PParagraph 175 sounds harmless enough. Maybe a small piece of legislation or a piece of these terms and conditions that any of us would skim. But, as the award-winning new film Great Freedom makes clear, it was actually a vindictive article of the German penal code that criminalized male homosexuality and destroyed the lives of 140,000 men, more than a third of whom were sentenced to prison. Not only did Article 175 remain in force for more than a century, it also exposed a tacit collusion between the Nazis – who lowered the penal threshold while increasing sentences – and the post-war liberation forces.
“Other laws were reverted to pre-Nazi status after the war,” explains Sebastian Meise, the film’s 46-year-old Austrian director, when we meet in a London office. “But 175 just kept going.” The “Pink List” of well-known gay men that the Nazis had drawn up was still in circulation at the end of the 1970s, says Meise. “It’s absurd how far the state has gone to prosecute these men. What struck me now were the allies. For me they were always the liberators – they liberated us from fascism. But in this case they were on the same level as the Third Reich.”
Some men who were imprisoned in concentration camps were simply transferred directly to prison after the end of the war. In Great Freedom, this is the fate of Hans, played by Franz Rogowski, who spends most of his adult life behind bars. When we first meet him, in 1968, he is sent to a public toilet for indecent behavior. Super 8 footage of his cabin exploits, taken by police behind a two-way mirror, looks like a peep show. Meise used Tearoom, the film by William E. Jones, which contained footage of a real-life 1960s covert operation in the American Midwest, as a reference point.
When Hans doesn’t seem disturbed by his verdict, he knows he’s being reunited with his old cellmate Viktor, played by Georg Friedrich. It’s their enduring bond, their acts of selflessness and sacrifice that fill the film with hope where it might have been simply harrowing.
His elaborate flashback structure allows us to see Hans during other periods of imprisonment. Thrown into solitary confinement in a scene in 1968, he emerges from obscurity in 1945. He is gaunt and weak with a number tattooed on his forearm. In another scene, they stumble out of the darkness into 1957 looking healthier and sporting a modest rockabilly haircut. Trends can change, but homophobia never goes out of style.
“We tried to find a form that expresses the world he lives in,” says Meise about the screenplay, which he wrote with his permanent collaborator Thomas Reider. “Han’s life is like a prison. They cannot be someone else, they cannot spend time and transform themselves into a “better” person. The punishment is of no use to him as he is immediately pursued again. Even being outside is a prison. This is how we came to our structure. We wanted to create that feeling that he’s stuck in a time warp. Every time he goes back to solitary confinement, in the dark, he’ll be spat out somewhere else.”
Much of the film’s magic can be attributed to the exceptionally gentle Rogowski and his ability to inhabit Hans at various points in his life. “There was a moment when we had to switch between the 1950s and 1940s recordings overnight,” says Meise. “I saw Franz walking up the stairs and thought: ‘Lord, that’s a completely different person’. I really don’t know how he did it.”
The film was shot entirely in a former East German prison. “A depressing place. You could feel what was going on. We didn’t celebrate, to put it that way. The studio would have been more comfortable but caveats are good. You don’t have too many options as to where to place the camera or what to point it at, and that gives room for creativity.” He could be describing Hans, who has to be smart and resourceful to get what he wants. In one scene, they conspire with a fellow inmate to disobey prison guards during the nightly head count, so they’ll both be sent to the same punishment pen where they can huddle together in the cold. “Exactly,” smiles Meise. “Hans has to manage somehow.”
During their research, Meise and Reider spoke to many men who were persecuted or imprisoned under Section 175. “We spoke to some of them in a gay café in Vienna. It now turned out that they had experience with the law. A man began to tell us that he had spent time in prison in the 1960s. His 40-year-old partner, sitting next to him, said, ‘You never told me that!’ It was such a taboo for the older generation.” He stares out the window. “I hope you’ve seen the film,” he says quietly.
A theme of obfuscation remains in Great Freedom. Viktor, an amateur tattoo artist, offers to disguise the number on Hans’ forearm by turning it into an illustration. After the war, the prison walls were given a new coat of paint and the prisoners had to remove the SS insignia from their military uniforms. However, what is underneath is less easy to eradicate. The emblems of the Third Reich may have been removed, but Paragraph 175 was not repealed in all of its Nazi-fortified services until 1994.
In 2017, 50,000 men were finally overturned. This is a welcome development, although Meise warns. “In Hungary and Poland you can now see everything coming back,” he says. “There are laws in parts of the US that are similar to Section 28 in the UK where you can’t talk about homosexuality in schools. So many things have been achieved – equal marriage, adoption and so on – but conservative forces are coming back very strongly. Democratic rights are again at risk.”
The film’s title has several possible meanings. The literal one is that it’s named after a real Berlin club that glimpsed towards the end of the film and sprung up in the early 1970s. Then there’s the irony of slapping the title Great Freedom on a film that only has two scenes set behind the prison walls. “For me, that’s not ironic,” says Meise. “Hans has no freedom when he gets out of prison, so it relates to what he finds within himself, perhaps the greatest kind we have — the freedom of our mind.”