Cannes 2021 review: Great Freedom (Sebastian Meise)

Sebastian Meise’s Great Freedom takes place in the aftermath of the Second World War, and focuses on a very different sort of battle, one that is focused on the more intimate and personal lives of ordinary citizens. The director has created a work of unflinching humanity, a provocative and insightful glimpse into the lives of an entire group of people who dared to live their lives and pursue their desires, only to have their freedom stolen from them due to laws that aimed to govern the way one lives. Anchored by two achingly beautiful performances by the gifted Franz Rogowski and Georg Friedrich, who provide all the necessary gravitas required to tell this heart-wrenching story of defiance for the sake of love, Great Freedom is an absolute triumph, and a film that is destined to become one of the most extraordinary portrayals of queer romance committed to film in recent years.

The film sets its foundation in an exploration of Paragraph 175, a law first established in Germany during the 19th century, which forbade homosexual relationships. It took almost a century to finally be seen as an act of unnecessary cruelty and to be entirely removed from legislation. Taking place over roughly twenty years, between the end of the Second World War and the late 1960s, Great Freedom follows the life of Hans, a man who is a perpetual resident in the nation’s penal system as he refuses to abandon his identity as a gay man in a country in which consensual intercourse between two men is not only considered an immoral act but also stands as a criminal offence. This is not the first instance of the distressing persecution of homosexuality portrayed on screen, but it is certainly one of the most excruciatingly difficult to watch, as Meise does not avoid portraying the pain felt by these inmates who have been labelled prisoners simply due to their refusal to abide by draconian cultural standards.

The film is caught between genres, an intentional choice made by the director in his attempts to portray this particular moment in European history. Part meditative psychological drama, part poignant romance, the film spans two decades and looks deep into one man’s journey through unfair incarceration and his attempts to find small freedoms behind bars. This entails not only a mortifying portrait of the legal system that treated men like Hans poorly, but the mental prison experienced by these people as a result of dehumanizing practices. The spectre of the Holocaust lingers heavily throughout the film – while it may take place in the years following the fall of Nazism, the impact of their barbaric laws still remains embedded in the fabric of German society. Hans represents a composite of many different people whose lives have been obscured by history, with this film bringing forth a valiant effort to give a voice to the forgotten minority, the people who fell victim to an oppressive system, not for any tangible crimes but rather through expressing their love in a way that went against their country’s principles.

Great Freedom is a truly harrowing film that offers a unique perspective into a dark moment in Germany’s history. Meise makes sure to find the balance between haunting explorations of history, functioning as a fearless account of the harsh realities many faced (even in times of supposed postwar peace), and a stunningly beautiful, virtuous character study about those who were willing to endure the harsh consequences that came with surrendering to their desires. In this film, every expression of passion is an act of rebellion, each longing glance a ferocious refusal to adhere to standards, and Meise captures it all with such vivid, potent detail. Each emotion is well-placed, and it refuses to veer towards saccharine over-sentimentality, remaining unimpeachably humane throughout. This is both a work of impactful historical documentation and resounding artistic merit, and a film that will doubtlessly come to help define an ever-growing canon of stories that provide thoughtful and illuminating insights into the challenges faced by the queer community in the past.