1968, somewhere in Germany. A flickering screen showing a series of encounters between men in public toilets. We suddenly cut to a court, where the film has presumably just been shown. We are at the trial of a man who is slightly funny looking, which is no surprize as he’s being played by Franz Rogowski. The scene fades out just as the prosecution are recommending a minimum sentence of 24 months.
We move to watch Rogowski’s character Hans entering prison. He addresses the warders, removes his clothes and even offers his bare arse for a cavity search without anyone having to ask. He’s obviously been here before. This is when we pan back to the year 1945. Hans is entering the same prison but this time his jailers are soldiers, Some of them are black, and they’re all speaking English.
As Hans approaches his cell, we see the number 175 written on the door. Paragraph 175 is the German law which made homosexuality illegal. Hans’s new cellmate doesn’t take kindly to having to share with a 175 prisoner. Viktor is a lifer who looks like he can look after himself in a fight. He literally throws Hans out of the cell, telling him to find somewhere else.
When the warder pushes Hans back in and tells Viktor to behave, Viktor sullenly concedes, telling Hans not to come anywhere near him. But things get better after Viktor sees the tattoo on Hans’s arm. Hans has obviously been sent straight to this jail from a concentration camp. Viktor uses his elementary prison tattoo equipment to cover up the number on Hans’s arm.
Große Freiheit prefers to show indignities without making a great fuss, but can we just stop and think about this one minute. The Great Freedom which liberated the concentration camps just sent Hans straight to a different jail. Gay men were no more welcome to the US occupying forces, or the late West German government than they were to the Nazi dictatorship.
Back to the film. We switch between three time periods – on top of the two we’ve already seen, we also spend some time in 1957. Hans has been arrested again after being caught with Oskar with whom he seems to have a serious relationship. The format of the Super-8 home movies of Hans and Oskar on holiday is eerily similar to the toilet footage used to convict him a decade later.
Hans manages to communicate with Oskar by putting pin pricks through letters in books, which he sends via Viktor, who is now on meal delivery duty. Yet in the yard, Oskar keeps his distance, knowing that proximity to Hans could have serious repercussions. Hans’s suggestion in the home movies that they should run away to the DDR where gay men were not criminalized in the same way, suddenly doesn’t seem so silly.
Moving towards the “present” – if a time when the prisoners watch the first moon landings can really be described as the present – Hans starts an in prison affair with Leo, a teacher who was caught in the same sting operation that ended up in Hans’s imprisonment. And relations with Viktor have developed since their first meeting.
Große Freiheit is obviously tackling serious issues, and should be watched for this reason at all. I have two small reservations – one of which is almost entirely my fault. Hans and Viktor speak with such impenetrable accents that it’s often difficult to follow what’s going on. Coupled with the regular shift of year, this meant that quite a few times I was more confused than I really should be.
More generally, Große Freiheit doesn’t make any effort to make its characters particularly likeable. On one level, this is perfectly legitimate, even laudable. It’s not just pretty, articulate men who should not be the victims of discrimination. But while I wanted Hans’s attempts at a relationship succeed just because of the injustice of his situation, I very rarely felt engaged with him – or the others – as people. Which is potentially problematic in what is essentially a love story.
The film ends with Hans being released with the decriminalization of gay sex for German men aged 21 and over in 1970. Some critics seem to have seen this as a specifically German scandal, but laws banning homosexuality were only overturned in other countries in the same period. So this isn’t about a specifically German problem. Whatever my reservations about some of the format, this is living history in living memory which should be remembered.