It’s 1968 and Hans (Franz Rogowski) is jailed under Germany’s Paragraph 175, for ‘deviant sexual practices’. It’s clear he’s been here before: he complies with searches in a routine fashion, and greets an old friend, the long-serving Viktor (Georg Friedrich), also recognising another former intimate, Leo (Anton Von Lucke). Flashbacks soon dig into reveal Hans’ tumultuous relationship with the young, fragile Oskar (Thomas Prenn).
It’s a poignant queer love story between Hans and two, possibly three, men over the decades. Initially an impenetrable character who can’t speak freely, Hans is defined by his actions, and invites more and more sympathy as he makes sacrifices for his friends and lovers. Rogowski – so distinctive in everything from A Hidden Life to Victoria – puts in a compelling performance and handles the shifts in era well.
Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Meise manages to find romance amidst the dirty needles and dirty toilets, delivering as many memorable tender images as he does unpleasant ones. There are flashes of dark humour, not least in the irony of punishing gay offenders by locking them up with others. There are fascinating details, from the jailors allegedly putting libido suppressants in the salt, to the liberating quality of a simple box of matches and a cigarette delivered to a man in pitch-black solitary confinement.
Great Freedom is a portrait of a political journey, as well as that of a quietly fascinating hero
The Great Freedom of the title is a gay bar that celebrates the eventual change in the law in 1969, and it’s a riveting scene. Men enjoy jazz and shots in a buzzing bar – meanwhile a passage leads to a network of cells. Here, men are openly having sex, recalling the prison in which they have so recently had to conduct their affairs in secret. It’s a striking illustration of a sudden liberation, helping Great Freedom to be a portrait of a political journey, as well as that of a quietly fascinating hero.
In UK cinemas Fri Mar 11.