Paragraph 175 sounds innocuous enough. A minor piece of legislation, perhaps, or part of those terms and conditions that any one of us would be forgiven for skimming over. But as the award-winning new film Great Freedom makes clear, it was in fact a vindictive article of the German penal code that criminalized male homosexuality and blighted the lives of 140,000 men, more than a third of whom received prison sentences. As well as remaining in force for more than a century, Paragraph 175 exposed a tacit accord between the Nazis – who lowered the threshold for punishment while raising the sentence – and the postwar liberating forces.
“Other laws were reset after the war to how they had been before the Nazis,” explains Sebastian Meise, the film’s 46-year-old Austrian director, when we meet in a London office. “But 175 just continued.” A “pink list” of known gay men, which the Nazis had compiled, was still in circulation by the late 1970s, Meise says. “It’s absurd the lengths the state went to in persecuting these men. What struck me most was the allies. For me, they’ve always been the liberators – they freed us from fascism. But in this case, they were on the same level as the Third Reich.”
Some men who had been imprisoned in concentration camps were simply transferred straight to prison following 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, he is being sent down in 1968 for lewd conduct in a public toilet. Shot by police from behind a two-way mirror, the Super-8 footage of his cottaging exploits carries the frisson of a peep show. Meise used Tearoom, William E Jones’s film containing footage of a real-life 1960s sting operation in the American midwest, as a reference point.
If Hans doesn’t look perturbed by his sentence, that’s because he knows he will be reunited with his old cellmate Viktor, played by Georg Friedrich. It is their enduring bond, their acts of selflessness and sacrifice, that suffer the film with hope where it might have been simply harrowing.
Its ingenious flashback structure allows us to see Hans during other spells of imprisonment. Thrown into solitary confinement in one scene in 1968, he emerges from the darkness into 1945. He is gaunt and feeble, with a number tattooed on his forearm. In another scene, he stumbles out of the gloom into 1957, looking healthier and sporting a modest rockabilly haircut. Trends may change but homophobia never falls out of fashion.
“We were trying to find a form that expresses the world he is living in,” Meise says of the script he wrote with his regular collaborator, Thomas Reider. Hans’s life is like a prison. He can’t be someone else, he can’t do time and turn into a ‘better’ person. The punishment doesn’t do anything to him because he is immediately persecuted again. Even being on the outside is a prison. That’s how we arrived at our structure. We wanted to create this feeling that he is trapped in a time loop. Every time he goes back into solitary confinement, in the darkness, he is then spat out somewhere else.”
A large part of the film’s magic can be attributed to the extraordinarily tender Rogowski, and his ability to inhabit Hans at different points in his life. “There was one moment where we had to switch overnight between shooting the 1950s and the 1940s,” says Meise. “I saw Franz walk up the stairs and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, it’s a completely different man’. 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 went on there. We were not partying, put it that way. A studio would have been more comfortable but, on the other hand, limitations are good. You don’t have too many options for where to put the camera, or what to point it at, and that gives room for creativity.” He could be describing Hans, who must be wily and resourceful if he is to get what he wants. In one scene, he conspires with a fellow inmate to disobey the prison guards during the nightly head count, so that they will 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 had been prosecuted or imprisoned under Paragraph 175. “We approached some of them in a gay cafe in Vienna. It turned out most of them had experiences with the law. One man started telling us that he spent time in prison in the 1960s. His partner of him of 40 years, who was sitting next to him, said, ‘You never told me that!’ It was such a taboo for the older generation.” He stares out of the window. “I hope they’ve seen the film,” he says softly.
A motif of concealment persists throughout Great Freedom. Viktor, an amateur tattooist, offers to disguise the number on Hans’s forearm by transforming it into an illustration. After the war, the prison walls get a new coat of paint, and the inmates are put to work unpicking the SS insignia from military uniforms. What’s underneath, though, is less easily eradicated. The emblems of the Third Reich may have been removed but Paragraph 175, in all its Nazi-fortified fervour, was not repeated until 1994.
In 2017, the convictions of 50,000 men were quashed at last. This is a welcome development, though Meise sounds a cautionary note. “You can see it all coming back now in Hungary and Poland,” he says. “There are laws in parts of the US which 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 endangered again.”
As for the film’s title, it has several possible meanings. The literal one is that it is named after a real Berlin club, seen briefly near the end of the film, that sprang up in the early 1970s. Then there is the irony of slapping the title Great Freedom on a movie in which only two scenes take place beyond the prison walls. “For me, it is not ironic,” says Meise. “Hans doesn’t have freedom when he is released from prison, so it refers to what he finds within himself, maybe the greatest kind we have – the freedom of our minds.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism