“Great Freedom,” available for streaming on MUBI May 6, is a tough and tender film set almost entirely in a German prison. Director and cowriter Sebastian Meise’s remarkable drama opens in 1968 when Hans Hoffmann (a superb Franz Rogowski) is sentenced to two years in prison under Paragraph 175, which criminalizes homosexuality. It is not his first time in jail; he had previously been incarcerated for “deviant sexual practices” in 1945 and again in 1957. The film shows his experiences and relationships with three very different men behind bars — Leo (Anton von Lucke), an assignation from 1968, Oskar (Thomas Prenn), his lover in 1957, and Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a straight man whom he knows in each time period.
In a recent interview, Meise talked about making his film about finding love when one is confined and oppressed.
The film concerns a shameful period in Germany’s history, when gay men were targeted, criminalized, and dehumanized. Yet your film presents Hans’ dignity amid all of his suffering. Hans never regretted his actions. Can you talk about creating a gay character who lived freely, even behind bars?
We did quite a bit of research and we met a lot of victims who were imprisoned back in the ‘60s. They all showed this attitude of being “unbroken.” That is what influenced us to create Hans’ character. I found that interesting — he is locked up for something he can’t change [his sexuality]. He has no other choice than to be himself. It’s a strange way of criminalizing someone.
How did you work with Franz Rogowski on the character? He is often quiet, but his body language is very expressive.
That is something he is very good at, and it fit well to the prison genre. Prison is all about torturing the body. You can’t imprison the mind, only bodies. His body shows and reacts to this imprisonment and the suffering and trying not to be too confined.
What observations do you have about prison films as a genre?
I’ve always seen “Great Freedom” as a mix between a prison film and a love story. We try to go in between these two genres, we wanted to create the rawness and ugliness of the law enforcement and the tenderness of the love story.
We feel the tenderness Hans has with Viktor, Oskar, and Leo. Each man has a different emotional impact on him. How did you develop each of Hans’ relationships in the film?
This is all connected to Hans’ development. It was what we wanted to create — how his life changes over 25 years. In 1945, he is a broken man coming out of a concentration camp and going into prison. In the ‘50s he has a rebellious attitude, and in the ‘60s, he is very resigned.
What strikes me most with “Great Freedom” is your strong visual sense, the way you use space, color, and lighting, as well as film clips, peepholes, and other devices to create a palpable atmosphere and voyeuristic quality. Can you talk about your approach to telling the story visually?
I think filmmaking is all about exploitation in a way. I think Hitchcock said, “We are voyeurs,” and that’s why we go and see a film. I think we shouldn’t avoid voyeurism in filmmaking, but I think it’s important to find the right distance. This is what we tried to find — how close can we get — especially when it comes to the explicit scenes.
The colors, we wanted to find the right way between these two genres, the prison film and the love story, and not to make prison such a sad place. The atmosphere is very important to me because I tell stories more through atmosphere than through words. It’s a visual form of art. It’s always about finding the right tone to the right emotion, and Crystal Fournier [the cinematographer] did an amazing job with the lighting, but it’s also important to stick to reality. Artificial light is so full of life and color.
What can you say about the use of silence in the film? We can read so much in the silences.
There’s not much to do in a prison or in a cell. It’s all about the people and their faces and bodies. I am interested in watching them, and I like these limitations. The space is so limited we are not distracted with other things. That is why we tried to be precise in every moment and gaze.
I appreciate how the characters subverted authority to achieve their desires. Can you talk about that theme in your film?
That is what I believe — that love will always find a way. It’s impossible to lock away feelings and emotions. You always find a way to survive. They try to find a way to express themselves and live their emotions and passions. It’s all very strange to lock someone up for being gay and committing homosexual acts — which was a crime — and put them in prison with lots of men, it’s so absurd! One victim we talked to said for him, prison was a dating platform. He was in heaven!
One of the most astonishing sequences appears late in the film, at a bar named “Great Freedom.” It is explicit and powerful. What decisions did you make regarding this episode?
It’s a bit metaphorical, because in gay clubs back then it was more Barbra Streisand that they played than free jazz, but I wanted to create this feeling of it being like madness. People read in the newspaper that Paragraph 175 ended, and they could live a free life and they couldn’t believe it. It was crazy for them, and I wanted to create this crazy feeling. When Hans goes down into the basement it looks a lot like prison — there are bars, toilets, cells, and glory holes. It is like all the stations of the film are in this sequence. What I really like about darkroom culture, even today, they take the elements of oppression and play with them. Judith Butler said, “Fetish is about playing with the symbols of oppression to not have to fear them anymore.” It’s a provocative political statement. Homosexuals have been locked away and oppressed for so many decades, the minute they are liberated, they take the oppression and build their own prison.
If it is appropriate to ask how you would have fared in prison?
I would have drowned. It is one of my biggest nightmares. It’s probably why I made this film. It is one of my most horrible visions, to be in prison. I would go down completely.