CAGED BIRDS (Bis wir tot sind oder frei, or, Until we are dead or free)

Corinth Films
Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Oliver Rihs
Screenwriter: Oliver Keidel, Norbert Maass, Ivan Madeo, Oliver Rihs, Dave Tucker
Cast: Joel Baseman, Marie Leuenberger, Jella Haase, Anatole Taubman, Pascal Ulli
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 2/9/21
Opens: February 25, 2022

The people of Switzerland appear to live in what some of us consider the closest thing to utopia. No Vietnam demonstrations, not much action by ordinary people during World War 2, no battles in Korea, Russia, China and Iran either. In fact Switzerland has not been to war in five centuries. Its citizens have access to some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world. The country is solidly middle class with presumably minimal levels of air and water pollution. The only problem may be boredom. Yet in the 1980s there were demonstrations by leftist groups accept what they consider police oppression and, as Oliver Rihs brings out in his film “Caged Birds,” weeks of rioting in the streets were motivated by protests against an antiquated prison system. Their hero, Walter Stürm, known as the jailbreak king, busted out of his “re-education” facilities multiple times. “Free Stürm” became the watchword of the street riots, put down brutally by police, its ragtag army sternly prosecuted in the courts.

Rihs’ central focus, though, is on an alliance between Stürm (Joel Basman) brought up in a privileged background but laughing at the bourgeois, and Barbara Hug (Marie Leuenberger), a lawyer afflicted with a bum kidney who is so caught up in defending the demonstrators and particularly Stürm that she harms her health by periodically passing up her needed dialysis treatments. Hug fights for prison rights, holding, like her followers that solitary confinement is torture. We do see, in fact, that Stürm, regularly segregated from the daily work of the inmates, is rotting in a small cell seemingly without access to TV or reading materials. You don’t wonder that even when he is finally released from the confinement and joined up with fellow prisoners, he is determined to risk renewed solitary by his regular jailbreaks.

Hug might be compared to lawyers today who fight for real causes, call her a Swiss example of what we in the States have in lawyer William Kunstler, who fought for the rights of the Chicago Seven and the Black Panthers. She will stick to legal fights of her client, though sometimes seemingly baffled by his determination to give up his freedom through risky actions. In one case, having escaped to the warmth of southern Spain, he cannot sit still but insists on staying in motion that could have him wind up in solitary.

The film was shot in Switzerland, Germany and Spain under the direction of Oliver Rihs, whose “Black Sheep” looks at losers in urban Berlin. Felix van Muralt photographs the streets riots that make us think of our own demonstrations by those enraged by the excesses of capitalism and desperate efforts to control much of the world. The mass demonstrations and repressive counterforce by Zurich police serve merely as a background to the delving into the strong characters of the two protagonists; one who can be seen as a hero to the downtrodden by humiliating the police and the bourgeois society, the other by her steadfast commitment to a man who often ignores her, even firing her at one point despite her assistance to his defense. You could not ask for actors more committed to their roles than Basman and Leuenberger who, in fact, have both won major awards for performances in other films.

In Swiss German with English subtitles.

118 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting –B+
Technical – B
Overall – B

By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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