Switzerland’s “Escape King,” a bourgeois-born career criminal who declared “I like to steal my luxury,” and a sickly, crusading leftist lawyer who fell for him would seem an unlikely pair to hang a story about the pursuit of justice, human rights and “freedom” on.
But then, we don’t think of 1980s Switzerland as a “fascist” “prison state,” where rights were trampled in an effort to quash dissent.
Perhaps that’s one reason the Swiss biographical drama “Caged Birds (Bis wir tot sind oder frei)” resonates. This “inspired by true events” account of the many escapes and confinements of Walter Stürm is more about the tireless, health-sapping efforts of activist attorney Barbara Hug to free him, and to end many Swiss prison practices and overturn unjust laws and intrusions on personal liberties in the process.
Swiss director and co-writer Oliver Rihs (“Ready, Steady Ommm!”) takes a serious step into the big time with this gripping saga, a story that begins escape-artist jaunty and occasionally finds its way back there even as the story turns grimmer and the color palette progressively greyer.
It’s a film that rides two fine performances, by Joel Basman and Marie Leuenberger, as the seriously mismatched pair who came to fame through their association and changed Switzerland — by accident, on his part, by dogged determination on hers.
Everybody loves an “escape artist” story (see “The Getaway King” on Netflix), and that’s what Stürm has already become when we meet him. Sure, he can crack a safe and swipe a car. But it’s getting out of Swiss jails that makes him notorious. We see him slip into a police uniform, out a window, swipe a prison van and then swap it for a police car as he makes his getaway.
He pulls this off in the middle of street protests, which are leading to mass arrests and general mistreatment of prisoners by the irate cops. Hug is in court representing one hardcore protester, a German (Jella Haase) who has crossed the border to take to the streets with the Swiss. Hug uses that case to make point after point against an outspokenly authoritarian prosecutor (Anatole Taubman) and generally unsympathetic judge, and she doesn’t let the fact that she’s on a crutch and suffering from kidney failure hold her back, even if that means falling into seizures at the end of a heated diatribe.
Stürm crosses her path on purpose. A wily master of disguise, he approaches her with a big prison file that just happened to be in the van he swiped. No, it can’t be admitted to court as “evidence.” But who needs courts when you can send material to newspapers about abuse, a prison riot cover-up and the like?
Over the course of the film, Stürm will commit crimes, lay low and every now and then reach out to Hug to get him across the border or represent him after he gets caught.
Amusingly, the Swiss keep re-capturing the guy. But their instinct to lock this flight-risk in solitary rubs against Hug and the International Criminal Court’s idea of inhumane treatment. And outside of solitary, the folks known for their famous watches and cheese and chocolate are damned careless with a man who has made them look foolish, time and again.
Hug and Stürm break bread with serious Red Army Faction German terrorists (Bibiana Beglau) and try to keep things professional between themselves. He takes up with that fetching young activist client Heike (Haase), who carries the film’s ongoing debate about the nature of “freedom” into the sexual arena. Hug would rather suffer in silence than “share.”
It’s obvious that the idealists are seeing this veteran thief in a more heroic light than perhaps he sees himself. His idea of “freedom” is a fast car, a safe to crack and another narrow escape, another chance to don a wig and lie on the fly, using his wits to humiliate the hapless police.
An American viewer will note how reluctant the cops are to shoot the guy, but we, Hug and Stürm suspect they have their limits, and that they’d like nothing better than to execute him in the act rather than catch him in the act.
The veteran German actress Leuenberger (“The Divine Order”) gives Hug a temper, a fatalism about her sick-since-childhood health issues and a sad longing when it comes to this colorful man in her life. Hers is a nuanced performance of very human dimensions. We see Hug’s flaws and blind spots, the lines she’s willing to cross, and feel the pain she stoically bears and all but shrugs off as Stürm makes one escape with her romantic rival as his accomplice.
Basman, of “The Awakening of Motti Wolkenbruch,” brings a twinkle to Stürm that, coupled with the thief’s “non violent” approach to crime, must have been part of his “Robin Hood” appeal back in the day. But we see flashes of temper, a hint of darkness and just a touch of mania. He can’t stop, and being born into money, doesn’t really understand “freedom” the way the protesters who adopt him as their champion do. And when challenged, his mood can change in a flash.
Rihs keeps the film focused on these two, through trials and shootings, hunger strikes and seemingly misguided attempts to soften a career criminal’s treatment. We don’t see anything from the point of view of what Hug labeled “the prison state,” even as things take a turn towards darkness as our struggling hero and struggling heroine try to reconcile their agendas with each other and with Hug’s fellow activists.
The resolution lacks that Hollywood moment where somebody gets to wave the flag in triumph or smile with the quiet satisfaction of a battle hard fought and won. That takes little away from “Caged Bird,” which in the end is an artfully-wielded scalpel that peels off the veneer of Switzerland’s reputation, and reminds us that even in the country that holds the headquarters of most of the world’s human rights organizations, people have to fight to keep their rights in courts, in the press and even marching in the streets, from time to time.
Rating: unrated, violence, sex, smoking
Cast: Marie Leuenberger, Joel Basman, Jella Haase, Anatole Taubman, Pascal Ulli, Philipe Graber and Bibiana Beglau
Credits: Directed by Oliver Rihs, scripted by Oliver Keidel, Norbert Maass, Ivan Madeo and Oliver Rihs. A Corinth Films release.
Running time: 1:59