Something of an international-cinema manticore—French head, German body, Euro-hobo tail—Swiss film culture has never projected a distinctive identity, and has therefore been roundly overlooked. And yet culturati from virtually every corner of the continent, including Sergei Eisenstein, Gérard Depardieu, author John Berger, and composer Arthur Honegger, have contributed to the Alpine legacy. Outside of Jean-Luc Godard’s decades-long occupation of the Swiss bucolia (represented here by In Praise of Love, a lovely big-screen must-see too briefly available last year), the industry’s most popular asset has been Alain Tanner, auteur of 1975’s counterculture ballade Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, probably the most familiar Swiss film ever made. The thoroughly cross-sectioning Walter Reade series includes both Jonah and its almost mandatory 25-years-later sequel, Jonah and Lila, Til Tomorrow (2000), but Tanner’s mightiest claim to preeminence might be Messidor (1977), a sour road-anthem of feminist unrest that’s renowned as the flowchart for Thelma & Louise, but remains a far grimmer, less sensational, and much more rape-jittery odyssey.
One of Messidor‘s oddest aspects is the conflict between its modernist despair and the utterly adorable Swiss countryside (less iconic, certainly, than the great American plains). That same picturesque bounty of landscape distinguishes many of the older curios, including Jean Choux’s La Vocation d’André Carel (1925), a creaky yet antiquely alluring silent melodrama about triangulated love and betrayal set in and about the Lake Geneva sailing milieu. At the same time, Choux is obviously Soviet montage-smitten, fashioning Pudovkinian editing schemes a full year before Mother. Influence was everywhere, what with Eisenstein and Eduard Tisse visiting to shoot the birth-control tract Women’s Misery, Women’s Happiness (1929), as well as Walter Ruttmann’s being hired on for the syphilis screamer Enemy in the Blood (1931); briefly, Switzerland may have been uniquely famous for having great artists churn out public-service exploitation. Roaming Russian director Dimitri Kirsanoff spent his time in the mountains making Rapt (1933), a bizarre, Dreyer-influenced hillbilly romance-thriller about kidnapping and blood feuds that may be your only chance for years to see the haunting Dita Parlo in something other than L’Atalante and Grand Illusion. Likewise, the 1946 mystery-melodrama Matto Reigert recombines Hitchcock and Renoir in a way Truffaut never managed, situating a murder investigation entirely inside the most caring, humanistic, and righteously responsible mental hospital in film history.
Virtually unique among European sensibilities, the Swiss culture-persona can be characterized by the impulse not to strengthen or glorify itself but rather to look outward at its connectedness with the world. (For those in further need of all things Swiss, the SwissAm festival at Anthology April 25 through 27 features dozens of new shorts, animations, and docs.) The newer Swiss films are fervently politicized: Xavier Koller’s Gripsholm (2000) is a lush and orthodox semi-fictional vision of a German journalist vacationing in the titular castle while the Third Reich slowly spreads to his doorstep, while Thomas Imbach’s fidgety punk-ode Happiness Is a Warm Gun (2001) contemplates the romance and 1992 suicide-murder of progressive activist Petra Kelly and her ex-military boyfriend, from the corpses’ point of view. As its title suggests, Iraqi émigré Samir’s Forget Baghdad (2002) directly addresses the muddle of national identity by profiling four Iraqi Jews living in Israel. Since so many Swiss filmmakers originate elsewhere, the ambivalence of expatriation is ubiquitous, but rarely as gripping as in Miklòs Gimes’s documentary Mutter (2002), in which the son and namesake of the beloved, martyred Hungarian bureaucrat disinters his family’s past by interviewing his tough and savvy mother, Lucy. As the poltergeists of Communism are busy breaking plates and slamming doors, Gimes unearths tons of vintage archival and home movie footage, all leading to the 1989 “official burial” of the executed father (as part of an all-day, televised stadium funeral service for every “disappeared” citizen). Implicit in Mutter and in the majority of films here is the reality that sanctuary in Switzerland does not translate to detachment from the past or the chaos outside its hills.