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'Great Freedom' is a title that is neither ironic or optimistic

Great Freedom is a new film from Austria and Germany about a gay man that takes place mostly in a prison between 1945 and 1968. KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film at CU-Denver, says that the title is neither ironic nor optimistic.

Great Freedom opens in 1968 with surveillance footage of a men’s bathroom in Berlin. The police are looking for gay men to bust and the people on camera look like bugs about to be squashed. Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski) is one of the men observed. He’s then captured and sent to prison for having sex in that bathroom.

Hans violates an infamous law called Paragraph 175 that was written into the German Criminal Code in 1871 and not fully repealed until 1994. It made homosexual acts illegal. And it’s not the first time Hoffmann has been jailed. When the film jumps back to 1945, he’s thrown into prison on the same charge, and this time, the guard who escorts him to his cell is an American soldier serving in the occupation forces after World War II.

And that’s not the first time for Hoffmann either. The tattooed letter and numbers on his forearm show that the Nazis had him in Auschwitz. Hans is not only gay, he’s Jewish — a double whammy. And while the end of the war freed Hans from Auschwitz, he’s really just transferred to a different prison. His prison job then is to rip the insignia from Nazi uniforms and make them re-usable. The metaphor is obvious — same clothing, just without the decoration.

Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom is a prison film, and at times a brutal one. Hans is beaten by guards and thrown into solitary confinement. His cellmate Viktor (Georg Friedrich) also beats him for being gay. Hans has no trouble spotting other Paragraph 175 prisoners, and he’s sexually aggressive, which gets him more beatings and more time in solitary. The images of the sex and the beatings are graphic and confrontational, just like Hans himself. One of his fellow prisoners even tells Hans to ease up.

Hans is tough. He weathers the abuse, and the pugnacious expression on his face shows that he will probably never give in.

But the good prison films and writing over the past 2,000 years or so are about the paradox of the brutality faced by the body and the liberation of the mind and spirit. Prison walls are gray and blank. Color feels dead. You yearn for a touch of green, something to break the unrelenting drab hostility of this place.

Concrete and metal encase the prisoners. Of course, there are bars everywhere. The yard where prisoners get to walk around and even talk to each other is inside the prison and surrounded by the harsh prison building itself. And aside from one young and sweet-looking former teacher, also a Paragraph 175 prisoner, the prisoners and the guards look both empty in the eyes and angry. Prison routine sucks the humanity out of everyone.

The surprise in the film is the tenderness that emerges. It doesn’t come early and the film seems headed in another direction, maybe attempted escape. But when Hans loses a friend, one guard, for just a moment, looks like he understands. It’s a hint that in this soulless place, at least there’s a possibility of kindness.

And then one part of Paragraph 175 is repealed, and Hans gets out of prison. It’s a grim day. No one meets him at the prison gate; he has no apparent home; he has no belongings. He’s just a forlorn guy standing alone on a dreary street with no sign of sky, or trees or plants. He wanders through a gay bar, like a tourist on a bus taking in the sights.

And that’s when he discovers what freedom can be. He doesn’t buy himself a good dinner or smell the flowers in the park. But maybe for the first time, he does make a choice and it’s a free one.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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