Director: Doris Dörrie (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
The only women’s public swimming pool in Germany. Somebody has called the police, and a whole troop of male police burst through the barriers which are supposed to ensure that only women are allowed in. Apparently someone’s reported a fight, but the most aggressive people in the pool are the insensitive coppers. They are particularly insulting towards the trans woman Kim, who is selling sausages (what else in a German pool?) near the entrance.
One by one, we are introduced to the pool’s regulars. There is the teacher Gabi, who is married to a rich man and lives in a huge house. There’s Gabi’s equally feminist friend Eva, who was once a successful Schlager singer. There’s German-Turkish swimmer Yasemin, who insists on swimming in a Burklini and her family who dares to grill food as the sausages at the entrance are not Halal. There’s a young fat (how dare she?) lesbian who takes more than a passing interest in Yasemin.
Eva reacts to the grilling by going topless as an attempt to offend the Muslim family. Then a large group of Swiss women arrive, who all wear the veil. They are obviously suspect – carrying designer bags and speaking to each other in Arabic and French (it takes the German woman an age to realise that they also speak fluent German). I think the message is supposed to be – look how intolerant these old feminists are towards Muslims, but the Muslim women are equally intolerant.
This is not a film that endorses such narrow-mindedness as such. In a scene towards the end, it preaches a tolerance for others. And yet tolerance is not the same as respect – it is closely associated to the condescending word “tolerate”. Freibad’s world is painted with such broad brush strokes (which is a polite way of saying that it’s full of clichés and stereotypes), that at best it is asking us to tolerate formulaic platitudes which have little to do with what people are really like.
The film is apparently about the tension between freedom of opinion and respect for others. The pool contains both topless women and women in burkhinis. There are both Muslims and racists. Apparently, it’s all based on a true story. In 2017, Muslim women from Switzerland visited a women’s only pool in Freiburg, near the Swiss border. Some older regulars were outraged. The pool employed a male lifeguard in a deliberate attempt to drive the Muslim women away.
The same happens here, albeit for a slightly different reason. Until now, Steffi has been in charge, running the place and taking on lifeguard duties. After she’s had enough of all the rowing, she quits. The pool is required to find another lifeguard, but only a man is available. The Swiss Muslim women are appalled, and leave the pool en masse. In contrast, ost of the other women do everything they can to seduce Nils, the new lifeguard who is both hunky and dorky.
Can we stop for one moment here? This is the only women’s swimming baths in the country, and the only people who want to keep it this way are the Muslim arrivistes? We may argue about the rights and wrongs of separatist feminism, but there’s a decent case that women should be able to to spend time together and wear swimming costumes away from the male leer. To suggest that this is just a “Muslim problem” is not just unlikely – it is disingenuous.
The film also employs “satire” that is clearly unequipped to handle. Quotes like “You Muslims must understand you’re guests here. We set the rules” have their place in a drama which sets clear barriers about who are the good and the bad guys. Freibad is unable to set these barriers. It lacks the subtlety and clarity to get away with this level of sophistication, although the person making the statement is shown as being a good liberal – she doesn’t hate Arabs – well, not all Arabs.
This is one of the few films where it’s interesting to read not just the reviews but the below the line comments. In these comments, a woman with a Muslim name says that the film’s ridiculing of Muslim women is an impertinence. Another comment uses the great – and difficult to translate – German word Fremdschämen. Language apps translate it as “second hand embarrassment”, but in this case, it’s closer to call it trying to embarrass people about which you know very little.
German critics have been divided about Freibad. Some have loved it, lauding its confrontation of “the limits of tolerance”. Others have called it “the most racist discriminatory and anti-feminist film that I’ve ever seen” (I guess they won’t be printing that on the posters). I’m with the latter group. It’s not just the dodgy, superior liberal politics – the “humour” lies in such hilarious instances like a turd in the swimming pool. The fact that the Trans character is played by a CIS man doesn’t help,
I spent a while wondering whether Freibad was a film that I just don’t get, or whether it is genuinely offensive. I’m starting to tend more towards the latter opinion. This is a film with fundamental problems. It responds to an important racist incident by saying that the racists and the victims of racism are just as bad as each other. The fact that it does this in the name of liberal tolerance hardly makes it any better. Basically, Muslim women don’t need this shit. Avoid.