BFI London Film Festival presents Great Freedom, coming soon to cinemas and MUBI.
The year 2000 would see a stunning documentary premiere at a range of film festivals worldwide. Directed by the Oscar-winning duo Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Paragraph 175 would give voice to the experiences of gay men and women as it explored the persecution of Europe’s gay community during Hitler’s rule. This groundbreaking documentary interviewed survivors of the gay Holocaust while studying the effects of Paragraph 175 before, during and after Nazi rule in Germany.
However, this powerful documentary has long since slipped out of view, the DVD now a rare commodity. But even more disturbing is the continued lack of knowledge and awareness of this history among many LGBTQ+ young people. In truth, the horror of Paragraph 175 and the pink triangle has long been shamefully ignored and sidelined. But, this is not due to a lack of accounts, historical information or oral history. Instead, it is due primarily to an education system that continues to sideline LGBTQ+ history, just as it does the history and persecution of disabled communities and ethnic minorities.
Therefore, before exploring Sebastian Meise’s outstanding Great Freedom, we must take a moment to explore the history behind his story. Like many countries across Europe during the early 20th Century, homosexuality was against the law in Germany; in fact, it had been against the law since the introduction of Paragraph 175 in 1871. Here in England, The Buggery Act of 1533 had directly introduced laws persecuting homosexuals under Henry VIII, only to be replaced by The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. This act would repeal the death penalty for gay male sex but allow for prosecution whether or not a witness was present.
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Both Paragraph 175 of German law and its British equivalent shared similar wording. And both laws would result in secret gay lives, arranged marriages, and a blackmailers charter. However, as with most laws established before and during the 20th Century, sexual acts between women were neither mentioned nor restricted. But, that did not mean lesbians were not affected by such laws. In fact, for many gay women, their very existence was dismissed, their treatment tied to expectations of marriage and childbirth born from sexism and misogyny.
Despite these laws, underground gay communities, clubs and parties continued to develop throughout the early 20th Century, with Berlin becoming a gay mecca. Berlin housed one of the most vibrant, welcoming, and diverse gay communities in Europe during the 1920s and early 1930s. Its back streets, awash with clubs and secret bars, that allowed gay men and women to explore their sexuality in relative freedom. Equally, many boy’s clubs and groups that the Nazi youth would later infiltrate celebrated male sexuality in all its forms. Meanwhile, the groundbreaking German-Jewish physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld would lead the way in research on sexuality, furthering the case for equality through his Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin.
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But, despite this freedom, the clouds of fascism were already building, and on Hitler seizing power, many gay Europeans fled Berlin in fear. However, there were also many gay Germans who continued to feel secure, despite the horrors surrounding them. After all, Hitler had not made any direct statements concerning gay culture or potential curbs on freedom.
However, just six months into power, the Nazi party would become Germany’s only legal, political entity. And less than a year into power, gay people would be announced as enemies of the German state. The Hirschfeld Institute was forcibly closed, its books and research burned in public. Its leader, forced into an exile in France, where he would die in 1935. Meanwhile, the Nazi’s would redraft Paragraph 175, strengthening its wording and allowing for convictions and arrest based on hearsay alone.
Gay women, while largely absent from widespread persecution, would see their freedoms end, many marrying gay men for joint protection. Meanwhile, arrests would increase, with many gay men sent to concentration camps without trial. Those who were lucky would find themselves incarcerated in local jails, but for those who ended up in the camps, medical experiments, forced castration, and beatings awaited them. It is still unknown how many gay people died during the Holocaust, but estimates sit between ten to fifteen thousand, many of them German citizens.
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However, while liberation came for many on the fall of the Third Reich, for gay men held in concentration camps, the continued use of Paragraph 175 would lead them straight to prison. The terror of the concentration camp, replaced by a prison cell where their persecution continued.
Great Freedom opens in Berlin, 1968. Here we meet Hans (Franz Rogowski) as he arrives in prison for what would appear to be the third, fourth or maybe even fifth time. His arrival, acknowledged with a knowing smile by another prisoner, Viktor (Georg Friedrich). However, as Hans settles back into his home away from home, his crime, homosexual acts in public, it’s not long before he ends up in solitary confinement. It is here, in the darkness, that we find ourselves transported back to the same cell in 1945. A young emancipated Hans, screaming for help in the dark, the terror of a Nazi concentration camp, replaced by the horror of prison.
Hans (Franz Rogowski) and Viktor (Georg Friedrich) – Great Freedom (2021)
Hans finds himself paired with Viktor, a straight inmate less than enthusiastic about sharing his cell with a 175 queer on release from solitary confinement. But, when Viktor notices the concentration camp tattoo on his cellmates wrist, his dislike of Hans turns to sympathy and guilt. His first act of care and friendship, the covering of Hans tattoo with a new symbol.
From here, Meise charts both men’s unlikely yet essential friendship as we move from 1945 to 1957 and then 1968/9. The story of Hans and Viktor, one of unlikely support, unconditional love and institutional conditioning as they navigate the isolation of their prison world. However, when a ‘Great Freedom‘ is announced in 1969, Hans world suddenly changes. But can the abolishment of Paragraph 175 bring him more than just physical freedom, or is his mental imprisonment irreversible.
Throughout Great Freedom, Meise and his co-writer Reider slowly build a complete picture of Hans through several short but enriching encounters. Here we have the story of Leo (Anton von Lucke), a young gay schoolteacher saved from a prison assault by Hans. Meanwhile, a short but beautiful love affair between Hans and Oskar (Thomas Prenn) demonstrates just how close Hans came to finding happiness, only for the state to intervene. Alongside these glimpses into Hans soul is a sharp political commentary on post-war Germany. Here we are party to conversations on the abolishment of Paragraph 175 in East Germany, long before the democratic West. At the same time, themes of a country desperate to move on from the horrors of Nazism surround each interaction. The desperate need to forget the past all but airbrushing away the suffering of the many still reliving its horror.
However, despite its beautifully structured subplots, Great Freedom is a two-person drama at its heart, its focus, the relationship between both Hans and Viktor. Here Great Freedom bathes in themes of friendship, loyalty and shared vulnerability. Both men’s fear of the outside world only growing with each day that passes, while their reliance on each other becomes overwhelming. Hans and Viktor understand this throughout, their need for each other combined with a sense of duty in ensuring younger inmates do not fall into the same trap that has consumed them. Here many classic prison themes find a voice in the journey of both men. However, unlike many prison dramas, these themes are rooted in a series of complex reflections on masculinity, male love and companionship.
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The relationship between Hans and Viktor sits within a prison of domestic support, unspoken desire and platonic love. Both men, searching for meaning, and both finding a fractured yet essential comfort and security in the arms of the other. One that is ultimately irreplaceable as freedom comes knocking. Here Rogowski and Friedrich are genuinely exceptional, both holding our undivided attention. Rogowski’s fearless yet damaged Hans takes Great Freedom into the realms of an Oscar and Bafta-winning drama. Here Rogowski ensures the haunted figure of Hans is both strong, unapologetic and proud. His experiences, never a barrier to his internal belief in his right to love. And yet Rogowski’s Hans also knows his battle against oppression is as much internal as it is external. His life, forever caught in a trap of persecution that he understands and acknowledges but never accepts.
Meise dissects our very notions of freedom through the journey of Hans. His powerful and stunning story, reminding us all that we forget our past at our own peril. His powerful core message, only enhanced through the stunning cinematography of Crystel Fournier and the outstanding score of Peter Brötzmann and Nils Petter Molvaer. And when performance, direction and artistry combine, Great Freedom becomes the best LGBTQ+ drama of the year and one of the most important of the past decade. Its messages of strength in the face of destruction, life in the face of oppression and love in the face of persecution, striking, urgent and beautiful.
While you are here, why not explore more LGBTQ+ Film and TV