Instead of “Great Freedom,” a title of ultimately devastating irony,
remarkable drama, playing in theaters and Austria’s entry for the Oscars, might have been called “No Crime and Punishment.” Its hero, Hans Hoffman (Franz Rogowski), spends more than two decades following World War II in and out of prison—mostly in, and doing the hardest of hard time—for being gay. The charge is always the same, a violation of Paragraph 175 of the German penal code. (From the founding of the German Empire in 1871 through the late 1960s, any so-called “unnatural sexual acts” were punishable by prison terms, both in East and West Germany.) The film, written by the director and
is often brutal in content and spare in style, a celebration of unquenchable tenacity and the sustaining power of love.
Some films, and performers, throw themselves at the audience from the opening scenes. This one, like its intense, self-contained star, keeps its distance. In 1968, when the time-hopping narrative starts, Hans has been sentenced to prison yet again on the strength of an assignation caught on police surveillance cameras. All we know about him is that he’s a pariah among pariahs, scorned by other prisoners who have, in their own eyes, committed such socially acceptable crimes as murder. Then we come to understand that Hans’s serial confinements began in a Nazi concentration camp. After the Allies liberated the camps, there was no liberation for him. He was simply transferred to a civil prison, since the reach of Paragraph 175 was undiminished by the collapse of the Nazi regime.
Mr. Rogowski has played an isolated soul before—as a German refugee in France in
“Transit.” He’s an exceptionally expressive actor when the role calls for it. But the austere scheme of “Great Freedom” calls for Hans to be impassive, more often than not, his psyche defined mainly by his behavior, which initially seems to be focused on sex. Ever so gradually, though, a portrait emerges of a man yearning to recapture a lost love; an intrepid survivor who performs small acts of generosity, then larger ones; a tender soul reaching out, selflessly and dangerously, to fellow prisoners who need to be cared for. (
gives another fine performance as Viktor, a convicted killer, drug addict and violent homophobe.)
Prison movies often look alike, even sound alike. Not this one, though. “Great Freedom” is a brooding work of literal and figurative darkness. Its deepest concerns begin with homophobia, of course, but include our need for human contact, kindness, even domesticity in unexpected forms. As for freedom, it doesn’t conform to the hero’s expectations when he achieves it. The title is taken from the name of a gay bar he visits, a place where a saxophone soloist serves up fevered phrases of free jazz. What Hans makes of his new state of being is startling, and, like the film as a whole, bleakly beautiful.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Appeared in the March 11, 2022, print edition as ‘‘Great Freedom’: Repeat Offenses.’