'Chris the Swiss': Film Review | Cannes 2018

A tragical mystery tour with excellent animated elements.

Swiss director Anja Kofmel revisits the wild life and strange death of her war reporter cousin with an innovative blend of animation and documentary.

Filmmaker Anja Kofmel goes on a magical mystery tour into the darker corners of her own family history with Chris the Swiss, a stylish blend of hand-drawn animation and investigative documentary. Expanding on her 2009 animated short Chrigi, Kofmel relates the tragic true story of her older cousin Christian Wurtenberg, a war reporter with a reckless thirst for adventure. As the former Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s, Wurtenberg rushed to Croatia to cover the warring Balkans, only to end up dead in grisly and murky circumstances. He was just 27.

Trained as an animator, Kofmel cites Joshua Oppenheimer's 2012 Oscar nominee The Act of Killing as a formal inspiration on her debut feature, with its stylized visuals and dramatized reconstructions. But a closer parallel might be Ari Folman's 2008 animated docu-memoir Waltz With Bashir, which also weaves a painfully personal story into a wider wartime backdrop. This is a smaller film than both of the above, but still a stirring, suspenseful and technically accomplished work. Fresh from its Critics' Week premiere in Cannes, Chris the Swiss should grab further festival play and keen interest from small-screen platforms. The majority English-language dialogue and imaginative visuals could boost specialist theatrical prospects, too.

Drawing on Wurtenberg's private notebooks and public radio reports, Kofmel retraces her cousin's fateful final journey to Croatia, using animated sequences to speculate about the shady characters and moral dilemmas he encountered there. For context, she interviews family members and former colleagues, some of whom clearly remain churned up by these tragic events almost 30 years later.

Despite her personal connections, Kofmel does not gloss over Wurtenberg's more dubious behavior in pursuit of global thrills and juicy news stories. At just 17, he briefly joined a South African militia in Namibia. A decade later, soon after arriving in Croatia, he signed up for a shady platoon of international mercenaries, the PIV. Although Wurtenberg claimed he was merely gathering material for a book, Kofmel is forced to conclude he may have been complicit in the violent "ethnic cleansing" of civilians.

But the story's real heart of darkness is Eduardo Rozsa-Flores, aka Chico, the charismatic journalist turned military commander who ran the PIV like his own personal fiefdom. A Bolivia-born polyglot who grew up in Communist-era Hungary, where he received KGB intelligence training, Rozsa-Flores was a Machiavellian operator whose politics swung from far left to far right after the Soviet Union collapsed. He forged links with Croatian fascist groups and allegedly received funds from the ultraconservative Catholic organization Opus Dei.

Rozsa-Flores also acquired a reputation as a dangerously authoritarian Colonel Kurtz type. The consensus that later emerged is that he personally ordered Wurtenberg's death, as well as that of British photojournalist Paul Jenks, after suspecting both of being spies. Rozsa-Flores always denied this, claiming the young Swiss reporter was killed in an enemy ambush.

Sadly, Kofmel never gets the chance to quiz Rozsa-Flores, relying instead on snippets of archive newsreel footage. After the Balkan wars he became an author and sometime actor, even playing himself in the Hungary-made 2001 biopic Chico. But he clearly never gave up his mercenary sideline. In 2009, he was shot dead by police during a failed assassination attempt on Bolivian President Evo Morales. With him died the last chance to piece together a full account of Wurtenberg's murder.

Chris the Swiss is a lovingly crafted passion project, especially the animated sequences, in which Kofmel re-creates the kind of dark fantasy imagery that her 10-year-old imagination conjured up on first hearing of her cousin's death in a faraway land. Poetically rendered in hand-drawn monochrome, these gothic dreamscapes are inhabited by nightmarish figures of evil, robed in sinister swirls of feathery blackness.

The straight documentary sections are less sure-footed, as Kofmel struggles to corral the fuzzy facts into a coherent narrative. One of her bizarre tangents entails a brief phone conversation with the notorious terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, aka Carlos the Jackal, from his prison cell in France. Sanchez casually claims Wurtenberg was working undercover for Swiss intelligence in Croatia: a sensational plot twist if true, a silly red herring if not. Kofmel just leaves this audacious allegation dangling, frustratingly unexplored.

The filmmaker never really resolves some key questions regarding Wurtenberg's opaque motivations and untimely death. Even so, she presents her sentimental journey as an act of closure, arriving at a deeper understanding not just of her cousin, but of all young men who answer the distant siren call of war on foreign soil. There are glib parallels and nagging loose ends here. But for the most part, Chris the Swiss is a fascinating, moving elegy for doomed youth.

Production companies: Dschoint Ventschr, Nukleus Film, Ma.Ja.De, IV Films Ltd
Cast: Anja Kofmel, Megan Gay, Joel Basman, Michael Wurtenberg, Veronika Schwab
Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, Sinisa Juricic, Heidi Rinke, Julio Cesar Alonso
Director-screenwriter: Anja Kofmel
Producers: Samir, Sinisa Juricic, Heino Deckert, Iikka Vehkalahti
Cinematographer: Simon Guy Fassler
Editor: Stefan Kalin
Music: Marcel Vaid

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Sales company: Urban Distribution

90 minutes