Few movies have managed to depict rape and its psychological effects on its victims without resorting to dramatic exploitation of its subject. Other times the filmmaker’s message falls flat on its face when trying to address the complexities of the subject because both script and audience have sparse knowledge of the hidden psychological reasons and patterns that purvey, both consciously and subconsciously, in the lives and minds of both perpetrator and victim.
With this in mind, Matthias Glasner’s THE FREE WILL (Der Freie Wille) stands as a challenging window on the subject of rape and abuse without attempting to pontificate on possible answers or challenging societies reactions to the subjects. The film begins with a shot of a man standing atop the roof of a building staring out to sea (the ocean providing a metaphor for both introspection and encapsulating the loneliness of the film’s central protagonists). Suddenly someone off-screen shouts “Theo!” As the camera angle switches from the subdued shot of man and landscape to zoom in on the man’s features, scarred, and tortured, his mouth dragging on a cigarette, the director manages to convey both the turmoil that pervades the soul of the character. Theo (Jürgen Vogel) reluctantly returns to his job as a dishwasher but angered by the blasé attitude of his young co-workers, Theo’s rage explodes, and he smashes a rack of glasses before storming out of the restaurant and speeds off in his car for the countryside. Passing a young woman on her bicycle, Theo drives past and parks his car further along the highway in wait for her. When she is bound and blindfolded and then subjected to the full wrath of Theo’s anger, the assault is brutal and culminates in the woman’s rape and further horrendous injuries as she tries to escape with her bonds still in place.
With his anger subsiding, Theo finds the woman and as the realization of the shocking extent of her injuries dawns on him he returns to his car for a first aid box to tend her wounds, but she has somehow managed to crawl away and alert passers by who immediately surround Theo’s car forcing him to make his escape in the undergrowth. With torchlight to help them, the assembled crowd discover Theo and subject him to a vicious beating.
The film moves forward nine years and Theo is released from a psychiatric institute having been assessed as safe to return to society. He is given living quarters in a half-way house shared by other offenders and introduced to house mentor Sascha (Andre Hennicke) who coldly informs Theo “This isn’t going to be easy” and that many consider that the outside is the “door to hell”.
And, hell, it proves as Theo struggles to keep his inner demons in check in which outside life is accompanied with the lure of sexual activity everywhere. Theo fears women for the raw emotions they stir within him. At first, Theo attempts to quell his dark responses by a regime that incorporates martial arts and vigorous workouts at the gym with a heady mix of pornography and masturbation, but as his contact with women increases Theo’s inner desires compel him to attempt to conquer his demons via a normal relationship.
Theo starts work at a printing company and is introduced to the boss’s teenage daughter, Nettie (Sabine Timoteo), who, like Theo is busy fighting her own inner demons as she has suffered abuse at the hands of her father, whom she still loves, and is also preparing a new life for herself by finally moving out of her father’s home in an attempt to bring her own cycle of suffering to an end. Drawn to the older man, yet fearful of the abuse that love can bring, Nettie finds herself sucked into a fragile relationship with Theo that threatens turmoil at every turn.
Glasner’s direction never relents with the suspense, and we are aware that Theo’s impulsive anger might spill over at any point. With a clever use of camera to provide mise en scène, syntactic use of colour, image as metaphor, combines with exceptional performances from co-writer Vogel and Timoteo, THE FREE WILL succeeds as both social commentary and high-art thriller and at the same time poses philosophical questions relating to freedom and free will. The film’s title itself is an ironic one – a statement in negative – for the film’s denouement reveals that Theo is not able to operate outside the conditioning of his own affliction, he is ultimately unable to control his sexual responses despite the fact that he is fully aware of its horrendous implications.
Engaging and disturbing by turn THE FREE WILL is a film that will stay with viewers for long after the final credits have rolled and proves essential viewing for those who enjoy European art cinema that pulls no punches.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Matthias Glasner
German with English subtitles< / 2006 / 163 minutes / Colour
Region 1 / PNTSC
A Benten Films DVD
THE FREE WILL