Bis wir Tod sind oder frei / Caged Birds

Director: Oliver Rihs (Switzerland, Germany). Year of Release: 2022

Zurich, 1980. The back of a police van. Two teenage girls are thrown into the back of the van by baton wielding cops who give them a couple of thwacks on their way in. Outside, rocks and Molotov cocktails start to be thrown. The van starts to fill up. The police drag a woman into the van who’s slightly older, maybe in her 20s. She can’t walk without a crutch but brushes the police aside, telling them that she can get into the van without their help.

Demonstration scenes are intercut with those of a man escaping a prison from a ground floor window. He is wearing a cop’s uniform. Hotwiring a police van, he drives through the demonstration. As news of the prison break comes over the police radio, he hops out, taking with him a file that he’s found in the van. One of the demonstrators screams at him, but he rushes past, telling the other cops that he has important work to do.

Cut to the trial of one of the protestors, Heike. It appears that her main crime is not participating in an illegal demonstration but wearing the wrong sort of clothes and being sexually active (or “promiscuous” as the officious prosecutor calls her). Heike is being represented by the woman with the crutch, who we learn is called Barbara or Babs. Just after denouncing the prosecutor for being a Fascist and saying that Switzerland is a prison, Babs collapses.

She wakes up next to a doctor. Her kidney has failed again, and she is lucky to be alive. She tells her doctor that she wasn’t supposed to survive childhood and won’t give up now. As he tells her to look after herself she goes out to the park. There, a man in dark glasses and a fake moustache sits next to her and congratulates her for reaching the front page of the paper for her outburst in court. He only reached page 7. He hands her a file that he says she might find interesting.

Bis wir Tod sind oder Frei has barely got going and we are now well acquainted with the three main characters. Heike is a wild child, who left her rich parents to join the left-wing scene when she was 13. Babs is a campaigning lawyer who pays much more attention to fighting for other people than to looking after herself. And Walter Sturm – or whichever name is on his current passport – is the notorious Jailbreak King, a jewel thief who has escaped jail seven times already.

Walter takes part in another robbery, where he nearly gets caught when he stops to help the elderly cashier who was hit by his fellow-robber. He persuades Babs to smuggle him out of the country. She doesn’t need much persuading as she seems to have the hots for him. The excursion also gives her the chance to visit Heike who has been deported and is now hanging around with people close to the Red Army Fraction (RAF) in Swabia, South-West Germany.

Despite his lack of interest in politics, Walter impresses his hosts by showing off his safe breaking skills. He promises to get hold of some guns for them, but is soon on the run again. Eventually, he puts on another disguise and takes a camper van to the Italian border with Heike, much to Babs’s obvious disappointment. Privately, Heike tells Babs that they can share Walter, but leaves with him anyway, on a trip where Heike and Walter find out just how incompatible they are.

This is partly a romping yarn, partly a look at the desolate state of the German and Swiss Left in the wake of the prison deaths of the first wave of RAF leaders in 1977. If that’s not enough, there’s a bit of Philosophy thrown in as well. In case you missed it, Babs’s statement that Switzerland is a prison was channeling her inner Foucault – before they met, her writings had inspired Walter to order a Foucault book from the prison library. He found it self-indulgent nonsense.

This is not the only time that Walter’s lack of pretension stops the discussion from getting too pompous. He flees with Babs on the express condition that she doesn’t subject him to any of that psychology shit, and he is definitely suspicious of her political activity – and certainly that of her friends. This does not mean that he is not implacably opposed to the prison system which, he feels, is there to rob people like him of their dignity.

There are parts of the film which I did find slightly disappointing. Most characters appear to be the sons and daughters of the rich dealing with their parent issues – from Heike to Walter, who’s father is a leading industrialist, to the Swabians who live in a villa which used to belong to one of their fathers, who was a leading member of the SS. I don’t know if the film endorses Babs’s statement “change always starts with the writing of a book”, but this does undermine the focus on activism.

For all that, this is the rare film which has relatable characters, a rollicking plot and the ability to make you think. Walter insists that Babs cannot free him, intimating that her life’s work of trying to get prisoners released was pointless. And once he is out of jail, he shows a compulsion to be re-arrested. And just in case that sounds too serious, there are some hilarious scenes, not least in Walter’s ongoing battle with the prison to improve the quality of it’s muesli.

Bis wir Tod sind oder frei was on a short run here, and I’ve no idea if it will be shown in other countries, but if it is, treat yourself and go along.

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