'Unlikely Heroes' ('Schweizer Helden'): Locarno Review

Unlikely Heros Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival del film Locarno

Unlikely Heros Still - H 2014

We don't need another hero

Swiss director Peter Luisi ("Boys Are Us") directs this mainstream comedy-drama in which a group of asylum seekers puts on a play over Christmas

A motley group of asylum seekers crammed together in a center in the Alps puts on the most Swiss story of them all as a play over Christmas in Unlikely Heroes (Schweizer Helden), the new comedy-drama from German-speaking Swiss director Peter Luisi (Boys Are Us). Pretty much entirely formulaic and anodyne in the way it expresses its goody-two-shoes views on the immigration debate, this safely mainstream entertainment manages to turn its complex and thorny subject into a feel-good movie, at least for bourgeois European audiences unfamiliar with the concept of white liberal guilt. The Piazza Grande Audience Award at the recent Locarno Film Festival augurs well for the film’s local November release, though beyond Helvetia, these Heroes are DOA.

This is the latest in a long and increasingly tedious line of films about people who are unemployed, inmates, immigrants or otherwise socially disadvantaged whose spirits are lifted through the magical healing powers of art and more specifically, theater. To give an idea of just how often this device is now being used: Two Swiss documentaries, A Piece of Insanity and Where Is Clara, and German director Oliver Haffner’s A Gift from the Gods all go down that road, and those are just from last year and in the German-language area.

The play being produced here is German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s adaptation of the legend of 15th-century Swiss hero William Tell, who famously had to shoot an apple on the head of his young son. (The original title, which translates as “Swiss Heroes,” clearly alludes to Tell and also, one supposes, to the asylum seekers, though the label “Swiss” is of course problematic for several reasons.)

The audience conduit into the world of apple-shooting heroes and these future actors without any type of resident status is the divorced Sabine (Esther Gemsch), a prim little lady in early middle age. After dropping off her family at the airport and being made fun of by her girlfriends, the lonely Sabine realizes she needs to do something to fill the empty holidays ahead of her. The necessary plot machinations, more than her own will, clearly, finally see Sabine occupy the director’s seat in a theater activity class at an immigrant detention center in her village in central Switzerland.

The protagonist’s idea would be to take the experiences of the center’s inhabitants from the four corners of the globe for some simple drama exercises. But they’d prefer to play something far removed from their own painful experiences, unfortunately only hinted at, so they decide on Schiller’s classic retelling of Tell. However, the play’s practically entirely gutted of dialogue by a semi-xenophobic actor friend (Klaus Wildbolz) of Sabine’s because the level of German of most of the asylum seekers is extremely basic.

Luisi often uses the absence of German skills of most of the actors as an awkward source of humor, including in an insensitive sequence in which the lyrics of the African-American folk song "Coming ‘Round the Mountain" have been changed so the immigrants can chant about how they’re foreigners who can’t speak German. Even a lot of the absolutely inoffensive humor is on the facile side, and most of the drama, too, with subplots involving cross-cultural love affairs and war stories barely sketched out and the focus more often on the quandaries of the petite-bourgeoise Sabine than on the very real problems of the asylum seekers. 

Unlike Sabine, Luisi uses real actors for the roles of the asylum seekers, and they are an affable bunch that at least manage to suggest why Sabine keeps coming back to the center. Gemsch is adequate in the lead but German-born actor Komi Mizrajim Togbonou (Speed Racer) is the ensemble’s standout as a good-natured but unlucky-in-love character called Punishment — yes, really! — who plays Tell in the play. 

Technically, the film’s entirely sound.

Production companies: Spotlight Media Productions, SRF, Teleclub, Leaves & Leaches Pictures

Cast: Esther Gemsch, Komi Mizrajim Togbonou, Karim Rahoma, Elvis Clausen, Newroz Baz, Klaus Wildbolz, Aylin Maurer, Uygar Tamer, Ersoy Yildirim, Farhan Abdi, Carine Kapinga, Tsering Bokong, Leo Pinkus

Director: Peter Luisi

Screenwriters: Peter Luisi, Juergen Ladenburger, Khaled Jamal Eddin, Ingo Heeb

Producers: Peter Luisi, Aminta Iseppi

Director of photography: Nicolo Settegrana

Production designer: Chasper Bertschinger, Dido Schumacher

Costume designer: Verena Haerdi

Editor: Patrick Zaehringer, Bigna Tomschin

Composers: Christian Schlumpf, Martin Skalsky, Michael Duss

Sales: M-Appeal

No rating, 94 minutes