The Great Freedom at MUBI is a prison drama about the revolt of desire

Great Freedom (German: Große Freiheit) | Director: Sebastian Mays

Cast: Franz Rogovsky, George Friedrich, Anton von Luck, Thomas Pren

Duration: 1 hour 56 minutes | Language: German

Great Freedom Streams on MUBI.


World War II ends in Germany. The Nazis fell. Allies liberated concentration camps throughout Europe. This release was the end of the experiment for the inmates found there. It was the beginning of a new beginning for men like Hans Hoffmann (Franz Rogovsky) in Sebastian Mays’ Great Freedom. After enduring the horrors of the Nazi regime for 14 months, Hans was sent straight from a concentration camp to a prison in West Germany, where he was sentenced to serve the remaining four months of his three years in prison for being a homosexual. Act of 1872. Regimes may have changed. But the repression remains. One of the American liberators put Hans in solitary confinement. “Look, we’re not trying to hurt you,” the soldier argues. “If you try to run away again, they will shoot you,” the German prison official translated. Mays evokes the tragic continuation between Nazi Germany and post-war Germany when the Imperial Eagles uniform of Nazi Germany was torn off, echoing in many parts of the world where homosexuality remains a criminal.

Under Section 175 of the then German Penal Code, sexual intercourse between men was a punishable offense until the law was repealed in 1994. For more than three decades, Hans will go to jail again. Ironically, within the four walls of the prison cell, in daily observation, in the cold darkness, Hans finds his great freedom through the deep connection he forms with his cellmate Victor (George Friedrich). Through Rogovsky’s inquisitive eyes, we see a man who has internalized systematic repression as an adaptive mechanism to a point where freedom and desire can only be achieved within a forbidden system. The desire for freedom and the freedom of desire are thus interrelated in the second feature of Mays.

Through three decades in prison, the Austrian filmmaker traces the relationship between Hans and Victor. When the two first meet in 1945, Victor, convicted of murder, rushes to convict Hans and expresses his disgust at being persuaded to share the cell with someone he labels “pervert”. When he finds the concentration camp ID on Hans’ wrist, the disgust turns to curiosity and sympathy in the vicinity of a cell. But Victor Hans only arrives when the relationship shifts from a transaction to a selfless one. Frederick portrays a man who tries to hold on to his humanity in the face of the inhumane effects of the Nazi regime and prison system.


Mays opens with a montage of Super 8 clips depicting the secret sex lives of gay men in 1960s Germany. Footage taken through a faulty mirror shows Hans having sex with a group of men in a public toilet. All of this is documented as evidence that he unknowingly went on a sting operation to detain him for violating paragraph 175. Framing draws attention to a level of observation and its penal laws, forcing homosexuals to cover up their sexuality as criminals. This montage is quite different from the picnic somewhere in the countryside of the Hans and Oscar winners of the later Super 8 home movies. Hans turns to these memories of loneliness in the cold, loneliness, warmth in the dark, and a glimmer of hope. When documenting homosexual harassment, Mays always finds room to spread light through the darkness: be it a matchstick, a cigarette or a peephole on the door.

When living under a homophobic regime, every act of love and desire is a rebellion. In 1968, teacher Hans and Leo (Anton von Luke) caught the same stab, deliberately evacuating people at night and throwing them into a cold outdoor cell, where they ate “first date” and lived warmly with each other. A blanket. When Oscar commits suicide and dies, Victor comforts the grieving Hans in his arms, protecting him from under the prison guards’ batons in the prison yard. While helping Victor recover from his drug addiction, Hans grabs his cellmate’s trembling body and returns it. In these moments there is a loving tenderness beyond sexual intimacy.

Like the defined spaces inside the prison, the props carry their own thematic weight. Hans finds great freedom in rolling a ritual cigarette: tearing a piece of paper from the Bible, scattering tobacco on the surface, cradling it in a cylindrical shape, smoking, licking, and sealing – before burning. Sharing a cigarette or getting a tattoo on the wrist is not too far from the foreplay when it comes to the stove. The Bible, often used as a weapon of anti-homosexual hatred, is being reconstructed as a love letter because Hans drilled holes in its script to convey a coded message to the Oscars.

The film is titled Große Freiheit, a gay nightclub that Hans visits in the final moments of the film. He is followed by a tracking shot of him observing his homosexuals having sex in dark corridors and small cells resembling cells. Although reforms were implemented in 1969, the criminalization of homosexuality was not acceptable. The fact that homosexuals still congregate in underground establishments means that they did not have complete freedom to express their sexuality. How can one be free if they cannot be themselves and love those they choose in the open? Can a person ever find freedom if they only know about oppression?


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