Great Freedom review: 'One of the great complex films about gay men and their oppressors'

Sebastian Meise’s tender, masterful drama is a stunning reminder of a not-so-distant past for gay men.


Words: Guy Lodge; Image: Neon

Great Freedom (dir. Sebastian Meise) ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Great Freedom seizes your attention with its opening montage: a series of cottaging encounters between moustachioed men in a grimy public toilet in 60s Germany, shot in grainy Super-8 stock that complements the illicit, secretive nature of the sex.

It’s hot - very hot - but also feels slightly off, shot with a queasy lack of affection, making us ask what perspective is guiding the camera. Turns out it’s police surveillance footage, used as evidence to sentence gay men to prison under Germany’s now-defunct Paragraph 175, outlawing homosexual activity.

Essential sensual pleasure has consequences in Austrian director Sebastian Meise’s extraordinary, exquisitely tender, queer drama, a stunning reminder of a not-so-distant era when merely being yourself was a crime. One of the convicted men, Hans (Franz Rogowski), accepts his two-year prison sentence with shrugging weariness, as if he’s been through it all before.

Sure enough, he has, as the elegant, time-skipping structure of the film ferries us between Hans’s repeated spells in the same prison over the past 20-odd years, all for the same offence of being a serial gay.

Thomas Prenn as Oskar and Franz Rogowski as Hans in Great Freedom (Image: A24)

In 1945, having already survived time in a Nazi concentration camp, he arrives at the prison and forms a prickly rapport with his surly, homophobic cellmate Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a murderer serving a life sentence, who assumes no gay man can sleep near him without also wanting to fuck him. He’s there, too, in 1968, though the men’s relationship has taken on a muted tenderness in the interim.

Gradually, with great delicacy and empathy, Meise traces the timeline of how this shift occurred — and in doing so, subtly alludes to the midcentury social shifts that eventually led to the lifting of the law. It’s a brilliant feat of bifocal storytelling, charting seismic national change against a sequence of small personal victories, revelations and heartbreaks.

A marvellous actor with shades of the younger Joaquin Phoenix, Rogowski writes a lifetime of desire and denial into his storied face and body language; cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s exacting compositions underline Hans and Viktor’s cold confinement, and sometimes make them feel like the only two people in the world.

Meise has made one of the great, complex films about relations between gay men and their oppressors, which is all the more powerful for emerging as its own kind of love story.

Great Freedom is released in UK cinemas on March 11 and streams exclusively on MUBI from May 6. Book tickets at mubi.com/greatfreedom.