Although engaging in homosexual activity is still illegal in many countries around the world – including regional neighbour Malaysia, many young people in Hong Kong may be surprised to learn that there used to be similar laws here. It was only in 1991 when the colonial government decriminalised most consensual homosexual relations but, at the same time, it established that the age of consent for gay men would be 21 while it would be 16 for heterosexuals. No consideration was made for lesbians. In other words, it was legal for a 40-year-old man to engage in consensual sex with a 16-year-old girl but illegal for a 21-year-old man to engage in consensual sex with a 20-year-old man. It was only in 2019 that the Hong Kong High Court ruled in favour of an LGBT activist in his lawsuit against the Justice Department saying that this unequal age of consent was contrary to the Basic Law.
Until 1994, Germany had a similarly restrictive law against homosexuals on its books. Known as Paragraph 175, the 1871 law made homosexuality a crime that was punishable by imprisonment for up to 10 years. The Nazis ardently followed this law, sending about 10,000 gays to concentration camps and it is estimated that only 4,000 of them survived. Interestingly though, and I didn’t know this until now, when the war ended in 1945 and West Germany fell under American administration, few of these men were set free. Most had to return to prison to serve out their two-year sentence. This forms the backdrop for the Austrian film, GREAT FREEDOM.
The story begins in 1968 when Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogowski, UNDINE; A HIDDEN LIFE; IN THE AISLES/IN DEN GÄNGEN; TRANSIT) is sentenced to two years in prison for engaging in homosexual activities in a public toilet. Curiously, Hans appears quite resigned to his fate, and when we see him being processed, he’s surprisingly calm and prepared for the procedure. It seems this isn’t his first time in prison, which becomes evident when he is shown to his prison cell. He and his cellmate, Viktor Bix (Georg Friedrich), already know each other. Hans, it turns out, has been in prison a few times since the war simply for the crime of being gay. Over the years and in spite of Viktor’s homophobia, Hans and Viktor form a unique friendship that keeps both of them sane through their lows.
Though the subject of the criminality of homosexuality in Germany has been dealt with a few times on stage and screen with BENT and the eponymous documentary PARAGRAPH 175, I don’t think the post-war period has ever been examined in film until now. Austrian director and co-writer Sebastian Meise has created a thoughtful period piece that puts the audience right into Hans’ head. As the story unfolds, it becomes obvious why Hans is so quiet, if not guarded. Anytime he finds happiness, it gets taken away from him. Meise hits that point home in the film’s extended closing scene.
Once again, Rogowski delivers a performance that is powerful in its subtlety. Many American movie critics are calling him “Germany’s Joaquin Phoenix” due to his similar looks right down to the cleft lip and his willingness to take on heady roles, but I feel the compliment does the actor a disservice. He doesn’t need to be compared to anyone. He’s a tremendous actor, period. Just as Phoenix has won Hollywood’s most prestigious award (for his performance in JOKER), Rogowski has won Germany’s highest acting award (for his performance in IN THE AISLES). In this film, Meise uses Rogowski’s face to tell Hans’ story. The style is somewhat reminiscent of Terrence Mallick’s where the dialogue takes a back seat to the camerawork and the actors’ faces. Meise shoots a number of scenes in near darkness to allow audiences the opportunity to get a glimpse into Hans’ emotional processes. Who knew you could hold a lit match for so long? This film is not for the impatient.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, GREAT FREEDOM was the big winner at this year’s Austrian Film Awards scooping up eight of its ten nominations, including Best Actor for Rogowski, Best Feature, Best Director and Best Cinematography. It also won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes when it premiered there in July 2021. The film also made the short list for the Best International Feature Film Oscar but it didn’t make the final cut.
GREAT FREEDOM will be screened twice at the upcoming Hong Kong International Film Festival. The second screening on August 28th is already sold out but tickets are still available for the first screening on August 21st. Both screenings will be followed by a live streamed conversation with the director. It’s definitely worth watching!
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