Film Review: ‘Great Freedom’ Challenges Gay Victimology
A new German film favors true liberation over sanitized progressive politics.
Rwriting the past – usually dramatizing social victimization – is how film progressives bully and manipulate the present. In great freedom, director Sebastian Meise draws attention to homosexuals incarcerated under the infamous “deviance” clause of Article 175 of the German Criminal Code (abolished in 1994). As Germany’s submission for this year’s Best International Film Oscar, it defies progressive convention and is the best of the bunch.
The film observes the ordeal of career prisoner Hans Hoffman (played by Franz Rogowski) through three time periods: 1945, 1957 and 1978. But better than today’s routine progressive history lessons (Moonlight, The power of the dog, the hate you giveetc), great freedom explores each decade through verboten visual eroticism. During Hans’ serial and recidivist imprisonment, he is seen at the center of government entrapment practices – surveillance of public spaces (1978), oppression of wartime concentration camps (1945), and then as the creator of his own secret erotic memories (1957).
Hoffman’s script unfolds out of order because Meise tells more than the story of oppression. great freedom is conceived as a reorganized history of homosexual consciousness. It makes for a fascinating corrective to contemporary gay politics, like how the mainstream media sells the speciously idealized progressive gay image of Pete Buttigieg. (Buttigieg himself uses the Obamaesque word “innocuous”.) Meise returns to the character of the gay experience before it was a sanitized political tool.
By its very title, great freedom challenges the current “Love Wins” movement by recounting the lost radicalism of the gay liberation struggle when personal sexual freedom was privileged above conformity. It does not anticipate the legalized domestic partnership and complicates the accession to political power to force social change.
Generally, films like the 1995 documentary celluloid closet contrast contemporary progressive homosexual attitudes with the oppressive old Hollywood. great freedom looks more like Mark Rappaport’s The Silver Screen: Color Me Lavender (1997), which cataloged the historical evolution of gay cinematic expression. Meise continues this effort through imaginative recreations of films past: the opening scenes “Observation II,” re-enacting government surveillance footage, feature subtle camera movement that suggests the involvement of voyeuristic lust. It’s a step up from the delicate sexual antics of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsodyand it is particularly reminiscent of Frank Ripploh’s film Taxi in Kloa German breakthrough from porn to art at the 1981 New York Film Festival.
Meise symbolizes the liberation of Han’s concentration camp through the figure of a black American GI (a reference to a Rainer Werner Fassbinder fetish) and then symbolizes the reunification of Germany as the prisoner Hans goes from making pink sheets to sewing brown prison sheets and reusing Nazi uniforms. The prison serves as a framework for great freedomthe grounds of sexual oppression, reflecting the legendary Jean Genet-Jean Cocteau collaboration A song of lovea movie the Moonlight generation knows nothing but what Meise relates to for his individual morality – an idea lost in this age of mindless political conformity.
What unites Meise’s experimental film is Franz Rogowski’s portrayal of Hans’ sexual development. Rogowski looks suspiciously like the black-haired, mustachioed clone image of Taxi zum Klo’s forgotten author Frank Ripploh, but he’s also the hurried-faced Joaquin Phoenix type (although his libidinous stroll through the prison yard is reminiscent of Sean Penn’s swagger). Phoenix’s Joker was a real deviant; Rogowski casts Hans as a dissatisfied and unrecoverable nonconforming lover – thwarting the innocuous progressive millennial Buttigieg. The subplot of Hans’ long relationship with a heterosexual drug addict in prison, Viktor (Georg Friedrich), centers on a daring reunion scene where Hans reveals what he really missed. Rogowski characterizes the three ages of adjustment for gay men, from victimhood to romanticism to self-sufficiency.
In great freedomIn his heyday, Hans roams the catacombs of a gay jazz bar, an underground reminder of the prison lifestyle he defied but also eroticized. This is the key to Meise’s approach. It doesn’t sell social rebellion (although the Film Forum promotes the film that way), but centers on Hans’ romantic impulse: making Braille punctures over Bible verses for a coded love letter to the Genet, then his personal film in 8 mm of a day on the lake with the idealized lover Oskar (Thomas Prenn). Is it a souvenir or a real cultural relic?
Meise’s images challenge the progressive practice of rewriting history. He knows that this risks rewriting truth and morality. great freedomHans’ unexpected take on personal freedom is better than movies that teach Gen Z that gay people are still oppressed. Once again, a European filmmaker shows Americans how to do it.