Historically speaking, but also still in many countries today being gay is considered a crime. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalised in Germany until the late sixties and up until this point in time, Section 175 of the German Criminal Code meant that gay men could be incarcerated for their so called “crimes”. This law affected thousands of gay men throughout the country and Sebastian Meise’s latest film, Great Freedom follows a character who experiences the same fate.

In post-war Germany, Hans (Franz Rogowski) finds himself in and out of prison due to his sexuality. Whilst in prison he forges a close relationship with fellow inmate Viktor (Georg Friedrich) as their paths continue to cross throughout the years, due to Hans’ numerous sentences. The film spreads its narrative across three different periods of time, each depicting one of Hans’ prison sentences. These different time periods are woven together in a nonlinear fashion that combine together effortlessly, enhancing the overall storytelling of the film. Subtle changes in hair and makeup, date stamps and smart editing help to keep audiences on track when the film jumps between them, making it easy to follow and never becoming frenetic. 

One constant across each time period is Rogowski’s central performance, which is excellent. He showcases Hans’ perseverance of love amidst so much opposition in a truly powerful way. His, at times, naive outlook on the life that he can have is consistently endearing and it’s this hopeful quality to Hans that Rogowski conveys most successfully. His chemistry, whether it be dramatically, romantically or sexually with his costars is always effective. However, it’s his relationship with Oskar (Thomas Prenn) that is most affecting. It’s astonishing really how quickly audiences will come to care for this pair and the content of their story, furthermore the accompanying performances offer the most compelling moments of the film.

In addition to capturing these gorgeous moments of queer romance Great Freedom also serves as an important reminder of the persecution that gay men experienced during the Holocaust and in its aftermath. It’s a truly devastating time in queer history that must be remembered, and Meise’s film does this in a commanding way. On top of the historical context Meise and fellow screenwriter Thomas Reider include further acts of defiance that will stir audiences. Their most praiseworthy achievement could well be the striking juxtaposition of fragile masculinity and queer intimacy that they feature. Portrayed impressively by the cast, it’s moments like these that elevate the film and provide even more emotion than is already present.

Great Freedom certainly finds freedom in the most unexpected of places and against all odds. To think queer joy was possible in such damning circumstances is almost unbelievable, but showing how it always has found a way is a testament to the unfairly punished men who refused to be denied the pleasures and intimacy that they so deserved. At times the film feels reminiscent of Sean Mathias’ Holocaust drama, Bent. Those who have seen it will know just how upsetting a film it is, however much like in Great Freedom it shows that queer love can never be fully eradicated and it’s important that audiences see what this community of queer men had to endure, just for being themselves.

After the film expertly manoeuvres its way through the three storylines and arrives at its climax, it risks it all with an incredibly jarring sequence that will be sure to divide audiences. It’s certainly a change in what viewers have been exposed to up until this point, however the risk pays off, delivering an incredibly memorable and visceral scene, concluding the film in a heartbreaking yet surprisingly sweet manner.

Great Freedom’s portrayal of gay men is both a reminder of those who have been the victim of discrimination throughout history as well as a tribute to their enduring queer love. Rogowski’s leading performance is stunning, as he plays a man who has learnt to survive with the obscene oppression he faces, but one who also yearns to live a full life – free to be who he is without repercussions. As a result Hans’ hope in the darkest of situations creates a wonderfully compelling prison drama that dissects intimacy in a devastating – yet beautiful way.

Rating: ★★★★

Review of Undine (starring Franz Rogowski) – Click Here