GREAT FREEDOM is a magnificent film that spans three decades, following the life of Hans Hoffman as a homosexual in post Second World War Germany.
Directed by Sebastian Meise, the film charts Hoffman’s progress from concentration camp (where homosexuals were incarcerated) to a prison overseen by the Allied Forces. We then see him in prison under the Germans as Hoffman keeps falling foul of Paragraph 175 which means anyone committing a homosexual act ends up behind bars.
Indeed, as the film is introduced, we see some vivid 16 millimetre film clips of Hoffman performing various sexual acts on men at a public toilet – film, it seems, used as evidence against him in court when being convicted.
Although a harrowing film in places, it is also a tender love story between the film’s two main characters – Franz Rogowski’s Hoffman and Viktor (Georg Friedrich) who has been imprisoned for murder throughout the film’s 23-year time span and has a serious drug problem.
While the relationship starts badly, a bond slowly develops between them which means that by the end they are almost inseparable – despite Hans’s previous relationships with teacher Leo and Oskar.
At the Curzon Soho on Monday March 7, The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Robey hosted an excellent post preview Q and A with Austrian director Meise (in the cinema) and Rogowski (via Zoom from Berlin).
Robey nailed his colours to the mast straightaway, describing the film as ‘phenomenal‘ (spot on) – ‘a LGBTQ classic’.
Meise had been sparked into making the film after reading a book that contained details of the gay men who were put into concentration camps by the Nazis and then seamlessly kept in prison by the Allied Forces. It was not until 1969 that the offending Paragraph 175 was amended – although it then took until 1994 for the all the laws against homosexuals to be repealed.
One of the film’s quirks is its chronology as it shifts between 1945, 1957 and 1968 in no particular order. Meise said the idea was to reinforce the message that Hoffman was ‘living in a time loop, living in a maze’ – continually in and out of prison as he reoffended.
Growing up in Berlin, Rogowski recalled being taken to the jeweller’s as an eight year old to have an earring. ‘There was a gay ear and a straight ear,’ he said. ‘We laughed about it. My parents didn’t care. We were surrounded by people living queer.’
Disused prisons were used to ‘create reality’ in the film and they were spoilt for choice – ‘there were ten to twelve prisons we could choose from in East Germany,’ said Meise. Rogowski added that using real prisons led to a ‘very confined and condensed energy’.
Despite being about the treatment of gays in post war Germany, Rogowski was at pains to state that Great Freedom (named after the first gay club to set up in Berlin) ‘is a movie about love’.
As for the film’s two endings, Rogowski said they could be ‘read in any way’. ‘He [Hans] has found what he needs,’ he added. Meise said: ‘Is Hans too used to being in prison? Is he throwing a stone at the establishment? There are many ways to see the ending.’ Robey, excellent throughout, wondered whether it was a question of Hans ‘choosing love at a higher price’.
You will have your own view after watching this superb film. A gem.
Q&A with director Sebastian Meise and actor Franz Rogowski, Curzon Bloomsbury, March 7