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At the Viennale 2021, director Sebastian Meise presented his feature film Great Freedom, chosen by Austria as a candidate for the Oscars 2022. Cinema Austriaco had the opportunity to have a chat with him and learn more about his film and his career. Interview by Marina Pavido.

Marina Pavido: How did the idea of making Great Freedom come about?

Sebastian Meise: There are documents that testify how some people, once freed from concentration camps, were sent directly to prison. When my team and I became aware of this, we found it unbelievable and started researching to find out what was behind it. For me it was particularly surprising. I knew very well that at one time homosexuality was something forbidden, but I did not know how long this prohibition had lasted. It was something that touched me deeply and that I wanted to further research.

M. P.: The film mainly depicts a beautiful love story, but it also deals with very topical issues. How important do you think it is today to do politics through a film?

S.M.: First of all, I believe that a film should not primarily have political aims, I believe that a film can hardly lead to important political changes. However, there are universal stories. In this case, the starting point is the life of homosexuals in wartime. It starts from this historical context, but then the story focuses on these two men who meet in a kind of dystopian world and develop a relationship in a world where it is practically impossible for it to exist.

M. P.: The protagonists Hans (played by Franz Rogowski) and Viktor (Georg Friedrich) initially seem very different from each other. How were their characters developed?

S. M.: The characters developed almost by themselves. The character of Hans came about as a result of several encounters with people who went through the same experiences as him. These were people we met during our research and who, just like Hans, had been in prison several times. Hence the idea of his relationship with Viktor: Viktor is a man Hans often meets during his time in prison, he is a figure who recurs frequently during his life in prison. Their story came out almost naturally and we ourselves were almost surprised what could happen between them over the years (laughs).

M. P.: There are certain objects that play a rather important role in the film, such as a packet of cigarettes. How do such objects manage to communicate what the two characters do not say to each other?

S. M.: In this case it is not simply a matter of film language. It is something that they both do not really need, but it is nevertheless something that is there at that moment and that is employed to create a contact between them. What I find most moving in this story is that, in fact, their relationship is something that is difficult to define. Even in real life you often meet people with whom you establish a relationship that is difficult to define or perhaps cannot be defined.

M. P.: The location where the story takes place could almost be defined as a non-place. You, however, shot the film in a real prison. What were the main difficulties during filming?

S. M.: It was an empty prison, so anyway we had a lot of space available, although the cells were very narrow and in some cases it could be complicated to shoot scenes there. And then there was also the problem that it was very cold in winter. However, at the same time, there were other spaces that were quite large. In general, however, I really liked the atmosphere within the crew. When you are inside a prison, where lots and lots of stories have taken place, there is still a special atmosphere, even though it is a film set. In any case, we often talked about what those who had been there before us had experienced. However, I believe that these real locations can give the whole film an even more realistic character, although even simply with post production you can give the film the effect you want.

M. P.: Freedom is something that paradoxically can also be found inside a prison. How much freedom does one have, however, when one wants to make a film?

S. M.: Of course, the greatest difficulty lies in finding funding. But art, in general, does not always manage to be ‘free’. Lars von Trier himself, for example, has always looked for ways to make art production as free as possible. Yet I think it is important to have limits, because sometimes, paradoxically, when you have too much freedom you feel lost.

M. P.: Let’s talk about your career. When did you realise you wanted to be a director?

S. M.: Very, very late (laughs). Initially, I wanted to become a musician, but that didn’t work out. Then I wanted to be a painter, but that didn’t work out either. Then I said to myself: you should become a director (laughs). But maybe I already had the feeling that these two ‘half-talents’ could lead to a bigger talent. So I took the exam to enter the Filmakademie and it finally worked out. This was my last attempt, even though being a filmmaker does not have much to do with the professions of musician or painter. Yet, in any case, I believe that a film has a lot to do with music in general, also in terms of the narrative rhythm itself. It could almost be considered a kind of ‘musical composition’.

M. P.: Are there any films or directors that were particularly important during your studies as a filmmaker?

S. M.: Antonioni and Kubrick, for example, were very important to me. When I was a child, then, my father often made me watch Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (at least once a year we had to watch it, usually always at Easter). Fitzcarraldo in my opinion describes very well what it means to make a film: it is about carrying out a gigantic project, but in the end the result is something we never expected.

M. P.: One last question: are you currently working on any new projects?

S. M.: Yes, but at the moment it is still in its infancy and I think it will go on slowly and for a long time yet (laughs).

Info: the page of Sebastian Meise on iMDb