Grosse Freiheit (Great Freedom) is the name of the Fassbinder-ish gay bar in this film with a dungeon-style sex club beneath: director and co-writer Sebastian Meise leaves it to us to gauge the exact level of irony in his title. It is visited by Hans, to whom 36-year-old German actor Franz Rogowski brings his typically intense, coiled and opaque personality. It is 1969, just after the West German government has decriminalised gay sex. Hans, recently out of jail for this crime, wanders the subterranean sex-filled corridors with an unfathomable smile. Perhaps he sees their resemblance to prison, whose interiors themselves resemble the public lavatories where Hans broke the law, that prison to which lifer Hans had an institutionalised loyalty, part of the lost generations of gay men whose entire lives were pointlessly consumed.
Great Freedom is a formidably intelligent and well-acted prison movie and also a love story – or perhaps a paradoxically platonic bromance, stretching from the end of the second world war to the moon landing. Hans had been sent to the concentration camps in wartime and in 1945 finds himself back in prison with his number tattooed on his arm. Throughout the film, his civilian existence – his non-prison life – is mostly a mystery. We don’t know about his family or whatever jobs he’s been (briefly) doing. But we do know that he had a love affair with Oskar (Thomas Prenn) who is in prison with him in the 1950s. In the 60s, Hans has a prison moment with Leo (Anton von Lucke), the young teacher arrested with him in the toilet, and for whom Hans makes a self-sacrificial gesture to secure his freedom.
Hans’s real relationship is with his cellmate, a stolid straight man called Viktor (Georg Friedrich), like Hans a recidivist veteran of the system who is initially overwhelmed with homophobic disgust at Hans, but then feels compassion on seeing his tattoo. As their friendship develops, Viktor (after glumly pondering his collection of straight porn) gruffly asks if Hans might, on what both men understand to be a strictly prison basis, attend to his personal needs. Poignantly, in fact tragically, both Viktor and Hans have a sense of themselves which is frozen in the 1940s: prison is for them their only life, certainly their only erotic life. Yet freedom, of a kind, has been available from within.
• Great Freedom is released on 11 March in cinemas.