing freedom and fulfillment on opposite sides of Hans’s prison. If Un chant d’amour is a metaphor for queer desire in the 20th century, Great Freedom provides a pernicious update to that parable. The possibility of exiting the prison is no longer just a fantasy invented by the lover as he is struck down. Persecuted all his life for the crime of his desire, Hans finds himself suddenly (and meaningfully) free at the very moment his desire has begun to seem fulfilled, so that the very purpose of this freedom becomes called into question.
Hans walks out through the prison gate bereft, unable to appreciate the possibilities of the world made newly available to him. That night, he finds a basement bar with a neon sign that reads “Great Freedom,” out of which pours the squeal of free jazz. Inside, men openly exchange hungry glances, and lure each other away into the darkened corners of the space. It’s a nice place, and one of the most fantastical elements of the film is Hans’s discovery of gay culture, flourishing, on the very first night of his liberation. But it is a world too new for Hans to accept. If what little we see in the film is all we know of his life, he has hardly ever had a chance to grow comfortable, to learn how to love outside the walls of a cell. His response to his new freedom is simultaneously cowardly and brave; in the end, Hans chooses Viktor, his own desire, and the punishment he has come to recognize as love.
Great Freedom premiered theatrically on March 4 and moves to MUBI on May 6.
Nolan Kelly is a New York–based filmmaker and critic currently at work on his first novel. His essays and interviews can be found in Hyperallergic, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, and Senses of Cinema.