The Free Will Review
Showing themselves to be more than a speciality label for American indie and mumblecore filmmaking, Benten Pictures first international cinema release on DVD is no less cutting-edge in the world of modern filmmaking. The winner of a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Matthias Glasner’s 2007 film courageously tries to find compassion, tenderness and understanding in its low-budget depiction of a convicted serial rapist.
The Free Will (Der Freie Wille) however in no way tries to make light of the actions of Theo Stöler (Jürgen Vogel), showing with raw brutality the terrifying impact of his rape of a young girl in the film’s opening scenes. It’s essential however for Theo’s violent nature to be made clear right from the start, and made with such force that you never forget what the man is capable of, even ten years later when he is released back into society after psychotherapy and careful monitoring of his behaviour. No-one, least of all the viewer, is under any illusions that rehabilitation is going to be easy for the violent sex offender, but re-entering a society that in the ten years he has been locked up has become much more permissive, with sexuality flaunted from billboards and in the provocative clothing of very young girls on the street, makes it even more of a challenge for Theo.
Theo tries to stick to a strict exercise regime that he has doubtless been encouraged to undertake as part of his therapy, helping him find a focus for his energies, and he is even assisted in finding work at a printing firm. Inevitably – as is natural in human nature – his life starts to fall into a regular pattern. Unfortunately behavioural patterns are dangerous for a man like Theo, who eventually starts to find his actions becoming obsessive and even predatory, stalking several women he encounters in everyday situations at a restaurant or at a bus stop. The danger of re-offending is high, but while Theo has a friend to turn to, initially through Sascha (André Hennicke), a young man assigned to guide him through his rehabilitation, and then Nettie (Sabine Timoteo), the daughter of the owner of the printing press where he works – Theo is only just about able to keep his inner demons under control. When Sascha leaves for Berlin however, and then Nettie goes to Belgium to work in a chocolate factory, Theo starts to find it all too much to handle alone.
The Free Will deals with the predominance of sexuality and violence in modern society, in the need to express oneself sexually and the need to let out aggression, but examines the dangers when both are taken to extremes, and the problems that arise when the two are combined. The film finds more than one way to show this, not only through the obvious troubles that arise in a person like Theo, who is unable to relate to one without the other, but also in the troubled background of Nettie, whose problems with men are never made completely explicit, but there is enough implied in her hatred of men for you to conclude that she has been the victim of sexual abuse. If as a viewer you find it difficult to relate to Theo – and the film never makes it easy for you, always seeking to portray his crimes in a highly realistic light – through Nettie’s similar emotional and social behavioural problems (and a simply delightful performance from Sabine Timoteo), the viewer can find a way to get to the human characteristics that lie within both of them.
The dark subject matter and the social environment might suggest a bleak middle-European treatment along the lines of the Austrian filmmakers Ulrich Sedl (Dog Days, Import/Export) or even Michael Haneke (The Piano Teacher), but The Free Will has neither the structural documentary realism of Sedl nor the moralistic lecturing of Haneke, the director Matthias Glasner finding rather his own way of telling the story in a manner that seems more natural to the everyday pace and rhythm of life. Consequently, the low-budget, DV-shot film may not always flow in a conventionally cinematic manner or appear to be the most stylishly photographed of films – the switching of the narrative from Theo to Nettie after 35 minutes is a little bit jarring, rather too obviously revealing its intention to eventually bring both threads and characters together – but in a way it does seem to match the interiorised separate realities of each of these two intriguing characters and the awkwardness that lies between them.
The relationship that develops between them then is unconventional and certainly sometimes very uncomfortable, both of them being uncommunicative, carrying inside a ball of deep untouchable hatred for the world and for their circumstances. Certainly the film hits all the expected dramatic and emotional points, from pain and brutality to compassion and tenderness, but never in a conventional manner. With a lack of visual hooks and not a great deal of dialogue, much then rests on the performance of these two actors to carry two troubled characters through the length of an almost three-hour film. While The Free Will is anything but light and easy viewing, the performers and the treatment make that difficult journey to the centre of the pain worthwhile, the desperation of the ending hitting just as hard as the film’s shocking beginning.
The Free Will is released in the USA by Benten Films. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in NTSC format, and is encoded for Region 1.
There seems to be some confusion about the aspect ratio for the film, with Benten’s website listing it as 1.66:1, and the cover of the DVD itself stating 2.35:1. In reality, as would probably be expected for a DV shot movie, the actual ratio here of 1.75:1 is undoubtedly the correct one. (The film’s Theatrical Trailer is shown at 2.35:1, however the image is clearly stretched). The image is presented anamorphically and it looks probably about as good as the source materials allow, the tones desaturated to match the cold, bleak emotional state of the characters and their environment. There are only minor flaws and they are so small as to be almost unnoticeable. Some compression artefacts may be visible, as well as motion blurring, the image seeming to judder slightly on one or two occasions when there are slow movements. These could be a consequence of standards conversion, or may even be inherent within the source material to some extent, since the image does not appear to be high-definition. Consequently it can often appear quite soft, but again, much of this could be down to the low-lighting of the majority of scenes in the film. Overall, it’s an excellent transfer with no major flaws, one that fully conveys the tone of the film.
Again, there is some disparity between the listed specifications and the actual sound mix, which is not the Dolby Digital 5.1 listed on the cover, but Dolby Digital 2.0. In any event, it’s more than adequate for the limited demands of a low-budget digital film, the well-recorded sound remaining clear and correctly toned throughout.
English subtitles are provided and are optional. The font thankfully is white (I dread to think what a yellow typeface would do to the carefully gradated colour scheme here), and it is generally quite clear, remaining distinct from the picture, though it is a little bit jagged.
There is not an abundance of extra features this time around, but for such a film, it’s questionable whether any are even really necessary. A behind-the-scenes making-of feature would feel quite inappropriate for a film with such a serious subject matter. What is included, and certainly of interest though by no means essential, is the full-length Commentary by director Matthias Glasner and lead actor and co-writer Jürgen Vogel. It provides useful information on the fact that the film was made chronologically and that although fully scripted, scenes were left open enough so that the director could achieve a balance between planned drama and intuitive filming on the day. There are some brief silent passages and occasions where the director and actor refer to the dialogue or laugh at certain lines. Since the commentary is in German and subtitled on a separate track, unless you speak German, you’ll have to flip between subtitles to catch what they are talking about. The film’s German Theatrical Trailer (1:53) is included and, as noted above, is shown stretched to 2.35:1. It is not subtitled, but the film’s intent and dark subject matter is clearly apparent. A full-colour illustrated booklet with an essay on the film by Time Out New York critic David Fear.
A slow, almost three-hour long film, with minimal dialogue that gives little expression of internal torments endured by a multiple rapist in his attempt to be rehabilitated into society, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Free Will could be a bit of a bleak slog. Surprisingly however, the initial shock of the film’s opening sequence out of the way, Matthias Glasner manages to engage the viewer fully in the predicament of his characters, retaining a sense of mounting dread that the horror could arise again at any moment by not kidding anyone about the reality of situation, but also finding genuine human tenderness in their twisted personalities. It’s good to see the US indie label Benten Films extend the range of their catalogue into foreign-language cinema, and their presentation of this film is as strong as we have come to expect from their DVD releases of domestic films.
A video clip of the The Free Will can be viewed on the Benten Films web-site.
Last updated: 18/04/2018 23:16:14