Thursday, March 3, 2022

Life Restricted

Great Freedom (2021) - Meise GreatFreedom It's almost unthinkable now, in a free, democratic society that Paragraph 175, a provision of the German criminal law that criminalized homosexual act, existed more than a century and was only abolished in 1994. Austrian director Sebastian Meise tells the injustices done under such law and concentrates on a character with the camera firmly stationed behind the prison walls most of the time. Great Freedom again showcases the immense talent of its star Franz Rogowski, an actor best known for recent string of films by Christian Petzold - Transit, Undine, whose quiet demeanor and soulful stares communicate with the audience way better than wordy dialog. His portrayal of Hans, who frequents prison for just being who he is and living his life, once again proves that he is one the best working actors out there.

The film starts with surveillance camera footage of seedy men's bathroom where homosexual sex acts are taking place. Hans (Rogowski) is seen taking part in that footage. It is documented that German police engaged in surveillance program in public places to 'weed out' illegal activities in the SC and SC extensively. As Hans is arrested and thrown in jail and his casual self-deprecating exchange with the long term convict Viktor (Georg Friedrich) that this isn't the first time Hans was in prison. The year is 1968.

After trying to protect a young gay man in a prison yard fight, Hans is thrown into a solitary confinement. This also seems like a reoccurring theme. Meise uses these solitary confinement and release from it as a temporal jump points to the past and back, highlighting the longevity and persistence of Paragraph 175. Hans is seen being liberated from a concentration camp by Allied Forces only to be transferred to another prison to serve his remainder of his sentence for performing homosexual acts.

It's this prison where he meets Viktor for the first time. Viktor, a convicted murderer serving a long sentence and an innate homophobe, first acts violently at the news that his new bunkmate is a homosexual. But over time, his hostility and aggression softens and takes a younger, sensitive bunkmate under his arm. Being an amateur tattooist, he even offers to cover Hans's concentration camp numbers on his arm.

Hans can't help himself for falling in love with younger, vulnerable gay men being sent to prison. And they are always the target of prejudices and violence in a prison environment. Against Viktor's warning, Hans keep getting involved in fights while protecting his lovers and keeps getting thrown into an unbearable solitary confinement.

With the simple date titles, we go back and forth between three time periods. Over 3 decades, the law stays the same, Hans keeps coming back to prison. Meise puts a soft touch on these transitions rather than actor's physical transformations, accentuating that time passes differently from the inside the prison wall. The moon landing on TV doesn't have the same effect there as outside. The world keeps evolving, but the unjust, inhumane law is still prevalent. Rogowski's performance adapts to the passing of time, his silent expression and dancer trained body language showcases from nervousness to volatility to resignation.

Friedrich, a veteran German actor, is also fantastic as Viktor, serves as a witness to the injustice done to his fellow inmate and friend, while contemplating his misdeeds as a young man; his sad and weathered face reflecting our humanity.

As the talk of the reformation of the law, Hans finally gets a chance to be free. Would it be the last time he and Viktor will see each other?

Great Freedom beautifully illustrates about genuine human connection while examining the injustices done to generations of people who were persecuted just for being who they are. The film is also a great reminder, along with the recent films like Audrey Diwan's Happening, that the rights we have gained (fairly recently) are not to be taken for granted, especially the world is experiencing great fascistic conservative pushback from the right.

Great Freedom opens in New York on 3/4 and Los Angeles on 3/11. National rollout will follow. Please check Mubi website for rollout dates.