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Unhealthy Appetites

German Director Crafts a Remarkably Human Examination of Fear and Desire

CONTROL: Jürgen Vogel tries to keep it in his pants

By Steve Erickson | Posted 6/25/2008

A pithier English title for director Matthias Glasner's 2006 German drama The Free Will would be The Man Who Hated Women. Its anti-hero, Theo (Jürgen Vogel, who also co-wrote the script), has an enormous sexual appetite, rivaled only by his desire to abuse women. While its first 20 minutes, which include a lengthy, brutal rape scene, suggest leanings toward artsploitation, the rest of the movie, released straight to DVD this week, is sober and completely uninterested in shock value. Glasner isn't exploring this subject to shore up his credentials as a bad boy; he's genuinely fascinated by the process of a rapist seeking to free himself from his worst impulses.

Shortly after The Free Will begins, Theo rapes and beats a woman. Although he blindfolds her, he's caught by the police. He spends nine years confined to a mental hospital. Now a balding, middle-aged man, he's released to a halfway house, where he rooms with other sex offenders. He gets a job with a printer who has a troubled relationship with his daughter Nettie (Sabine Timoteo). The movie strongly hints that her father sexually abused her, depicting her declaring that she never wants to see him again. Although Nettie says that she loathes men, she's strangely attracted to Theo, and the two embark on a relationship. While they share a few moments of tenderness, their affection is marked by mutual distrust, even hatred.

Unlike Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, the only other recent movie with such an extreme depiction of rape, The Free Will summons up memories of classic treatments of addiction. Indeed, a few critics have described Theo as a "sex addict," although the diagnosis fits loosely. (He actually doesn't get laid very often.) The character's libido is so large that a seemingly innocent trip to the mall to buy clothes leads to a frenzied masturbation session. Theo's surrounded, even taunted, by suggestive ads and buxom, scantily clad women. All physical activity seems interchangeable for him--exercise is merely a substitute for sex. As his sexual frustration grows, Theo becomes more devoted to martial arts. He may be a rapist, but to quote the Smiths, he's human and wants to be loved, just like everyone else does.

Glasner's direction combines two of the most common styles in contemporary art cinema: extreme long shots and closeups taken from a shaky handheld camera, favoring the latter. (The Free Will was shot on digital video but transferred to 35mm for theatrical exhibition.) His camera probes and investigates the spaces before it, rather than just observing them. While long and slow, the movie is well-paced. Although far from a thriller, The Free Will creates a great deal of suspense out of the question of whether Theo will succumb to his worst impulses.

Vogel's performance displays a rare level of commitment to an intensely unlikable character--the actor even masturbates for real in front of the camera. The Free Will makes no excuses for Theo, but neither does it portray him as an inhuman monster. Vogel's intensity carries the movie through several long, silent passages. For the most part, the actor's facial expressions and body language alone carry the weight of suggesting a constant state of stimulation and blockage.

And by calling his movie The Free Will, Glasner puts a philosophical gloss on it. Is the title meant ironically? Theo certainly appears to have little free will--he's driven by his desires, even though he can't act on them without hurting other people. In its final third, the movie becomes more interested in Nettie than Theo, as her behavior grows increasingly odd. She follows Theo around, playing an elaborate cat-and-mouse game that includes visiting one of his victims. Drawn to him and marked by an abusive past, she somehow manages to avoid a complete spiral of self-destruction. The Free Will delivers a smackdown to the idea that love can redeem or heal dangerous people, but it's not completely hopeless; in the end, it leaves Nettie to use her will by surveying the damage wrought by Theo on himself and others.

It probably shouldn't be a surprise that a 163-minute character study of a rapist never found theatrical distribution in the United States, and while compelling, The Free Will is hardly a crowd pleaser. Nevertheless, it's one of the most interesting German movies of the past decade; along with promising directors such as Christian Petzold and Valeska Grisebach, it's a sign of life in the long-moribund German cinema.

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