Stories help us make sense of our existence, says ‘Great Freedom’ director Sebastian Meise
Austrian director Sebastian Meise says he was disturbed by the fact that gay men in post-war Germany were liberated from concentration camps by the Allies only to be thrown back into prison, a nearly forgotten chapter in history that he revisits in "Great Freedom".
Meise, who earned glowing reviews for the film internationally, said he decided to deal with this chapter of history as he believes, "Every story we tell is about humanity and human beings and trying to understand something about life or the existence, which we all don't understand." The critically-acclaimed film is set in post-war Germany, where liberation by the Allies does not mean freedom for everyone. Hans (a mesmerizing portrayal by German actor Franz Rogowski) is imprisoned again and again under Paragraph 175, a law that criminalizes homosexuality. Over the many decades that he spends in jail, Hans develops an unlikely friendship with his initially hostile cellmate, a murder convict named Victor, played by Georg Friedrick.
"Great Freedom" premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section and won the jury prize. It was also Austria's entry for best international feature film at the Academy Awards this year. The film is currently streaming on MUBI India.
The director, who made an acclaimed debut with ''Still Life'' in 2011, said he was struck by the unending persecution gay men went through at the hands of the Allies, who were seen as liberators.
"I read about the queer history of Hamburg. And then there were these reports of gay men who were liberated from concentration camps by the Allies and put directly into prison to serve their remaining sentences. I was disturbed by this continuity that homosexuality was illegal to such an extent.
"Of course, I knew that homosexuality was illegal at one point, but for me, it seemed so far away. I wasn't aware of the whole dimension of the persecution and also about the effort the state took in pursuing all these harmless men. It was just incredible and it went on for so long and for so many more decades," Meise told PTI in a Zoom interview from Vienna.
Paragraph 175, a provision of the German Criminal Code, 1871, made homosexual acts between males a crime. The Nazis broadened the law in 1935 as part of the most severe persecution of homosexual men in history. After World War II, the law in West Germany was revised in 1969 and 1973. It was finally repealed in 1994.
At the heart of "Great Freedom", about a man's relentless struggle for dignity and existence in the face of state persecution, is a tender friendship that Hans and Victor develop during the course of their stay in the prison.
This is why, the director said, his film is also a story of "guilt and redemption".
"It's not the prison that makes Victor a better person, it's his relationship with Hans that makes him a better person. In a way, this is what I saw in the story: through his relationship with Hans, he learns something that he couldn't have without him. That makes their bond special and helps him deal with his guilt," he said.
"They both are really great and my two favorite German-speaking actors. I was so happy to get them both as I kept thinking about them during the writing process. Friedrick is quite famous in Austria, I don't know whether he is known that well internationally. Frank is getting more and more international parts,'' the director said.
"They are really strong actors and characters. I always thought the chemistry between them is the life of the story. They both don't like rehearsing too much but we met before filming and they got to know each other well." To lend a layer of authenticity to the story, Meise, 46, shot the film inside an old prison instead of opting for a studio.
"I liked the limitations (of shooting in a prison) in a way because they give you a frame and it was good to not have that much space and not have too many possibilities... The prison did something to the atmosphere because it was a place with history… I liked the anchor in reality." A lot has changed for queer rights and press freedom now but Meise warned against the growing backlash in democratic societies against the landmarks that have been achieved in the last 50-60 years. "We've seen that even in our democratic societies, there is a kind of backlash. We see it in the European community, in Hungary and Poland. How fast things can go the other way around again, and it's because the conservative forces are coming back globally everywhere. ''In democratic societies, all these achievements, not just the queer rights, also the rights concerning individual freedoms are getting endangered again. I think it can change so quickly and this is a big threat to democracies," he said.
Meise's film seems to be a timely reminder of the need to protect human rights, which is why the director believes in leading with empathy and understanding in cinema.
''It's what storytelling is about, it's about learning to know different lives that I don't know, to get to other realities, so empathy is really important.''
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)