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LFF 2023: Lubo Is a Painfully Dull Look into Unsavory Swiss History

Image Courtesy of BFI London Film Festival

Lubo is among the most glacially slow movies I’ve ever seen, and unlike some other films that vie for that honor, its story does not demand nor does it befit from such a languid telling. It has a good story and is based on an important, underrepresented history, but the exceeding dullness of its crushing three-hour runtime spreads that butter over far too much toast.

Strange as it may sound, boredom can sometimes be an effective resource for storytelling. Many films draw out the events of their narratives, by repeating similar scenarios or slowing events down to a nearer to realistic pace, including so-called “shoe leather”, scenes showing a character getting from one place to another. These sequences allow the viewer to drink in the atmosphere of a scene, absorb themselves into the experience of the characters, or think long and hard about what they’re being shown and why. It can be a rewarding means to artistic expression. Like music, cinema is a temporally locked medium and slowing or quickening the tempo can create very different effects. However, slowing a film’s narrative down below the usual is a risky approach and places greater strain on the film and its story. If the atmosphere isn’t there to drink in, if the characterization doesn’t arrest the attention or if what the audience is being shown nor the reasons for why aren’t all that complex, these protracted sequences can rapidly work against the film, as the audience starts to feel their patience is being taken undue advantage of.

Its story spread across two decades, Lubo, a selection of the 2023 London Film Festival, begins in 1939 when Europe was on the precipice of the largest conflict and most wide-scale atrocities the world has ever seen. But as the fascist powers of Germany and its allies were preparing to enact their genocide across Europe, Switzerland was performing one of its own against its nomadic Jenisch population, taking its children away from their families and placing them into institutions where their Jenisch identity could be schooled out of them. Switzerland was not alone in this, many countries the world over have their stolen generations of indigenous or ethnic minority children, abducted by the state in an effort to crush the ethnic and cultural diversity of their communities, out of white supremacy and a misguided desire to rescue children from their own way of life. Lubo (Franz Rogowski) is a travelling musician whose family is one of the state’s victims. Shortly after he is unceremoniously conscripted into military service, he learns his three children have been taken away from their mother (who promptly dies to keep her out of the story), upon which revelation he deserts, changes his identity, and goes undercover in the hopes of finding his stolen offspring.

There’s a powerful and important story to be told here with a lot of promise to it. But it’s. So. Slow. It’s so difficult to get invested in when everything is magnified by the excess time devoted to it. Slow cinema as a movement exists because films can sometimes use their slowness to purposefully alienate the viewer, forcing them to engage with it not as a simple story to get invested in, but as an artistic experience to be pondered, like an art gallery where you’re forced to stop and stare at each painting rather than just glance over it and move on. But Lubo is very up-front with what its about, and its quite a straightforward and unimaginative telling of a historical story.

With such a languid pace, any sense that the story’s worth giving up on will be pounced at and there’s some very confused messaging here that serves to undermine the films moral righteousness to no real end. Lubo becomes a womanizer after his wife’s death, sleeping with many women, almost miraculously impregnating them and then abandoning them. Is there supposed to be some irony in him abandoning so many new children in search of the one’s he spent years raising? What kind of message is that supposed to convey? That his love for his children is insincere and maybe the government were right to take them away?

Rogowski’s a great actor and as Passages demonstrated, he’s more than capable of making an unlikable character compelling, but here, he has no character. Identity is clearly a central theme to the story. In the opening scene we witness Lubo performing a drag act as an elegant high-society lady, and shortly afterwards we see him switch places with a dead man (the film has the unhelpful trait of covering a lot of the same ground as better films like Transit, which also starred Rogowski as an unscrupulous man who changes his identity to survive in wartime Europe). This theme of changing identity could’ve been taken in some interesting or even, god forbid, entertaining directions, but the film’s pace saps any sense of momentum out of the story quickly and makes it hard to invest in the title character, especially as he never seems to wrestle with any of his actions, no matter how large the moral compromises he’s forced to make. It’s hard to feel engaged by the story when there’s so little punch to the telling, it feels like playback is at x0.75 speed.

The film has a few saving graces, Rogowski’s ever sensitive and charismatic presence is one of them, and those sparsely used, Marco Biscarini’s tender, yearning score is another. There are some powerfully evocative images dotted throughout the film, the cruel staircases and hallways of the institutions housing the imprisoned children, and the Swiss countryside is often allowed to showcase its beauty, but as an entire experience, it’s very hard to find reason to recommend Lubo. Yes, it’s a subject more people should know more about, but that only makes Lubo‘s failure to make a focused or interesting narrative out of it all the more frustrating.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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