Any early concern that the film is about to turn into some sort of gay Austrian prison version of “Green Book,” about a fanatic who reforms after spending time with a holy representative of the Other, fades when you get to know people and see how they act towards each other and their environment. Viktor and Hans use their shared dexterity with needles and access (Viktor is a junkie, while Hans works in the prison sweatshop) to make a homemade tattoo kit which Viktor uses to roughly erase camp numbers of concentration of Hans. Their team to hide evidence of this act of decency binds them, pitting them against prison guards who are determined to punish any display of individuality or elemental empathy by beating prisoners with batons and locking them inside. isolation (a misery conveyed by briefly plunging viewers into absolute darkness, which is surely more powerful in a movie theater than at home where you are surrounded by reminders that at least you, the viewer, will good).
The film’s other major relationship, between Hans and a young inmate, Leo (Anton von Lucke), is equally touching if much less strained, sometimes bordering on a romantic love affair that occurs in one of the worst places imaginable. It is in these scenes that “Great Freedom” is most imaginative, showing how men recognize and communicate their desire for each other and act accordingly in ways that satisfy their need for sex and partnership while minimizing the risks that the authorities catch up with. The incarcerated person’s acquired skill in sending coded messages and finding secret spaces to break free manifests itself in furtive conversations, the concoction and hatching of plans, and fleeting moments of happiness that are all the more inspiring as ‘they were conceived in an artificial hell. .
Through it all, Rogowski is the audience’s guide and surrogate, sometimes a terrified newbie and other times a shriveled lifer, always seeming to come to terms with the everyday and try to find peace and love in it, despite the constant reminders that Hans Corps is owned by the state. Even when he finds a way to make his own use of it, the resulting moments of happiness take place on borrowed time.
It’s not easy to convey the energy that Rogowski does here (essentially, battered but indestructible childlike innocence and pure romantic yearning) without getting soggy and cheesy. How is it? Mainly by never doing more than it needs to communicate what we need to know. Rogowski brings the audience to him, but never seems shy or restrained.
The fact that the viewer can fully understand all aspects of Hans’ complex psychology after doing minimal effort syncs well with the main message of Hans and Viktor’s relationship, which is that you don’t have to anything you can to find common ground with another person, no matter how alien they seem to your own sensibilities. Just acknowledge them as a human being doing their best, one day at a time.