Nelson Mandela once said, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” Most people, even in today’s society, think of prisoners as lower than the ground they walk upon. Prison abuse is as old as Greek and Roman times. Heck, true prison reform didn’t start in the United States until the 1960’s. But what about other countries? In Caged Birds, we explore the Switzerland of the 1980’s and how one lawyer named Barbara Hug tried to change that very system.
1980’s Switzerland: a protest and all sorts of commotion in the streets. One of the signs reads, “Put the State on a Dinner Plate.” However, this protest has turned violent. There are cops beating women, and a man is tortured by a female officer. Meanwhile, a young lawyer named Barbara Hugs (played by Marie Leuenberger) stands by and watches as she lights up a smoke. Elsewhere, a car is hot-wired by an escaped prisoner named Walter Strum (played by Joel Basman) who has just escaped a jail for the seventh time.
As more of the protestors are loaded into the paddy-wagon, Barbara makes a fuss on purpose to get herself thrown into the vehicle. There she tells the men and women, “I’ll get you out of here, and then we’ll change everything.” Nearby, Walter leaves the car he stole, still in his borrowed police uniform with a briefcase. He uses his cunning as well as his disguise to waltz his way into stealing another car. Then he drives away. Let’s roll the credits.
Heike Vollmer (played by Jella Haase) is having her day in court. She listens to the charges against her as she shakes her head. Standing next to her is Barbara, her lawyer. Despite her fierce rebuttal, Heike is sentenced to be re-educated at Hindelbank Correctional Facility. The stress placed upon the lawyer is too much to bear, and she passes out. She wakes up in the hospital on a dialysis machine.
Barbara only has one kidney due to a birth defect. Unfortunately, between her smoking and drinking, the torture on her only kidney has put it in a position to fail. She asks for the morphine, and despite her doctor’s wishes, ignores the idea of a transplant. We rejoin Walter, who has crashed his car and steals some jewelry just for the thrill of it. Another day, Babs is sitting in the park and is soon joined by Walter incognito with that briefcase from earlier. Once the attorney receives that briefcase, everything changes, and nothing will ever be the same for either one of them.
Caged Birds is really two stories. One about Walter Strum, who never met a prison he didn’t want to escape from, and then the story of Barbara Hugs, who with her fellow lawyers, Roger Belier (played by Pascal Ulli) and Felix Lammel (played by Philippe Graber) are trying to change the Swiss prison laws for something much more humane. Naturally, they come together as the three lawyers take up the cause of Walter Strum. But Walter is a free spirit and can’t stay out of trouble which leads Barbara and Walter down a dangerous path.
The movie is also one of two tales critically. It’s a two hour movie, and the first hour screams almost Catch Me If You Can or perhaps The Fugitive, well at least in theory, anyway. The second hour comes back to a crashing reality as it crawls to an unfortunate ending made worse by the true story that it is connected to. Is it well acted? Sure, I think the principle actors and actresses do a fantastic job for the most part. Barbara is certainly a likeable character, and the viewer will want to root for her to accomplish those changes to prison reform and maybe take care of herself just a little better.
But the movie somehow tries to paint the activities of Walter Strum as noble or with honor when it is quite the opposite. Ultimately, it drags the movie down, as it increasingly focuses on him rather than Barbara’s attempt to reform the system (they honestly spend more time on Barbara’s condition and social life than her inside the courtroom). This is where I believe the movie makes a critical mistake and kills the really great first hour the movie had.
Note: Even though I am not reviewing the technical specs of this disc, I can tell you that it is is Swiss German w/burnt-in English subtitles. The OSD on the disc player reads PCM 2.0, but the receiver displays it as PCM 4.0.
To share some final thoughts here, I wanted to like this movie a lot. In fact I did for a good chunk of it. I really enjoyed the characters, and the story was compelling. Then it fell flat on its face and never recovered. If this was such a noteworthy true story, then shouldn’t there have been more of the “movement” and not Walter Strum’s actions? I do understand they had to echo the true story in some regard, but I had to think there was more to it than the movie was showing just to be “marketable”.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the movie. It’s too much of a slog to get through, and it’s more liable to frustrate the viewer than anything else. I think the only people who might be interested in this might be connected to the true story in some fashion. Also, as an ending note, screw that final scene. Take care kids, and until next time.