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.