Der Verdingbub / The Foster Boy (2011)

Max: "That accordion was the only thing I had. Now I am nothing"
By Markus Imboden
With Katja Riemann, Max Hubacher and Lisa Brand

I met Der Verdingbub at the same time I met Pas Douce (2007). The idea that I'd have not one, but two Swiss movies to watch was quite odd, because I see them so rarely. It isn't the first Swiss-German movie I watched but maybe only the third or fourth.

Der Verdingbub is Max, a teenage boy in an orphanage. As it was tradition in the 50's, he is put in a farm to help with the handwork. Max's only ambition is to become a musician and playing his accordion seems to be his only joy. He arrives at the Bösiger family's farm where another orphan boy that was placed here just died. We quickly realize the family is not adopting him out of charity, but are being paid for it and in fact it is their sole income. The father is an alcoholic and the mother is deeply abusive. Soon after, the son of the Bösigers, Jakob, comes back from his military service only to be met very coldly by his father. Jakob being unable to please his father takes his anger out on Max.

Later, a girl whose mother can't keep at home, joins the farm to help the mother and grandmother who is very sick. The young girl, Berteli, is noticed by Jakob who also lusts after the village's school teacher Mrs. Sigrist. When the family pulls Berteli out of school, Mrs. Sigrist tries to investigate but the mayor and the priest all turn a blind eye. What will it take to have someone help the two kids?

I was surprised with Der Verdingbub. It is very raw and brutal in its action and dialogue, yet is always beautiful. The acting was really convincing too. Set in the rural part of the canton of Bern, the landscapes should please anyone who enjoys the Alps and green hills.

It is hard for me to point out exactly what the movie is mostly about: is it the ambition of Max or the domestic violence that orphans are put through? The sadness and emotional violence is almost too much at times and as a viewer, we'd want it to stop and we find ourselves desperately wanting to see someone do something. It makes the movie both painful and rewarding because of its strong message. I guess it is important since most people would think violence only happens in other countries, whereas this movie brings it right to your doorstep.

The movie is deeply emotional, and we see very little of the village and surroundings except for a few scenes of wrestling for local colors. My reproach might be that it simply adds one nasty event to the next as it escalates. I can't deny that these things could happen in reality but here it felt a bit too much, forced for the movie purposes maybe.

I liked: Very convincing. Sadly based on similar events. Both beautiful and violent.

I disliked: Relies on the viewers' emotions to work. Cumulative.

It might feel like a Swiss and rural version of An American Crime (2007) and if I had to recommend one over the other, I'd go with the American one. However, if you saw it already and are looking for something similar then you should see Der Verdingbub.


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