Hard-working German actor Jürgen Vogel plays the serial rapist Theo in Matthias Glasner’s almost unbearably grim The Free Will (Der Freie Wille). When we meet Theo, he’s heavy-set and angry, working at the cafeteria of a seaside youth hostel. Within minutes of the film’s beginning, he spots a potential victim, knocks her off a bicycle and drags her into the dunes, where he ties her up, rips off her clothes, beats and rapes her in a brutal sequence that seems designed to weed out those audience members who won’t have the stomach for what’s to come.

When we see Theo again, nine years later, he seems profoundly changed: with a buff body but a docile and contrite manner, he tells his parole board just what they need to hear to release him. Told in handheld scenes with an authentic, documentary feel, Der Freie Wille unflinchingly observes Theo’s struggle to contain his own aggressive desires and insecurities.

Glasner’s script manages to steer clear of any move that could be construed as making excuses for Theo as we follow the tortured paths he takes through the provincial German town, including harrowing scenes in which he follows random women through subway tunnels and darkened streets. Der Freie Wille takes a surprising turn when we’re introduced to Nettie (the striking Sabine Timoteo), a young woman who is just leaving behind her overbearing father.

The brittle love that blossoms between Theo and Nettie is the film’s thorniest conceit. We’re trained to wish happiness on all screen couples, but the heavily fraught intimacy we become a party to here is exceedingly difficult to watch. In fact, without the eye-opening performances by Vogel and Timoteo, the film is impossible to imagine: they don’t seem to be afraid to lay bare their very souls.

Glasner softens the blows with moments of fragile joy, but this is not a film that harbors any illusions that love will conquer all. No doubt, Der Freie Wille goes places where not everybody will want to follow, but it stays emotionally true to its frightful subject and finds moments of startling honesty at the extremes of what audiences can endure.

Benten Films will release The Free Will on DVD in the U.S. later this year.

Der Freie Wille. Matthias Glasner, 2006. ****