Waren einmal Revoluzzer / Once Were Rebels

We start with one of those awkward birthday parties for people whose kids are starting to enter teenage. There are a few too many men with beards and/or baseball caps. Jakob is a musician – he wrote a big hit way back when, still gets by but has never repeated his Glory Day. We later learn that his wife Helene a judge. Their house and lifestyle reflect their relative prosperity.

At the party, Helene has a mission for their friend Volker. Volker is due to go to Russia soon on a business trip, and she needs to get some money to her old boyfriend Pavel – a Russian who’s back in the Old Country but is now on the Wanted list. Volker is not so sure at first, but its not long before he’s drinking vodka with Pavel in a safe house somewhere in Moscow.

The vodka must have done something for Volker, as before long he’s organising false documents with which Pavel can flee to Vienna. Helene agrees to put Pavel up and pick him up from the station, and is a little nonplussed when he arrives with his wife Eugenia and their young child. It seems that the real person who is on the run is Eugenia, who works for an NGO which is being persecuted by the Russian government.

Helene manages to look after the dissidents for about a day before dumping them on Volker. It’s all his fault – he never told them about the wife and kid. He swears he knew nothing about them, but that means that he’s either a terrible organiser of forged documents or a liar. As having the extra family in the house is cramping Volker’s ability to have affairs on the side, he soon sends the Russians to the house that Jakob uses to write his music in peace.

There follow some familiar plotlines from screwball comedies – a bird escapes its cage, a naked woman is found where she shouldn’t be, two people sleep with each other and seem to immediately regret it. This all might engage you if you were at all bothered about the characters, but they’re just too preoccupied with their First World problems to make you really care.

I get what is happening here. Director Johanna Moder is showing up the hypocrisy of the liberal middle class, who would sign a petition for political dissidents in a flash, particularly if the dissidents are living in a different country. But give them the slightest bit of responsibility or the possibility of actually helping real life dissidents and they disappear in a smoke of worry about preserving their job and lifestyle.

The problem is, to be disappointed in their actions, or to be animated enough to despise their inactivity, we really need to believe that they would behave any differently than they do. The title intimates that Helene, Jakob and Volker were once revolutionaries with principles (or, at least, if we follow the tamer, English language title, they were rebels). But there is no sign of any of this in the film that we watch.

This results in most of the characters being nice enough – a bit self-obsessed maybe, and narcissistic, someone you’d chat to at an awkward birthday party until the conversation went dry. So they’re not hateful, but neither do they come across as ever having had any real principles which they have now decided to sacrifice. There is no sense of a Faustian descent into hell.

And yet while they’re not hateful, virtually none of the characters come across as particularly likeable either. Maybe Tina, Volker’s current partner. Or Eugenia, but as she speaks no German, all we hear from her is through her discussions in subtitled Russian with Pavel, or through the broken English she uses with the rest of them. We are told that she is a committed activist, but don’t really get the chance to experience this first hand.

There is nothing bad about “Waren einmal Revoluzzer”. It is interesting enough and competently acted. But it comes across as a familial spat among the chattering classes which we’re observing from the outside. We can more or less identify who is good and who is bad, but can’t really summon up enough emotion for any of them to care too much. I wasn’t offended by the film, but maybe that’s the problem. It was ok. Just ok.

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