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‘Great Freedom’ Provides a Raw, Uncompromising Look at the Persecution of Gay Men in East Germany

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Cannes Film Festival/Freibeuterfilm_Rohfilm

Great Freedom takes its title from the name of a nightclub that Hans Hoffmann (Transit’s Franz Rogowski) attends in 1969 at the conclusion of Sebastian Meise’s wrenching drama (out now in theaters)—an establishment of uninhibited homosexuality, now that Germany’s anti-gay Paragraph 175 statute has been relaxed. Nonetheless, true freedom is a tricky and complicated commodity in the director’s long-awaited follow-up to 2011’s Still Life, especially for Hans, who’s repeatedly incarcerated over decades under the aforementioned law for the crime of wanting to be with other men. A portrait of liberation flourishing in unexpected places, it pulses with quiet anguish, longing and defiance, led by a Rogowski performance that conveys astonishing depths in minimalist gestures.

Hans is introduced in an opening montage of 16mm film clips shot from behind a cottage’s bathroom sink mirror; in each snippet, he engages in a sexual act with a stranger, thus making clear his proclivities. This surreptitiously recorded material is evidence in a 1968 court case against him, which ends with a swift conviction and a sentence of 24 months. In East Germany, Paragraph 175 outlaws such behavior, and Hans is sent off to prison, where he goes through an admittance process like a seasoned pro. Just as the authorities’ camera stared at him while he pleasured his paramours, so too do guards now stand by and watch as Hans strips out of his clothes and spreads himself for inspection, underlining how society systematically gazes at him (often in the nude, as when he’s later thrown into solitary confinement), and damns him for what it sees.

Hans operates a sewing machine in the laundry room, and it’s there that he notices Leo (Anton von Lucke), one of the men with whom he’d previously shared some bathroom-stall intimacy at the cottage. Though Hans may be the object of everyone else’s condemnatory scrutiny, he’s a man whose own eyes are intensely cagey and confident, sending coded messages through small, sly looks and likeminded expressions, such as the smile that sometimes creeps, almost imperceptibly, into the corner of his mouth. Rogowski’s turn is marvelous for being so coiled and yet so communicative, and no matter Hans’ persecution and demonization—including from fellow inmates who object to his homosexuality—he carries himself with unflappable confidence. He’s a man who knows who he is, what he wants, and how he can get it, even in a place where the concrete walls and humorless guards are determined to keep him alone and alienated from any spark of joy.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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