Our first introduction to Theo (Jürgen Vogel) is a scene where he hurls a tray of glasses into a crowd of school children. After that, he then bitterly stomps away and spots a cyclist on the road. He ambushes her, drags her into the fields, and rapes and beats her for 10 agonizing minutes, which should rival Irreversible in its bleak realness. When the woman breaks away, Theo is caught by police whom kick and beat him until the scene fades to black.
When it comes to angst-ridden anti-heros like Theo, The Free Will takes an approach most films don’t have the courage to try, which is making a film without a redemption arc. Theo, a serial rapist, literally begs for one, but the film is too busy painting him as despicable in order to truly challenge the audience to look beyond the surface and feel an ounce of sympathy for him.
After being locked away for nine years in various psychiatric wards, Theo emerges as a changed man, or so he wants to believe. He moves into a group home where he falls into a routine life of working at a print factory, exercising with his housemate Sascha (André Hennicke), taking martial arts classes, and masturbating violently to porn.
All of these are ways he uses to fight his increasing urges, which surround him whenever he leaves the house — the pretty waitress at the cafe, the woman waiting alone at the bus stop, the attractive salesclerk. Whenever Theo thinks he has things under control, there’s something else to tempt him out his safe comfort zone of denial.
The film points this out through obvious symbolisms. One scene of Theo waiting at a bus stop while the image of a steamy Calvin Klein ad lingers in the background is used as the image for the DVD menu. But Theo’s problem seems too psychological to merely point a finger at society. The symbols simply illustrate Theo’s state of mind and how, when surrounded by reality, everything is still distorted to this twisted world view.
After many close encounters, Theo meets Nettie (Sabine Timoteo), his boss’ daughter. Nettie has problems of her own and the film diverts a bit to follow her story. At 27, she’s moving out on her own for the first time, mostly to gain independence from her father (it is implied the two have an unhealthy relationship).
When Theo and Nettie meet at a cafe, she tells him she doesn’t like men, and Theo responds by saying he’s not particularly fond of women, either. At first this seems like some horrible dark romantic comedy gone wrong. (Why they must be perfect for each other!) But the film has a higher opinion of its audience and delves a bit deeper beyond the clichéd story of two damaged people finding each other.
Theo and Nettie bond because they need each other to carry on the facade, the facade that they’re normal citizens of society. When he’s with Nettie, Theo doesn’t have to worry about his urges; when Nettie is with Theo she gains independence and a stable relationship with someone other than her father. At first this appears to be a win/win, but The Free Will doesn’t insist on taking the easy way out and half way through the film it takes a sharp turn. The turn is so drastic, it’s probably why a lot of people find faults with it.
For one, it completely does away with what an anti-hero is supposed to do, which is to repent, to apologize, to change. How can an audience have sympathy for a character that doesn’t repent? But unlike films similar in theme, for example, The Woodsman about a pedophile struggling to change his pedo ways, The Free Will is more like I Stand Alone (my second mention of director Gaspar Noé who also directed Irreversible), which dealt with a bitter anti-hero but was presented more in a exploitative slice-of-life fashion. The Free Will definitely has more sympathy for its characters but it insists on surrounding them with realism and, well, realism is sometimes bleak.
The Free Will was an ambitious project taken on my director Matthias Glasner and main star Jürgen Vogel, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film. For six years they struggled to get the film made until finally they picked up a camera and decided to start filming with only a blueprint of what they wanted to do. In the commentary, both Glasner and Vogel discuss the difficulty of making a film like this and praise the actors for having the courage to participate (although they both chuckle at the sad reality of all the actresses bringing their boyfriends with them to the set).
In addition to the commentary, other bonus features include the theatrical trailer and an essay written by Time Out New York film critic David Fear. The DVD touts this as a “critical essay”, but it’s actually just a review. In the review, Fear commends the film for not taking an arm chair psychiatrist view of Theo, but instead shows him as “a recognizable human being that coexists with this monster.” And that’s probably the biggest tragedy of all. Theo is aware of his inner conflicts, but sadly, there are some things that just can’t be fixed.