Directed by Oliver Rihs, Caged Birds (Bis wir tot sind oder frei) is set in 1980 Switzerland. Barbara “Babs” Hug (Marie Leuenberger) does not let her poor health prevent her from delivering impassioned speeches and spirited defenses of the people who hire her as a lawyer. After semi-successfully getting a West German lady free of the dire Swiss penal system, Babs becomes acquainted with Walter Stürm (Joel Basman). He is Switzerland’s jailbreak king, a title he holds in great honor.
Walter has sought out Babs because of her outspokenness about Swiss prisons. See, the man has met several folks in the slammer who can barely survive; specifically, there’s an elderly man who he wishes were treated more humanely by the warden and guards. Now, the duo travels through Germany and Switzerland as they try to determine the best manner to achieve the freedom they both so desperately seek.
Caged Bird might sound like a stuffy courtroom drama, the kind of picture the phrase “Oscar bait” was invented for. But, thanks to acutely tuned performances and the terrific sense of humor, it really isn’t. Co-writers Rihs, Dave Tucker, Ivan Madeo, Norbert Maass, and Oliver Kiedel keep the 2-hour runtime moving along well, wasting little time but still balancing character arcs and genuine emotion. The wonky crime thriller, in a fashion, proves its genius in a scene where the ailing Babs pretends to go into shock as Walter acts as her doctor. It is both thrilling and comedic, and the two leads are brilliant in that moment.
“Walter has sought out Babs because of her outspokenness about Swiss prisons.”
That last sentence was a bit of a misnomer, in all honestly. See, Leuenberger and Basman are astounding in every second of this film. Individually they bring a lot of warmth and emotion to their respective characters. But the secret to the film’s success as a must-see is them together. Leuenberger and Basman share such electric chemistry that witnessing them do even the littlest things with each other is a joy other films can only dream of achieving.
The second half of Caged Birds does change the more passionate, if lighthearted, tone into something grimmer. But, Rihs makes even those turns, the strict indictments of the government, believable and the next logical step in the activism and drive of the characters. While the levity in prior scenes is somewhat missed, the message and theme of the film hit hard by the end.
It should also be noted that the director of photography, Felix von Muralt, makes the production look much bigger than the plot implies. He captures the natural beauty of each country (Switzerland, Germany, and Spain) while still feeling intimate and personal. That is not an easy task, but it is deftly pulled off here. Plus, Beat Solèr’s score is just as invigorating and fun as the visuals are.
Caged Birds is a masterpiece from start to finish. The directing is strong, balancing a lot of tones at one time. The writing is strong, with two likable, engaging characters at the forefront. The visuals and music are excellent, elevating the characters and atmosphere masterfully. And the glue that holds it all together is Leuenberger and Basman. They both are luminous in their respective roles and make everyone watching root for Babs and Walter no matter what happens.
Check out the official site for more information about Caged Birds.
"…Leuenberger and Basman are astounding..."