The Free Will, a German-language production from director Matthias Glasner, quite deservedly won a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and has gone on to wow audiences around the globe. Thought-provoking and intellectually satisfying, it is complex and engrossing without being over-acted or over-produced. Excellent casting, acting, writing and direction are wrapped into a very satisfying movie. Jürgen Vogel and Sabine Timoteo play Theo and Nettie, with a top notch supporting cast.
The film opens with Theo, the central character, washing dishes in a school cafeteria, getting angrier with each passing second because the two students who are supposed to be helping him are goofing off, talking to a woman. He seems to direct his anger towards her, then loses it and shoves the two boys around, and of course is fired.
Still angry when he leaves the school, he sees a girl cycling and his rage is reignited. Theo brutally rapes the girl, and is caught and sent to a psychiatric hospital for more than nine years. These events set the stage for the rest of the movie, which begins with Theo’s release hearing. He’s released to a halfway house, the door of which the other residents call “the gate to hell.” The remainder of the movie shows us in violent, graphic detail just what kind of personal hell Theo must endure.
Theo’s release begins on an upbeat note, though, with his case worker finding him a job at a printer's shop. The film emphasizes Theo’s determination to make a success of his opportunity. He spends his days working hard, his nights working out even harder, sometimes in his room at the halfway house, sometimes at a dojo. Late at night, while he’s home alone, he watches porno movies and masturbates, all of this in apparent pursuit of physical exhaustion and attempted suppression of a hard-to-control sex drive mixed with his hatred of women.
One day Theo meets the boss’s daughter, Nettie, who happens to be visiting her father. Another chance meeting, this time in a grocery store, where Nettie has forgotten to bring money, leads to an arranged meeting so that she can pay Theo back. Theo and Nettie are both damaged goods, psychologically, and their discomfort with each other is painfully evident. At one point Nettie admits she doesn’t care much for men. Theo replies that he doesn’t care much for women. They both pay their checks and Theo follows her outside, where Nettie turns on him, full of venom, accusing him of using that statement as a clumsy attempt to get her into bed. He calmly replies to the effect that it’s not a line, it’s how he feels. He shrugs and calmly walks away.
Days later, Nettie calls to apologize and a tenuous, sometimes clumsy friendship begins. Nettie has to go to Belgium for an internship in connection with her job, causing Theo to revert to his demon-fighting, except more so. In a late night, drunken phone call to a counselor, Theo admits to his struggle and that he’s losing the battle. He confesses his trouble with women, that he’s no longer excited by them in the flesh. It’s only later, he admits, when he’s alone that he becomes aroused.
Theo’s demons threaten to overpower him, in spite of his and Nettie’s deepening friendship. One night he follows a shop girl to her apartment house, then waits on the landing until she’s asleep. He breaks into her apartment and creeps into her bedroom, uncovers her and watches her sleeping for a few seconds. We can see the struggle he’s undergoing within himself. He reaches over and lays his hand gently on the girl’s buttocks for a moment. Then he stands back up and turns slightly, which ends the scene. We’re left unsure what happened after the slight turn. Did he simply walk away? Did he rape her? Did he kill her?
Upon returning to her hotel in Belgium, Nettie spots Theo sitting calmly in the bar. An even more uncomfortable and sometimes clumsy love affair ensues. The couple returns to Germany, moving in together and clearly enjoying one another. Nettie calls home one evening to let Theo know she’ll be late because of a going away party for a coworker, and it’s clear watching Theo’s face the turmoil that begins developing within. He stews and boils until he decides to go to the bar where the party is being held. He waits outside, simply watching the group inside, his mind clearly working overtime. He leaves and begins pacing the city aimlessly, obviously very upset and confused.
At some point he stops walking, and the ensuing events make it clear that Theo is losing his struggle. When he arrives back at the apartment, his breakdown becomes complete. It was at this late point in the movie when I suddenly realized that I’d been watching him steadily and progressively self-destruct. It seemed that the intent of director Glasner was to create the illusion of Theo addressing and overcoming his demons, while it’s actually a losing battle he’s been fighting.
The remainder of the film deal with Theo’s preparations for the inevitable, and how he deals with Nettie. It’s both quite frustrating and emotional for Nettie, and causes both frustration and despondence for Theo. These final scenes bring everything to a conclusion, but one which is unsettlingly final and highly emotional for the viewer as well.
The Free Will is a psychological study of a man crumbling as we watch. Despite both main characters (as well as some others in the cast) being damaged goods, at the same time they’re very likeable and appeal to the viewer's emotions. It’s not a pleasant sight to watch their disintegration, particularly when I found myself rooting for the couple throughout the film. This film has won many well-deserved awards, including Best Actor for Vogel at both the Tribeca and Chicago film festivals.