This powerful prison drama won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2021 and it’s easy to see why. Great Freedom (Grosse Freiheit) is a beautifully acted love story with two compelling performances from its leads, Franz Rogowski and Georg Friedrich. It is also an important piece of queer history, documenting the human cost of ‘Paragraph 175’, the German law that criminalised gay love until 1969.
When World War II ends Hans (Rogowski) is released from a concentration camp and put straight into prison to finish his sentence. His crime? Being a practicing homosexual. Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s camera follows Hans doing time in the same grim institution, going backwards and forwards between 1945, 1957 and 1968/9. The décor doesn’t change much; it is only the inmates’ hairstyles and ‘taches that give us a clue what decade we’re in.
Whenever Hans returns to prison, one prisoner is always there. At first Viktor (Friedrich) is violently hostile towards him, reluctant to share a cell with a ‘175-er’. But the two men gradually become friends. Viktor offers to tattoo Hans’s arm to cover his Camp number. Although ‘not that way,’ inclined he eventually learns to take comfort from the other man. Hans has other younger lovers in prison but the heart of the film is the moving relationship between him and Viktor, which becomes a kind of marriage.
As the fearless and long-suffering Hans, Rogowski is quietly mesmerizing. He is thrown into ‘the hole’ time and again for transgressing and emerges like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, bowed but unbeaten. Rogowski has a loose-limbed charisma that seems completely natural; it’s like he’s hardly acting at all. While Hans has always been himself, Friedrich’s ‘straight’ Viktor goes on more of a journey, changing and adapting to survive. Inventive and resourceful, he has made his own ukulele and backgammon set; his DIY tattoo kit is cobbled together from stolen bits and pieces.
Viktor is often the source of the film’s humour, which flickers like Hans’s matches in the darkness. The inmates watch the 1969 moon landings on tv. ‘I thought it would be more exciting,’ says the disappointed Viktor. ‘With aliens and that?’ says Hans. ‘Why not?’ replies Viktor.
In the company of these men we somehow escape from the claustrophobia of prison life. We are stuck with them, but they take us out of ourselves. Apart from the exercise yard and Super 8 flashbacks to a blissful countryside scene, there are very few outside sequences in Great Freedom. In the yard we often hear the sound of screaming swifts. Are these birds of summer exalting in their freedom or are they in pain? Probably both, as poet Ted Hughes would have it: ‘screaming as if speed-burned’.
Meise wants us to absorb these ambiguous sounds of freedom. Moving towards the film’s clever ending, he also wants us to think about ‘the irony of fate’, a phrase used by Viktor when explaining why he has been in prison for so long. When Hans becomes ‘legal’ and gets out he discovers freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
On the way out of the cinema a church noticeboard seemed to echo Great Freedom’s core message: THE LIGHT SHINETH IN THE DARKNESS AND THE DARKNESS HAS NOT OVERCOME IT (John 1.5).
Or, as Morrissey put it, there is a light that never goes out.