Unpicking the wheels of justice at The Hague’s International Criminal Court, Hans-Christian Schmid’s Sturm is a very European thriller. And it’s kicking up a storm.
Welcome Back To Sarajevo by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With Kerry Fox, Stephen Dillane and the Yugoslav conflict at the heart of this judicial thriller, Sturm is a kind of mash-up of Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome To Sarajevo twelve years on. While Winterbottom’s film was a journalist’s search for a bullet and bomb tattered truth, Hans Christian Schmid’s court drama is a cogitative quest for real justice, focusing on the human forces turning the cogs inside the International Criminal Court. Responsible for trying those accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, it’s shocking so few films have been made about a court with so much at stake, especially in the wake of recent geopolitical thrillers, such as Tom Tykwer’s The International or Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter. But following on from Lichter‘s ruminative border-line stories, Hans-Christian Schmid has uncovered an equally philosophical drama in another European no man’s land. Only this time it’s justice on trial.
As the opening clouds gather in Sturm, there’s a thunderous echo of Der Baader Meinhof Komplex. Both films start with idling families on a beach, innocent until proven guilty. And as with Ulrike Meinhof, it’s only later we realise this sandy idyll might have led us down a coastal path. The man playing with his daughter is former Serbian general Goran Duric, a fictional stand-in for Radovan Karadzic, prior to his arrest and subsequent trial at the Hague for crimes against humanity, where he is charged with deporting Bosniaks from Banya Luka to detention camps during the Yugoslav conflict. His courtside adversary is Hannah Maynard, powerfully incorporated by Kerry Fox, drafted in by Stephen Dillane’s slipshod prosecutor to bring the apparently open-and-shut trial to a rapid close. The case however falls apart when lead witness Alen turns out to be lying and Hannah is sent chasing over Europe after his sister, and reluctant witness, Mira.
Starring Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca, who shot to festival fame in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days and Swedish actor Rolf Lassgård from Susanne Bier’s After The Wedding, Sturm ‘s cast list is as European as the international institution at the film’s heart. And with sterling performances in English, German, Serbian and Bosnian, the subtitles are a satisfying stand-in for the court’s headphone-piped simultaneous translations – even if the dialogues aren’t always without the occasional whiff of freshly baked europudding. But as the human cost of justice to both Hannah Maynard and Mira Arendt becomes apparent, one lingua franca in this polyglot Babel institution emerges, justice.
Spliced into the protagonists’ names, the spectre of Hannah Arendt looms large. A critic of the Israeli handling of the Eichmann trial but also an eager advocate for his execution, and a proponent of personal political action in the public sphere, Arendt brings the weight of history to bear on human shoulders. As such, both Hannah and Mira have to overcome their own personal storm to bring Goran Duric to justice. Mira gives up the quiet family life in Berlin she has won for herself after years blocking out the past, only to be hung out to dry by the international court as they cobble together a deal – a guilty verdict in exchange for not mentioning the rape camp at Valina Keso. While Hannah, in breaking the deal so that Mira’s testimony can be heard, disbars herself for life. Justice is a jealous Moloch requiring human sacrifice.
Yet it is not only Mira and Hannah caught up in the eye of this storm, the future of the EU is implicated; deals are done based on Bosnia Herzegovina’s entry, held back by the Republika Srpska’s retired warmongers’ attempts to bury its dark past with violence and intimidation. The International Court is swept up too, as Hannah and Keith are berated for reducing justice to a treasure hunt, blindly aiming at piñatas, hoping for a guilty verdict. A slow, heavy behemoth of an institution, the court is also subject to the mundane constraints of budgets and deadlines. The prosecution’s disavowal of the rape camp at Valina Keso in exchange for a quick guilty plea is just as contrary to the spirit of justice as Alen’s perjurious attempt to see justice done while saving his sister’s blushes.
Filmed in the shell-scarred Holiday Inn Sarajevo where journalists stayed during the Yugoslav conflict, Sturm is a realistically complex and clever thriller haunted by a war whose importance is mirrored by the storm in European politics this Karadzic stand-in trial creates. Concentrating on the most important stories of all, human testimonies, the film reflects on the personal storm bearing witness engenders, endangering peace and stability while raking up unspoken truths. In silencing Mira, the court may not see justice as therapy, but Hans-Christian Schmid, the storyteller, does. Hannah breaks the deal, allowing Mira to tell her story, to confront her oppressors with a truth more important than earthly justice.
In the end Duric goes free, only to stand trial for all his crimes at another court in Bosnia. Like the ICC, the film may at times plod cumbersomely, but it is astonishingly heartlifting, reaffirming our faith in the institutions that govern our peace and paying tribute to the humans at its centre; a European gem not to be overlooked.
Storm is released in the UK on 26th March 2010.