Free Fall

Wolfe Video,

Stephan Lacant

Stephan Lacant,
Karsten Dahlem

Hanno Koffler,
Max Riemelt,
Katharina Schüttler,
Oliver Bröcker,
Stephanie Schönfeld,
Shenja Lacher

Unrated, 100 minutes

Men In Uniform
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online March, 2014

The acclaimed 2013 film, Free Fall (Freier Fall) has been called Germany’s answer to Brokeback Mountain. It’s a great (if over-used) soundbite but, in this case, it’s mostly true. Stephan Lacant’s film touches on themes of masculinity, the closet, adultery, bisexuality and institutionalized homophobia. Like the Ang Lee classic, Free Fall explores the taboo attraction between two men in a traditionally testosterone setting. Instead of being cowboys, Marc and Kay are two rookie policemen. Amping up the macho factor another notch, they’re training for the riot police.

Marc Borgmann (Hanno Koffler) has almost everything going for him. He’s in training to be a cop like his older brother and their father before them. He and his girl friend, Bettina (Katharina Schüttler), are expecting a child. The young couple seems to be in love but it’s certainly worth noting that they are not married. Marc’s parents have bought them the house next door. This is the source of some tension, but there’s also something else eating away at Marc.

That would be his roommate at the academy, Kay Engel (Max Riemelt). Kay marches to a different drummer and he gets under Marc’s skin. When some rough-housing on the training field lands both of them in hot water, Kay tries to make things up to Marc by being his running coach. Kay seems a bit rebellious for a cop. “Have you ever heard of infiltrating the system?” he asks, while rolling a joint in the woods. Kay gives a shotgun to Marc and their lips “accidentally” touch. Marc pulls back and now the tension between them is most definitely sexual. 

It’s clear that Kay is attracted to Marc - in fact, he’s almost stalking him. Marc, at this point, is an enigma. He makes a point of going home to have sex with his girl after the incident in the woods, but there is also no doubt that he is troubled. (Kay tells Marc to “breathe” when they run together, and later Marc will tell Bettina that he is suffocating). It all comes to a head one rainy afternoon when Kay chases after his running partner in the forest. Catching up, he grabs Marc and literally forces himself on him. Marc looks horrified, and then he seems to submit to the kiss as if he has no choice. After Kay abruptly jerks him off, Marc panics and, pulling his hoodie over his head, runs away.

The training, luckily, seems to be over and he can go back to his middle class life and be happy again. Not quite. Marc’s relief vanishes when Kay transfers to his new unit. “What are you doing here?” Marc asks. Kay replies: “Glad to see you too.” Oddly, Marc still hasn’t told him about his girl friend and his impending parenthood, and Kay isn’t happy when he finds out. (When Bettina asks who Kay is, Marc says that he annoyed him back at the academy.) The aggression in phys. ed. class returns. And then, one day, Marc is late for Bettina’s birthing class because he’s fucking Kay against the side of his car in the pouring rain.

We knew it was coming, it was just a mater of when. So far, we’ve watched these guys express intimacy only through pure animal lust. More tender expressions of love soon follow - affectionate kissing with lots of tongue, undoing the macho posturing that went on before. Marc, against his better judgment, embarks on a turbulent affair.  His behavior grows more reckless and his life free falls out of control. Kay expects Marc to tell Bettina but it’s obvious that he has no intention of doing so. While enjoying the best of both his worlds, Marc fails to notice that Kay has fallen in love with him. Everything changes when Marc’s son is born. His efforts to explain to his jealous boy friend that he is a father now, with responsibilities, are futile. Their argument escalates, becomes violent, and climaxes with Marc’s frustrated outburst that he’s not gay.

Of course the truth comes out, otherwise there would be no third act. This will give Bettina the opportunity to ask, quite angrily, what is he if he’s not gay. (Unlike many other films, this one doesn’t ignore, or make light of, the betrayed woman’s point of view when everything goes to hell.) None of this goes over well, either at home or at the police station. I won’t give away what happens in Act III but don’t expect a happy ending. Koffler and Riemelt generate the required heat as the clandestine lovers but, when our boys aren't having sex, much of what happens is a lot darker than most modern queer films. Free Fall is a satisfying and expertly told story with enough drama to fill an opera.

What makes this one stand apart from similar faire is the unusually volatile dynamic between the two men.  There’s no beating around the bush here, Kay definitely acts as a predator in his initial dealings with Marc. It is unclear if he indeed has awakened desires in Marc that were always there, but it is clear his actions have gone way beyond mere teasing and flirtation. When Kay chases him in the woods, that first kiss is more akin to a rape than a seduction. My own reaction to the scene was complicated. Kay might have sensed a vibe in his running partner, and he might have helped him find and accept his true self, but this still doesn’t excuse the way he forces himself on Marc in the forest. He is hardly the gallant gentleman typical of most romantic movies but that makes him more interesting.

Marc is being torn apart by the choice he’s suddenly been given between domesticity and adventure. Faced with the responsibilities of fatherhood and having to live up to the expectations of the parents living next door... maybe a carefree life filled with excitement and danger is suddenly more appealing. I suppose that those annoying Family Councils could watch Free Fall and view it as proof that homosexuality is a destructive force but the effect on his “marriage” would still be the same if he was seeing another woman instead of a man. (This is, in fact, what Bettina first suspects.) Like Brokeback Mountain, this is a film about how the closet effects everyone. Mark may be the central character but we are painfully aware of how the others are feeling too. When Marc says, “Did I ask you to fuck up my life?” Kay responds with “Did I ask you to suck my cock?” In one of the film’s most unsetting scenes, a betrayed Bettina, fully clothed, seizes Marc from behind in the shower and demands to know how he really likes it. Collapsing in tears, she laments that she can’t even be “properly jealous.”

Because his actions have devastating consequences for each of his lovers, Marc ultimately provokes both sympathy and scorn. His duality is often conveyed by the cinematography – look for an artistic use of mirrors. His habit of wearing hoodies is also an apt visual metaphor for the way that he hides his true nature. Relationships, gay or straight, can be messy and Free Fall nails this simple truth on the head. It is an exquisitely crafted film, well photographed and acted. The script covers a lot of ground, yet I wish there was more backstory about the two men; this would have made the movie an even richer experience than it already is.

Free Fall emerges as an intense and bleak film but stories like this, regrettably, still need to be told. The unprecedented strides that the gay community has achieved over the past decade have made it possible for queer filmmakers to tell issue-free love stories. But look at what is happening in Russia, the Middle East and in many parts of Africa - to use the most extreme examples - and it is clear that widespread homophobia still exists. At this writing, civil unions are recognized in Germany, workplace discrimination is illegal, and gays can serve in the military. Free Fall offers a glimpse into gay life in Germany and it doesn't look a lot different from the situation here in the U.S.A. The film’s police sergeant might insist that bigotry will not be tolerated in his unit but that doesn’t mean that the cops under his command will listen. To be honest, the conclusion is perhaps a bit more tragic than it needed to be but its final shot – which mirrors the film’s first image with one subtle difference - suggests that Mark has accepted the truth about himself and is moving on. There is passion and pathos in Free Fall, and the viewer will never forget it.