Sebastian Meise: “Great Freedom mixes the prison film and the love film”

Meeting with the Austrian director around his film, Un Certain Regard jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, which recalls the extent of the repression of homosexuality in post-war Germany.

First: Great Freedom takes as its starting point this largely unknown historical reality: at the end of the Second World War, the German homosexuals liberated from the camps by the Allies did not return home, they went to prison, because homosexuality was a crime…

Sebastian Meise: Yes. I became aware of this by chance while reading a gay history magazine, published in Hamburg. It was just a footnote, really. I was flabbergasted, I couldn’t believe I didn’t know this story better, it was very disturbing. I realized that I really didn’t know much about Paragraph 175 (Enacted in 1872, Paragraph 175 of the German Civil Code criminalized homosexuality; the total ban on homosexuality in Germany lasted until 1969 – editor’s note). So we started, with my co-screenwriter Thomas Rieder, to do some research. I had no idea of ​​the extent of the persecutions.

How did you go about constructing a screenplay based on this research?

We didn’t want to give a history lesson, or even make a historical film, but to tell a human story with this reality as a backdrop. We conducted many interviews with witnesses, people who had gone to prison because of their homosexuality in the sixties. This research allowed us to create our characters. Our interlocutors, on the whole, had had very similar experiences.

Great Freedom falls within the tradition of the prison film…

I’ve always been a big fan of prison movies. The first was Escape from Alcatraz, which left a strong impression on me when I was a child. I think that if I’m so interested in these films, it’s because one of my biggest fears is precisely to find myself in prison. It’s a recurring nightmare for me! I imagined Great Freedom as a kind of meeting point between the prison film and the love film, I wanted there to be a contrast between the brutality of imprisonment and the quest for love of this man who tries to get closer to the others.

Our review of Great Freedom

What films did you watch to prepare yours?

A song of love by Jean Genet, Kiss of the Spider Woman… These are a bit obvious, but watching other films before making mine helps me above all to determine what I don’t want to do, what doesn’t interest me. In the case of Genet in this case, it is homoeroticism, the fetishism linked to homosexuality. It wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. I’m interested in human nature, what it means to be locked into a system. And I didn’t want a flamboyant homosexual like the one in Kiss of the Spider Woman. On the contrary, I wanted to show ordinary people, who are nothing special. It’s just that they like men, that’s all.

The film shows characters wandering in a kind of endless time maze. Whatever they do, they are condemned to live locked up. In one of the rare scenes of the film which does not take place in prison, you show the backrooms of a gay club, emphasizing, precisely, their prison aesthetics…

It’s something that has always fascinated me. Even today, in the culture of the backrooms, we find all the elements of oppression, the bars, the police paraphernalia, the uniforms, the darkness… One of the first gay clubs which opened in Berlin, at the beginning of the 70s, was called Jail (“Prison”) and there were bars on the counter, through which the bartender passed the beers to the customers. The philosopher Judith Butler has written about this, about how fetishism helps fight oppression. The symbols are flipped, as in a parody. They are no longer synonymous with danger, but with play.

Great Freedom, by Sebastian Meise. With Franz Rogowski, Georg Friedrich, Anton von Lucke… In theaters February 9, 2022.

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