THE STORY – Lubo is a nomad, a busker who in 1939 is called up to the Swiss army to defend the country’s borders against the risk of a German invasion. Shortly afterward he finds out that his wife has died in the attempt to stop the gendarmes from taking away their three small children, who, as Yenisch, have been removed from their family as part of the national program of reeducation for “children of the road” (Hilfswerk für die Kinder der Landstrasse). Lubo knows that he will never have peace until he gets his children back and gets justice for his story and that of all outsiders like himself.
THE CAST – Franz Rogowski, Christophe Sermet, Valentina Bellè, Noemi Besedes, Cecilia Steiner & Joel Basman
THE TEAM – Giorgio Diritti (Director/Writer) & Fredo Valla (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 181 Minutes
It is endlessly fascinating how, despite being one of the most researched and dramatized moments in history, there are still so many stories that stem from World War II that have gone unnoticed. WWII was, after all, a global conflict, touching a wide variety of nations in different ways. It is easy only to be consumed with personal investment, letting national pride be the dominant perspective. Yet, there remains a bottomless chest of stories that have gone overlooked by so many other people. That’s what makes this broad subject a territory that is continually mined. “Lubo” starts with this foundation before expanding into a much wider exploration. It’s an ungainly piece but is consistently held together by an incredible performance at the center.
First set in Switzerland at the genesis of the combat, Lubo Moser (Franz Rogowski) works as a traveling street performer. However, he is forced to leave his family when the military drafts him to protect the border. While away, he learns that the gendarmes have killed his wife and taken his children, part of a system that forcibly removed nomadic children and placed them in adoption centers to be re-educated. Terribly distraught and determined to find his offspring, Lubo kills a Jewish smuggler with whom he crosses paths. He assumes the man’s identity and travels across the country to find answers. Years eventually pass with no revelations, and he then finds himself more than a decade later in Italy, sparking a new romance with a hotel maid named Margherita (Valentina Bellè). Still, Lubo can’t outrun his past sins forever, as they constantly lurk, waiting to ensnare him back to his old life.
Rogowski is an actor many have noted is on the rise these days (see his work in “Passages” and “Great Freedom” if you haven’t already), and “Lubo” is another shining example of his immense talent. Lubo goes through a monumental venture, and Rogowski’s performance perfectly captures every facet of this evolution. He is able to capture such a range of emotions in simple gestures and is particularly powerful when grief and sadness are etched across the subtle expressions he renders. He does not indulge in too many histrionics, instead impeccably adapting the role to every new situation. The desperate soldier with his entire world shattered authentically morphs into the stately aristocrat pursuing a new love. When the fantasy crumbles, the brokenness easily returns, and Rogowski flawlessly inhabits this emotional space. Here is an actor who has yet to disappoint, and this portrayal is yet another illustration of why his continual celebration is warranted.
Because the story demands an incredible amount from the lead character’s journey, “Lubo” needs to succeed on the strength of its lead. It’s a very wide scope being told here, as the three-hour runtime attempts to establish the early stakes and then showcase the consequences of such a life. In truth, it often feels like director and co-writer Giorgio Diritti bites off more than he can chew. The narrative has such a full plate that it easily meanders into tangents, which doesn’t help the overall momentum. The budding romance it examines comes across as mundane and pedestrian, even though Ballè has some strong cathartic moments of her own and gives a compelling turn. Ultimately, the storytelling has too many distractions that force the viewer’s gaze away from the topic of the disappearing children. This is acknowledged as the film’s true thesis, but it’s such a bloated endeavor that it’s difficult to appreciate such an objective. There are handsome crafts on display, but the rambling pace requires a more focused breadth in order to be thoroughly captivating.
The ambitions of “Lubo” are certainly large enough to be appreciated on some level. The under-documented events it yearns to expose do maintain a good deal of interest, but the narrative is far too packed with plot threads that divert from this effectiveness. The story switches from one subject to another in a disconnected fashion, never making the historical documentation mesh at all with the familial character drama. The film is weighed down by a messy and unfocused execution but is also significantly saved by Rogowski’s performance. Without his tender, heartbreaking, and engaging performance, the film’s structure would collapse. For most of the film, such an important issue to be observed is not exhibited in a stimulating manner. It is thanks to Rogowski that the results are as absorbing as they end up being.