Austria, Germany, 2021
Directed by Sebastian Meise
With Franz Rogowski (Hans Hoffmann), Georg Friedrich (Viktor), Anton von Lucke (Leo), Thomas Penn (Oskar)
Year 1968 may be related for many to cobblestones thrown into the air and tear gas sweeping the streets, a great, hectic, unforgettable moment in counter-culture in the world and among the youth, with revolution in the air, and revolutionary ideas broaching every topic, every aspects of life, including sex.
To Hans Hoffmann, it is just the year he is tried and sent to jail for having sex in a public space (a restroom of an unspecified place) with other men. He has been found guilty of Article 175 of the German penal code, and the sentence is 18 months in the clink. That irks him, of course, and the camera shows his face in close-up, as he listens to the sentencing, struggling to remain stolid even as a bitter irony seems to creep under his gaze and lips, although the outcome cannot come as a complete surprise to a young man who clearly yearns for sex, and loves it, and knows the risks. That comes as a greater shock for the audience of his story, more than half a century later. That, as the world was fast changing, or trying to, the notionally liberal West Germany was clamping down on gay sex relying on a law it inherited from the 19th century, and carefully kept, and misused, by the Third Reich, cannot but cause dismay and disbelief. But the titles sequence makes this unjust work of justice even more appalling: poor footage of an amateur camera hidden in an ideal position show the deeds that would send Hans Hoffmann into jail – that is, he has been caught by a secret surveillance, a spying worthy of the worst regimes, and, in a troubling twist, it is those stolen and damning pictures, which help the prosecution win its case, interspersed with the black screen where the white titles are rolled on that bring the audience right in the proceedings of the trial introducing the lead character and starting the film’s narrative. Moving images can be used to betray the most moving impulse, the quest for love, and doom the individual to the darkness of the prison.
Full darkness does hog the silver screen more that once – a restive, awkward guy, Hans Hoffmann ends up fast in a solitary confinement cell. Matches and cigarettes, sent by a pal, bring some fickle, short-lived light in the clink, magnificent chiaroscuro on the spirited, poetic face of Hans, but at one point, suddenly, a far gaunter, sadder, younger Hans appears: darkness ushers in a flashback, and this smooth, stunning trick would be used later in the “Grosse Freiheit – Great Freedom”. Out of this darkness, it is a whole life of misery, always stepping in and out of jail because of gay sex, that gets reconstructed. Hans has been in the same jail in 1945, completing the sentence that have led him to a concentration camp – that episode is even more shocking that what has been before exposed, and the cell companion of Hans feels rightly astonished and horrified: here is a young gay forced to stay in jail under the watch of an occupying military for the remainder of a sentence decided by the Nazi justice, even if the barbaric regime has fallen, heartbreaking evidence of how harsh and deep-rooted state homophobia was. Hans comes back to this prison in 1957, and thus the year 1968 is the third time Hans is behind the same bars, in less than fifteen years, which tells a lot about both how relentless the law enforcement is about cracking down on gays and how obstinate, resilient, and proud Hans is.
Both in 1957 and 1968 Hans finds out a lover is also in jail. In 1968, it is one of the men shot by the candid camera, a young teacher named Leo; in 1957, it was actually the young man he was trying to live with in couple, his dear partner Oskar. Both times, he tries to stand by the lover, to have sex with him, to imagine a future life with him. Both times his risky, daring efforts are watched by the criminal who was forced to share his cell with him in 1945, Viktor. Viktor turns out to be the strongest link between the various parts of the prison life of Hans, and to give in a bold way a meaning to Hans’ adventures. A drug addict sentenced for homicide, he first resented deeply to sleep next to a gay, but quickly tried to be more respectful, and grows as years go by friendlier, feeling more sympathy for a person he still thinks has an abnormal sexuality. But in 1969 he is also older and weaker, and unexpectedly Hans proves to be the help he needs to carry on.
In a strange, imperfect way, and the behaviors of the prison wardens seem to mirror and substantiate the point, Viktor’s evolution reflects the slow change of mind of the wider society: a degree of contempt gets mellowed by a silent, haughty intolerance which cannot always remains deaf and blind – the suicide of Oskar who does not think he can manage to survive as a gay man in an intolerant society clearly upsets the wardens and prompts Viktor to display compassion in a brazen, incredible manner – and then is drowned by a seeming indifference, and by the pull of social change: the greatest shock Hans experiences, so huge the scene is played in relative silence, without any melodramatic flourish, quietly highlighting the solemnity of the moment, comes when he notices on the desk of a warden a gaudy cover of the news magazine Der Spiegel and reads the headlines, reporting in grand fashion the abolition of Article 175 in 1969.
In an even more surprising, audacious way, Viktor comes to symbolize a romantic quest that the risks of the law and the weakness of the men have made so difficult for Hans. The man who gets released in 1970 can discover, with amazement and bafflement a gay scene where sex can be experienced freely, without qualms and without inhibition. But Hans chooses not to take part in orgies, but instead to break in a jeweler’s shop: there is someone, and something else, waiting for him.
This may not be the most compelling part of Hans’ narrative arc. It recycled too obviously, too readily the cliched opposition between the gay call for lust and the rival need for romanticism, even of the maudlin kind. But the job is ingeniously carried out through the tropes of the prison movie genre, featuring jailbirds learning to tame each other and striking up a special bond that can lead them to remarkable personal outcomes – though in this case there is no jailbreak, but ironically the opposite. The way Hans’ stays in the prison cells and that solitary confinement clink are explored and linked, through the play between darkness and the light of a match, or of a memory, is really impressive, the film tinkering with the genre to grab powerfully the attention, building a sense of time and emotion that is rather precious, and in any way smart and appealing – a careful, gritty reconstruction of what the life in prison has been in those different eras helps of course, and the degree of realism is searing. And true to the genre, it revolves around truly strong, and strongly built, characters, who come to life naturally, genuinely thanks to fine performances, though in the case of actor Franz Rogowski acting gets even superb, flawless in tone and in attitude.