The leading character of the film, Teodors (from the Greek — God’s donation), is seen at four different ages and in four seasons — childhood (summer), (autumn), adulthood (winter) and old age (spring). The fragments of Teodors’s existence — stretching from a couple of hours to one whole day — correspond to the four meanings of the German title Vogelfrei: 1) the beginning of the bird hunting season; 2) the outlawed, destitute of rights; 3) free from birds, or birds not allowed; 4) free like a bird.
The film is a parable about man in general, about substantial issues at different periods in life. The time in the film is not linear, but forges a square: Teodors is growing up, yet the historic space around him does not change, only the corners are different (forest, suburb, town centre and forest again): places where the character dwells as well as the means of transport he uses. At first it is a bicycle, then a trolleybus, then a taxi and then in reversed order: a taxi, a trolleybus, a bicycle. The openness of the novellas and the subtle interplay of motives create the integrity of Vogelfrei.
The Bird Hunt Begins
The Childhood episode (director Janis Kalejs) is filled with tension. Each moment of action is on the verge between sensuality and death. In this novella (and in each of the following ones) the main character encounters a femme fatale, yet only in old age when man will be free from egoistic passion he is able to receive the bird from the woman’s hands with dignity. During a hot summer day Teodors experiences his first sexual feeling towards the girl Klera. The director uses clichéd coitus filming devices, to begin with children’s body postures, with Klera dominating, to the girl’s sensually swelled lips tinted with blackberry juice. The sexuality of children as part of nature imbues the sultry summer with overwhelming voluptuousness. Klera makes Teodors experience the fear of death for the first time in his life when she disappears under water for nearly a minute. The director demonstrates that almost every children’s game apprehends the presence of mortal danger.
In the forest Teodors runs across a bird — an eagle, the symbol of freedom. Teodors fires a ritual gunshot — the hunting begins. The space of childhood is the forest and like the other forest at the end of his life it is situated at the world’s end delimited by railway and highway. Along this road Teodors is driven to the civilised world, the world of quelled emotions.
The Thrall of Adolescence
Director Gatis Smits shows this particular moment of life when a human being surrenders to the birds of sexual appetence. Nature has awakened violent desires personalised by Astra, a schoolmate of Teodor. The imagery of the episode is reduced to a minimum. The story develops like an unobtrusive observation. Nature, where everything is alive, has give way to the insensibility of Riga’s dilapidated housing blocks. Gatis Smits has almost entirely refused the traditional ways of illustrating desire. Instead, he shows the adolescents joining hands as an act of intimacy. At the same time it reveals the dissimilarity of sexual maturation: tagging is not enough for the girl; in fact she already lives in another — adult — world.
The seemingly naive performance of the school theatre about the sultan, the hunter and the bird has a more profound meaning. The play not only elucidates the emotions of the character in this particular novella, but also anticipates and sketches the fourth novella. The captured bird makes a promise to Teodors: “If you set me free you will become free and happy”.
Life without Birds
Adulthood (director Janis Putnins) differs from the previous two novellas by the author’s distanced irony vis-à-vis his character. The two previous novellas are nearly without dialogue; in the third words are flowing. Accentuating the artificiality of Teodors’s existence in this period of his life the dialogue is deliberately inconsistent with his almost expressionless face. The exaggerated self-containment of Teodors in adult age suggests emotional and intellectual exhaustion covered behind his impeccable appearance. Significantly the cleaner Natalija — his absolute opposite in everything from occupation to dwelling place — becomes his potential saviour and his femme fatale. Yet sometimes opposites gravitate towards another. The door of Natalija’s apartment opening to Teodors’s flat is marked by the number 69 — a promise of absolute oral convergence.
Free as a Bird
Old Age (director Anna Viduleja) echoes once more the fairy-tale about the sultan, the hunter and the bird. Yet the hunter here appears as an already free man who has apparently found his magic bird. The old Teodors is played by the experienced Lithuanian film actor Lubomirs Laucavics. The character’s inherent numbness has transformed into an outstanding mime. The actor’s face displays the entire drama without uttering a single word. The partners — the sultan and his friend — are on a par with the main character. The filmic existence of both actors is well balanced on the verge between tragic and comic. It does not allow the novella to become pathetic —– which is suggested by Teodors’s organ play in the church and the ritual performed by the minister and especially the symbolic Via Dolorosa to the marsh as well as the release of the eagle and its flight in the sky.
Vogelfrei is definitely not merely an almanac of films, but a document of professional aptitude, giving the right to make a feature film. Each of the four authors has already passed that sort of test. Vogelfrei is much more — it is a world view, the manifesto on life of a concrete generation that is actually in the most creative stage of its life.