In Jan Speckenbach’s “intriguing, sincere, if somewhat overreaching sophomore feature,” Freedom, “Nora (Johanna Wokalek) wanders past Breugel’s Tower of Babel painting in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, while in Berlin, unaware of her whereabouts, her lawyer husband Philip (a sympathetic Hans-Jochen Wagner), teenage daughter Lena (Rubina Labusch) and younger son Jonas (Georg Arms) go about their lives carefully skirting the Nora-shaped hole in the family.” Jessica Kiang for Variety: “Speckenbach’s most inspired decision here is to split his film more or less equally between Nora and Philip, as she becomes an increasingly vague abstraction of her former self . . . Not quite so well thought-out, however, is the rather underdeveloped undercurrent of racial unease . . . The film is about the chameleonic nature of identity, and how much of it is socially proscribed, but the issues around racial identity and white liberal guilt are far too complex to be used as mere background texture.”
“A problematic film about contemporary disillusionment and negative liberty, Freedom is deliberately unsubtle about its major theme,” notes Joseph Owen at the Upcoming.
“It doesn't help Freedom’s credibility that the script keeps having the people Nora meets on her travels spout pearls of wisdom, sometimes in a second or third language,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue. “Likewise, underneath the despair and the bourgeois anxiety . . . there’s something deeply tedious going on.”
“Speckenbach curiously toys with the story's timeline, rearranging the plot to achieve greater impact and suspense,” writes Martin Kudláč for ScreenAnarchy. “Assembled into three episodic blocks, the three-act structure does not feel formulaic, due to Speckenbach´s immersive storytelling, enhanced by Tilo Hauke's cinematography with saturated colors.”
More from Vassilis Economou at Cineuropa, where Kudláč notes that Speckenbach’s debut feature, Reported Missing, is about a teenaged girl who seems to abandon her mother. “For me,” Speckenbach tells him, “it doesn't seem like a revisiting of the same motif, but rather an ongoing interrogation of it. The void that somebody leaves behind creates a need to fill it with meaning, a meaning that apparently was absent when everything was fine. I find this situation very conducive to the dramaturgical set-up. I can’t really say why I am obsessed with this theme. I had a plan to make a trilogy on disappearance; this is the second part.”
And John Hopewell talks with Speckenbach for Variety: “The question is: Can you reinvent yourself? For a certain degree we all hope, that we could if we tried, because we want to be autonomous. But it’s the paradox of that test arrangement, that interests me. Because if you can reinvent yourself you’d be somebody different afterwards. Therefore you wouldn’t be yourself anymore. So actually you’d have lost yourself.”
Writing for the Locarno Festival, where Freedom is competing, Sergio Fant suggests that Nora “has her roots in a deeper ‘German soul’ between Mahler and Dietrich, and which significantly, just like Toni Erdmann by Maren Ade and more recently Western by Valeska Grisebach, is looking for a future and new stories to tell not in the heart of Europe but rather in the East.”
Update, 8/15: “Wokalek was riveting as Gudrun Esslin in Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) about The Red Army Faction (RAF) members, and in Freiheit she moves with a velvety smoothness of a cat,” writes Ela Bittencourt at Kinoscope. She reads the film “not as a successful social drama, which ultimately it isn’t, trapping its heroine in a cage she is never allowed to transcend, but as a social horror. Motherhood, or perhaps, at times, parenthood lies at the very heart of Freiheit’s general sense of entrapment.”