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In 'Great Freedom,' a man is freed from the Nazis, and re-imprisoned for being gay

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

For more than a century, sex between men was a crime in Germany. The law was known as Paragraph 175. It was loosened in 1969, but before then, tens of thousands of people were sent to prison. Some gay men sent to concentration camps in Nazi-era Germany were freed and sent right back to prison after the war ended. That's what happens with Hans Hoffmann in the new movie "Great Freedom." The film won a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year and stars Franz Rogowski as Hans. Franz, welcome to WEEKEND EDITION.

FRANZ ROGOWSKI: Hi.

FLORIDO: What was it about this role of a man imprisoned solely for being gay that appealed to you?

ROGOWSKI: I didn't think that it's a gay story. I thought it's a big love story. So at first sight, I was inspired by the script, by the fact that these characters don't have to explain everything even though they're living through a very complex and difficult time. So they kept their dignity to themselves, they kept their secret. And, yeah, all of this made it very inspiring to me.

FLORIDO: We see your character, Hans, in prison three different times over three different decades, starting in 1945, when Hans is straight out of a concentration camp. He's still very emaciated. How did you change your performance for each of the three decades that he was in prison?

ROGOWSKI: I was trying to break it down into pieces of basic needs and human instincts so that I could find material within the story that I can relate to truthfully because I will never know how it feels like to have been in concentration camp and, you know, being freed by the Allies and then sent straight to prison. That's so extreme that - I think in the '40s, my choice was to just create a physical witness that is real. So I lost a lot of weight. And then in the '50s, he's a very alert and physical guy. He's fighting the system. He's against the rules. And in the '60s, this man somehow arrived. He has - it's a bit weird to say, but he grew up. He found his freedom in accepting the system in the '60s.

FLORIDO: We follow, in the movie, your character's relationships with the different men that he came to love while in prison. And I'd like to ask you about one of those relationships with a prisoner named Viktor, played by Georg Friedrich. At the start of the movie, Viktor is disgusted by Hans's homosexuality. And yet over the course of the movie, they develop this very deep, complex love. Could you talk about how you developed that relationship with Friedrich?

ROGOWSKI: I think the complexity is also based upon the script. As actors, we would just spend time being who we are and getting to know each other in order to trust each other and to truthfully look and search for those emotions. There's a lot of different layers that helped us create this relationship. There's a very physical dimension of Viktor trying to get sober, and he goes through - what's the word - like...

FLORIDO: Withdrawals, yeah.

ROGOWSKI: ...Yes. And going through this, there was a very interesting combination of being vulnerable and intimate. And under other circumstances, they would have never been that close. So there were a lot of very physical themes that one can read as romantic, even, or intimate, but actually, they were not. These were two men trying to survive.

FLORIDO: Well, this movie ends in the late 1960s, when Paragraph 175 - this law - has been loosened, but he doesn't seem as happy as you might expect him to be, does he?

ROGOWSKI: Yeah. I mean, I think happiness is not really what he is looking for in this moment, but there are many ways to read this ending. And I think that's also what I like about it. One could see it as, you know, a circle or something that ends where it starts. One could also see it as a reference towards the concept of freedom, that, actually, we see someone in the end that has overcome the system and overcome those walls and found freedom in relating towards a human being. And therefore, the structural changes don't really matter anymore. In fact, it could be a very romantic ending. You can also see it as an ending of someone who has been broken by the system, but I guess I have a tendency to see things rather optimistic.

FLORIDO: The actor Franz Rogowski, who stars in the new film "Great Freedom." Thanks so much for joining us.

ROGOWSKI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.