Cuba Libre (1996)

24 04 2020

Approximately two minutes into Petzold’s second full-length film, Tom, played by Richy Müller, gets smacked in the face with a purse. He falls to the ground, and the opening credits hit the audience. This is something we are going to get very familiar with in the next eighty-eight minutes. Müller’s Tom has to qualify as the most frequently attacked character in the history of cinema. He is constantly taking a punch, and he hardly ever is prepared to defend himself. Under Petzold’s watchful eye, Tom’s frequent abuse turns absurd, and borders on comic. Petzold’s preoccupations are present, of course, and we can track the stylistic evolution that would reach its peak a few years later in The State I Am In. The most unique thing that Cuba Libre has to offer is an unusually pathetic protagonist, and the humor derived from him. It is far from Petzold’s best, in fact it’s probably the weakest of the ones I’ve recently revisited, but I do have to admit that it is the slightest change of pace for the filmmaker.

Tom’s opening violence comes from the hands of an old flame, Lisa. He is nursed back to health by Jimmy, a man who asks for Tom’s friendship. Understandably skeptical but little economic mobility, Tom reluctantly accepts. He uses this to steal Jimmy’s money. He once again runs into Lisa, but this time she’s the one being harassed by a lecherous man. Tom saves her, which she thanks him for her, before kicking him in the gut. We learn more of Tom and Lisa’s shared past. They once lived together, albeit briefly, in Cuba. Tom dreams of going back, but Lisa resents both Tom and the idea of their time together. He hatches a new plan, to escape to Nice, but of course, things don’t go as planned.

Of all of Petzold’s early thrillers, Cuba Libre is easily the most densely plotted and difficult to comprehend. It never strikes the right balance between being opaque and being disorienting. Instead, it feels like too much is going on. This works to a degree, as the rapid dissemination of information falls onto the audience at the same rate in which Tom is physically assaulted. The way Richy Müller experiences pain in the film is ultimately its greatest gift. There’s a melancholy to be found in his bruises, but the fists fly so frequently that he becomes charmingly devoid of luck. Müller wears all of this very well and he drives the film in a way that male characters seldom do in Petzold’s work, but it isn’t quite enough to make up for the film’s narrative driven thrust.

I think it’s probably telling that this is the first time I’ve encountered a Petzold film that didn’t contain any sort of discourse of surveillance. That alone doesn’t make the film weaker. Far be it from me to downgrade a film just because it lacks the salience present in a relevant, but still buzzy buzzword. Perhaps it is important to note that Petzold’s other films aren’t simply great because they deal with Big Things but instead that he brilliantly taps into a sensation felt by living in an era where these forms of domination are become more and more popular. The equivalent in Cuba Libre is that, well, there’s a lot of cop cars on the highway. Petzold himself has said that his films narrate the “melancholy of the bourgeoise” yet weirdly in a film with his characters the least well off, that tension seems to fade away. Tom and Lisa seem simply unhappy.

The one thing that Tom and Lisa do have in common with the rest of Petzold’s subjects is that they see somewhere else as salvation. The film’s title, Cuba Libre, is amusing to me. There’s a certain political valence that comes from seeing the two words put together. It’s something of a red herring for Petzold. Instead, Cuba is the escape that Tom craves, and to which Lisa eventually agree. Again, they never get to where they want to go. As one of the characters succinctly states, “The poor always end up back where they were poorest.” Despite the constant movement of both Tom and Lisa, they never go anywhere. Literal mobility never equals economic mobility.


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