Well, everyone, mission accomplished. With the successful viewing of Austria’s Oscar submission, Great Freedom, which opened in American cinemas this weekend, I have finally achieved a goal I’ve been trying to manage for several years. With this final entry in 2021’s canon, I have watched the entirety of the Academy’s 15-film shortlist for International Feature! I’ve come close a couple of times, and thankfully I’ve at least been able to see all five eventual nominees before Oscar Night for the last six years running, but this is the first time I’ve completed the shortlist. I’m proud of myself.
I just wish this last movie was truly worth the wait. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, and there are some very artistic moments, but as you can tell from the headline, it’s largely derivative of two previous classics.
Franz Rogowski, who you might have seen if you watched Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life a few years ago, stars as Hans Hoffman, a man imprisoned multiple times in the post-WWII era for being a homosexual. The film is seen from three different periods in Hans’ life: 1945, right after the war ended, where he’s shipped directly to prison under Germany’s “Paragraph 175” (there was a noteworthy documentary about the law released in 2000) from a concentration camp, one of the few to have survived; 1957, his second stint, where he was arrested along with his boyfriend Oskar (Thomas Prenn); and a third spell from 1968-69 (nice) after he was caught by a surveillance sting in a public bathroom, the film itself opening with a montage of all the anonymous sex he had in said toilet.
The movie jumps back and forth between these three areas, mostly using the darkness of a solitary confinement cell as a transition device. There’s also some really gorgeous use of matches in the darkness as a bit of visual, art as Hans likes to strike the match, watch it burn halfway down, then transfer the burnt end to another hand so he can watch the flame carry the rest of the way down the stick.
Throughout Hoffman’s various terms as a ward of the state, he has two constants. The first, in an encouraging manner, is Viktor (Georg Friedrich), a fellow inmate. He’s a prison tattoo artist and a heroin addict, both of which are open secrets in the prison. It’s one of the better makeup jobs over the course of the film as he becomes shaggier and more emaciated as the years go by, with Hans rotating in and out of the penitentiary while Viktor remains. Though there is hope for Viktor, as when Hans returns for his third stint, Viktor is approaching a parole hearing where all indications are that he’ll be released after more than 20 years. Hans is initially assigned to Viktor as a cellmate in 1945, and Viktor is violently displeased to be roomed with a “pervert,” as all “175s” are dubbed.
However, a friendship is formed in part due to Viktor noticing Hans’ concentration camp tattooed serial number and trying to cover it up with new ink, then Hans taking the heat for some contraband to save Viktor from the hole. Despite both sides vehemently disagreeing with one another’s lifestyle, they come to an understanding and rapport, helping each other out and giving emotional support from the sidelines. It’s quite touching at times, especially in a rather gut-wrenching scene where Viktor takes multiple baton strikes to his back from the guards so that he can give Hans a heartfelt embrace after tragedy.
The other constant, one that I feel is detrimental to the film, is Hans’ unyielding thirst for cock. This is not a commentary on his sexuality, but rather a lack of pragmatism and character development. The first time he’s in prison, he’s already survived a life-threatening ordeal at the hands of the Nazis, and is almost catatonic until he and Viktor become friends, with their association cut short by early release, as Hans only has four months left on his sentence, the rest being time served in the camp (it’s oddly telling that in 1945, the prison is run by American soldiers, having just liberated the camps, but they still abide by Germany’s penal code).
But everything after that shows Hans not only constantly giving in to his urges, but actively seeking ways to flout the prison rules for the sake of his sex drive. In 1957 he’s arrested along with Oskar for screwing in public. So once they’re in prison and forcefully separated, what does Hans do? He takes every opportunity to be physically close to Oskar knowing it will get them both in trouble, and even devises schemes to get them into the same space without constant surveillance so they can fuck. The same happens in the 60s, with Hans immediately latching on to a new, younger inmate named Leo (Anton von Lucke), another one arrested after random encounters in that monitored bathroom, including one with Hans. It’s weird and frustrating to see a prison drama where instead of trying to smuggle cigarettes or other creature comforts, this man is risking everything for his boner. That’s how base his motivations are through most of the film.
I understand we all have needs, but for the sake of your own (fore)skin, keep it in your pants! It’s completely and totally wrong that homosexuality was ever a crime, and the fact that it still is in many countries (including as a capital offense in some) is sickening. But if your goal is to ever live a free life, the one thing you shouldn’t do is continue to offend once you’re in prison, where you’re under constant watch. I mean, if you get arrested for assault, and you ever want to get out, the last thing you should do is beat up other inmates on the inside. You’re just begging for more time to be added onto your sentence. I’ve been through a few dry spells myself. Trust me, it sucks. But is it really that hard to just jack off? John Lennon used to sing, “All You Need is Love.” For Hans, just swap out “Love” for “Blowjobs” and you’ve got about 75% of his character. It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t called back to so often. Once or twice is fine, but spend the rest of the time giving him other dimensions, because it’s hard to engage with a character who’s basically one of the American Pie or Porky’s kids, only he’s in a German prison and wants butt sex. Give him something to aspire to other than his next load.
The final act of the film possibly contextualizes this, but it’s not in a redeeming manner. It’s only because the performances are so good that it holds up to any scrutiny because they make it oddly believable, even if it’s troubling. Hans’ friendship with Viktor evolves to a physical stage as well as emotional, and the two begin to rely on each other in a manner that suggests a somewhat Shawshank Redemption-esque angle of being an “institutional man” to go along with the self-loathing sexual expressionism of Brokeback Mountain. It gets to the point that Hans agrees to help Viktor overcome his drug addiction. Once Paragraph 175 is abolished, Hans is able to see his lifestyle legal and out in the open for the first time, but he’s distinctly uncomfortable and feels out of place, with the imagery – and the ending – suggesting that he too is an addict, to the taboo of his own sex life. It’s almost like with no danger of reprisal, he no longer feels any excitement or desire, and that’s a weirdly vague and potentially ignorant note to go out on. Are the filmmakers saying that Hans only feels normal on the inside? Are they suggesting he’s in love with Viktor and is therefore no longer interested in more casual affairs? Most troubling of all, are they alleging that, at least in Hans’ case, his sexuality was indeed a choice, and that he was an actual deviant?
It’s really difficult to compartmentalize, mostly because the movie spent so much time depicting graphic sex than giving depth to the characters. While the actors do excellent jobs, a lot of the visuals seem set up more for shock value than anything else, as if the filmmakers are saying, “Yeah, see all that shit? People used to go to jail for that? Oh yeah, they did all that! Look at this guy thrusting in another guy’s mouth! They’re just nutting everywhere! Doesn’t make you uncomfortable and/or turn you on?” Okay, you’ve shown us softcore gay porn. And?
Because there’s so much focus on the physical acts that landed Hans in prison rather than any real development his character, we’re left to take a lot of logical leaps in our own head. Maybe that was the point, to see how our own inherent biases might inform our interpretations, I’ll grant that. But the occasional bit of guidance would have been appreciated. At times Hans and Viktor are like Andy and Red, and at others they’re like Jack and Ennis. The problem is the film can never settle on a path to one side or the other, and in doing so winds up a bit jumbled in places where clarity was desperately needed.
Still, this is worth seeing because of the sheer ambition behind it. Rather than making the film a straight up referendum on an historical wrong, it depicts extremely flawed characters residing within that hurtful system in ways that are to say the least unexpected, and at times profound and beautiful. The plot structure and characterization can be extremely frustrating at times, almost like a metaphor for sexual repression itself. There’s a good deal of teasing, several releases, and even the denim prison uniforms could symbolize blue balls. The question then becomes about how long the refractory period lasts, and whether there’s post-coital remorse.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How many foreign films did you get to see in the 2021 canon? Do you think Hans would have fit in with the Sisters? Let me know!