Like a scene of the 1969 moon landing seen on a prison TV late in “Great Freedom” — “I thought it would be more exciting,” muses one inmate — seismic change seems less spectacular when charted against the everyday grind of life behind bars in this gripping, tender-hearted prison drama from Austrian director Sebastian Meise. That extends to another historical milestone from the same summer: the West German authorities’ easing of Paragraph 175, by which men had hitherto been imprisoned for homosexual acts. Following the decades leading up to this change through the eyes of one repeat offender, Meise’s film is an exquisite marriage of personal, political and sensual storytelling, its narrative and temporal drift tightened by another performance of quietly piercing vulnerability from Franz Rogowski.
“Great Freedom” arrives a full 10 years after Meise’s first fiction feature, the complex, controversial family drama “Still Life,” and duly confirms all the poised promise of that debut — once more taking a delicate, empathetic approach to explicit material. Winner of the runner-up prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, the film has been picked up for distribution in multiple territories — North America included — by Mubi, and can expect extensive further festival play, particularly in the LGBTQ sphere. All in all, it should vault Meise into a higher-profile auteur bracket by the time his next feature rolls around.
Years pass in the blink of an eye in Meise and Thomas Reider’s elegantly structured script, which burrows in and out of timelines to convey the sense of time passing and stalling all at once. Certainly Hans (Rogowski), a man who endures repeated shorter spells in prison as he keeps being punished for his desires, experiences its passage differently from his recurring cellmate Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a convicted murderer in it for the long haul. Following a Super 8-shot credits montage of men cottaging in a public bathroom — the eroticism of which is stopped short by the revelation that it’s police surveillance footage — we begin in 1968, with Hans arriving in prison for seemingly the umpteenth time. Viktor acknowledges his return with a wry lack of surprise; Hans’ shrugging self-deprecation can’t quite conceal his weariness.
After Hans defends a younger gay inmate in a prison-yard fight, he’s thrown into solitary confinement — and it’s this dark, windowless cell that becomes the film’s portal between decades. We emerge into 1945, as Hans, having survived a spell in a Nazi concentration camp, is cruelly transferred directly to prison to complete his sentence. There, he’s paired for the first time with Viktor, who identifies as straight and doesn’t take kindly to sharing a cell with a gay man. We already know that their relationship has warmed somewhat over time; the film’s slip-sliding chronology, alternating between these periods and a 1957-set middle section, gradually reveals how.
Aided by the deep shadows and flame-warm highlights of Crystel Fournier’s superb lensing, Meise carves moments of tactile intimacy from severe surroundings — among the most crucial of them when Viktor, an amateur tattoo artist, offers to cover up the camp number on Hans’ forearm. Over time, the two men will exchange such moments of vulnerability and need, cycling through bouts of grief, addiction and general behind-bars ennui, though their bond is shadowed throughout by Viktor’s ingrained homophobia. Meise isn’t especially interested in clean moral pronouncements: “Great Freedom” is about the imperfect allies we find in desperate circumstances.
Though Hans finds a succession of lovers in prison, the film remains resolutely a two-hander: a romance, even, as Meise charts the evolution of Hans and Viktor’s relationship from hostility to passive-aggressive acceptance to mutual dependency. Most of the shifting affections and nuances between them are unspoken, beautifully conveyed by the actors. “Great Freedom” wisely eschews contrived aging makeup, trusting its stars to project 24 years’ worth of wear and tear. Friedrich maintains Viktor’s gruff, callused demeanor, but there’s an increasingly defensive softness to his body language; Rogowski’s Hans, if anything, toughens with time, though his face bears his exhaustion over repeated persecution merely for living his life.
An actor who always seems to be concealing weight-of-the-world secrets somewhere on his person, Rogowski is remarkable even by his standards here, adjusting his physical bearing across the film’s three time periods to suggest a man variously stooped by trauma, bolstered by love and disoriented by freedom. It’s significant that the script tells us little of Hans’ life outside prison — even his profession is unspecified — but Rogowski fills in those gaps with wounded gazes and twitchy reflex reactions.
The self-evident horror of his concentration camp experience has clearly determined his guarded approach to life, but that, too, is a blank space in “Great Freedom.” Where much study of Paragraph 175 — including Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 2000 documentary “Paragraph 175” — focuses on the law’s application in Nazi Germany, Meise is out to depict the ongoing damage it caused in a supposedly more liberated post-war society. The title, too, comes with a qualification: Though the law was loosened in 1969, it would be another 25 years before it was abolished entirely. Time marches on in “Great Freedom,” except when it stands still for years on end.