‘You will devote your life to conquering death’: so is foretold to the titular protagonist of Giorgio Diritti’s Lubo (Franz Rogowski) before he embarks on a pursuit of justice. So indicates the direction Lubo’s journey will take, but in a rather unexpected fashion. Based on the novel Il Seminatore, Lubo tells the tale of a nomadic street entertainer who in 1939, gets conscripted by the Swiss Army; in his absence, his wife is killed and their three small children abducted by Swiss authorities take away their three small children. Diritti was drawn to the source material spotlighting the little-known history of generations of Yenish people – nomadic Swiss communities – by the abduction of over 2,000 children by the police in the name of re-education and higher authority, all the way from the 1930s to 1970s. In turn he has crafted something rather unique with an epic centred around the quietly defiant pursuit of justice of its central figure.
Emerging from a bear costume playing the harmonica, Rogowski is in his element from the very first frame, delivering a performance that holds the vast scope and length of the film together. As per usual for the extraordinary actor, it is through silence where Rogowski speaks volumes. The scene where Lubo is informed of his wife’s death and childrens’ abduction is very moving, but even more devastating is the subsequent scene where the camera follows him into bed, Rogowski’s eyes lingering offscreen as if looking in vain for his loved ones. The sheer power Rogowski can wield through his silence performance is astonishing. As he impressively manoeuvres his way through Swiss German, Italian and Yenish depending on the circumstances Lubo finds himself in, Rogowski finds just as much variation to the various sides of Lubo’s characterisation. In his interactions with a new mysterious acquaintance Bruno Reiter (Joel Basman), Lubo’s naively innocent queries about Bruno’s automobile and personal life emphasise the carefully cultivated image of the simple soldier while his eyes belie something more cunning underneath the surface. And when we see Lubo perform his first act of violence, there is a fascinating juxtaposition between the instinctual physicality of the act itself, and his terrified retreat, shocked at the swiftness of his own actions.
So many sequences in Lubo rely on Rogowski’s magnificent silent acting, and few actors can make flipping through documents and reading letters (much like he did in Christian Petzold’s Transit) so compelling. Diritti provides Rogowski’s tour de force performance with some gorgeous backdrops to work against, from desolate snowy landscapes to gorgeous summertime cities artfully captured by Benjamin Maier. Equally impressive are scenes where the staging reflects the inner turmoil of Lubo’s mind; a tracking shot of him in an art gallery surrounded by portraits of children is unforgettable.
This scene is part of one of several daring tonal shifts in Lubo, where the initial intensity of his journey slows down into something quieter, more ruminative yet no less potent. Lubo tracks down the Pro Juventute enterprise, which takes in children abducted by the authorities and sends them to different homes, in Zurich, searching for his children while adopting the guise of a wealthy womanising Austrian trader. Lubo’s dalliances with the lonely widow Elsa (Noémi Besedes) and naive wife of a banker Klara (Cecilia Stainer) utilise Rogowski’s dynamic onscreen sexuality, also seen in this year’s Passages, have a lustful energy, but also show how Lubo’s hollowed out existence under a false identity cannot fill the heavy void in his heart.
In a time jump to 1951, Lubo finds new ground in our protagonist making his way to Belinnzona where, still under the guise of the wealthy trader, he meets and falls in love with a maid at his hotel, Margarita (a wonderful Valentina Bellè). ‘Love is the best education,’ Lubo muses at one point, and Lubo’s journey to find his children is just as much about finding the love he has lost. And in scenes where Lubo interacts and develops a rapport with Margarita’s young son Antonio, the parental instincts of Lubo are evident as ever, with Rogowski poignantly showing the father in him that has never gone away, and that the police state and Pro Juvente had torn away so cruelly from him under principles of superiority and bigotry towards the Yenish. There is a real beauty to these sequences, making the inevitable tragedy all the more heart wrenching.
Marco Biscarini’s score can be a tad overwrought at points, and the film focusing on Christophe Sermet’s police lieutenant Motti during long stretches towards the end takes away from the potent effect of having stayed with Rogowski’s Lubo throughout, making the final act drag at certain points. But while Lubo isn’t flawless, its potent interweaving of brutality and love is so deft that they feel insignificant in the light of Rogowski’s extraordinary work. His performance in Lubo is the perfect companion piece to his wayfaring refugee Georg in Transit, and the defiantly homosexual prisoner Hans in Great Freedom. A man in a wandering state of being, searching for purpose in the wake of a loss, but also finding an understated fire within him to combat the ills wrought not only against him, but others like him, fighting for justice not as some grand virtuous hero, but as a quietly defiant survivor.
This review is from the 2023 Venice Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.