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It all starts out as a little Baader-Meinhof before it morphs into a completely different beast. In the year of 1980, Swiss lawyer Barbara Hug (Marie Leuenberger) defends a young German left wing activist against obscure decency charges, in what she calls a violation of her client’s human rights. “Babs” is intimately connected to an activist commune in Germany, who never shy away from breaking the law in order to gain visibility and achieve their objectives. The trigger-happy outlaws enjoy some sort of free love, communist lifestyle, and Barbara fits in surprisingly well.
One day, Barbara is approached by Switzerland’s most wanted criminal Walter Stürm in a public square. “Walti” has recently escaped from prison for the seventh time. The media have bestowed the “Jailbreak King” accolade upon him. He is not your average criminal. He is an intelligent and sensitive man who does not wish to cause harm. During a botched bank robbery, he’s more concerned with the wellbeing of an elderly victim than with the money. He reads Foucault, writes prolifically and becomes an unlikely advocate for prison rights. Prison müsli tastes so bad that it’s tantamount to torture, he argues.
Babs and Walti strike a friendship, and she introduces him to the German commune. At first, the members are suspicious, but Walti wins their hearts over by sharing some useful criminal ruses. Eventually, Walti is arrested, and Barbara becomes his lawyer. He breaks out of prison again. He attempts to leave the country, but gets arrested yet again at the Italian border. He is placed in solitary confinement and thus he decides to go on a hunger strike. This prompts his activist friends to organise large protests outside the prison.
It might be hard for most of us to conceive that life prison in Switzerland is harsh. The Central European country isn’t just extremely wealthy, but it’s also where the Geneva Conventions originated. It may come as a surprise to many that Amnesty International indeed denounced the country for breaching prisoners’ rights at the time. Barbara calls the Swiss government “fascist” and describes the entire country as a “large prison”. Walti isn’t after all just acting on a whim. His demands are genuine.
The female lawyer and his male client have a stormy and yet symbiotic relationship. They complement each other. Babs, who has a barely functioning kidney and walks on crutches, loves Walti’s subversive personality and virility. Walti seems to admires her unflinching commitment to work and resilience. But could they take this relationship to the next level?
The first half of Caged Birds is mostly a courtroom drama and a crime thriller. The philosophical devices gradually begin to surface. Walti has very unusual motives for his crimes and numerous escapes from prison. He enjoys the journey rather than the destination, thriving on subverting the system. Freedom is both elusive and futile. His relationship to liberty is comparable to the female protagonist of Japanese New Wave classic Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964). The closure of both films is also remarkably similar.
Caged Birds could have easily slipped into neo-noir cliches, yet it successfully avoids empty platitudes. Its cinematography is very elegant, with grainy images, sombre silhouettes and inventive angles throughout. The performances and heartfelt and convincing. Ultimately, this is the perfect balance between a crime caper, political thriller and philosophical essay.
Walti is a little-known figure outside Switzerland and Germany, and there is very little literature about the Jailbreak King in English. The fact the film opens with an “inspired by real events” warning suggests that the director and screenwriters took some historical and lyrical freedoms. And that’s fine. The outcome is a very humanistic portrait of two complex human beings. A must-see.
Caged Birds has just premiered at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, as part of the event’s Official Competition.