Scarcely an international juggernaut, the Swiss film industry has nonetheless produced its share of gems. Each movie listed here offers a valuable insight into a small but highly distinctive European country.
Directed by Claude Goretta and based on the novel La Dentelliére by Pascal Laine, The Lacemaker is the film that launched the career of the beloved French actress Isabelle Huppert. The action follows apprentice hairdresser Beatrice (Huppert) who encounters her first love, an affluent middle-aged intellectual named François (Yves Beneyton). Though they are happy at first, their cultural differences and idiosyncrasies begin to tear their affair apart. A tale of romance turned sour, The Lacemaker is also a subtle interrogation of class prejudice.
Shot primarily in Geneva, Alain Tanner’s Jonah surveys the political atmosphere surrounding the May 1968 wildcat strikes in France and its effects on eight different individuals. The film focuses on marginal characters, each of whom is caught somewhere between revolution and apathy in the attempt to live a utopian life. The mesmerizing performances are peppered with moments of pitch-perfect comic timing. Tanner was a central figure in the development and popularization of the “New Swiss Cinema” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Understated and underrated, Jonah is a marvel.
One of Switzerland’s most commercially successful domestic releases, The Swissmakers is an endearing examination of the troubles and trivialities encountered by foreigners attempting to obtain Swiss citizenship. A quintessential display of national culture, Rolf Lyssy’s film takes a satirical look at Swiss bureaucracy and community that at times cuts a little too close to the bone, especially when addressing the country’s hospitality. Combining both situational comedy and plenty of colorful native Swiss characters; The Swissmakers is an essential piece of cinema for anyone who wants to learn a little more about what makes these extrovert people tick.
Another slice of typical Swiss comedy, Les Petites Fugues balances feelgood sentiment with a more sombre undercurrent. The spotlight falls upon elderly farmhand Pipe (Michel Robin). Retiring after more than 65 years of solitary labour, he decides to buy a motorcycle and tour the Swiss countryside. Though he revels in the freedom he has always longed for, his new lease of life begins to create more problems than it solves. A film that guides the viewer along every mile of Pipe’s questing, Les Petites Fugues is as much a journey of discovery for the audience as it is for the ageing nomad. Hilarious, endearing, and optimistic, Yves Yersin’s film is a heartwarming look at an attempt to regain lost youth.
Directed by Makus Imhoof, this forgotten gem about World War II refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland reveals an intriguing chapter in the nation’s history. The title itself refers to an expression used by the Swiss authorities to deny asylum seekers entry to the country during the war. Another thought-provoking look at the Swiss people’s perception of their community; the film strikes a similar chord to The Swissmakers with its interrogation of Swiss exclusivity and the myths of the country’s wartime innocence.
In 1970s Zurich, 15-year-old Beni (Vincent Branchet) becomes enraptured with a rock singer named Fögi (Frédéric Andrau). Swiftly ensnared by rock’s roller-coaster lifestyle and dependent on his new love, Beni travels down a depressing path involving prostitution and alcohol and drug abuse. Based on Martin Frank’s novel, writer-director Marcel Gisler’s movie paints an intense picture of Zurich’s dank and seedy underbelly. A tale of love gone wrong, Fogi Is a Bastard is well-named.
One of only two Swiss films to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Journey of Hope is an uplifting adventure in which a Turkish family attempts to emigrate illegally to Switzerland in order to make a better life for themselves. An odyssey set amid the snow-capped Alps, Journey of Hope highlights cultural boundaries and the ways in which people try to transcend them. Switzerland’s mountains, stunningly photographed, almost become another character. The breathtaking landscape has seldom looked more beautiful on film.
European countries with financially limited film industries often produce naturally gifted and determined documentary-makers. For many it appears to be the logical step when presented with technical and monetary constraints. Documentaries are cheaper to produce, research, and put together but are still able to garner starkly moving and insightful material. An example is Christian Frei’s War Photographer, which focuses on the life and work of the revered war photographer James Nachtway. It also analyses the broad scope of combat journalism and the psychological issues it raises. The film questions how far a journalist should get involved when witnessing and documenting the destruction caused by war.
Real-life piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu plays the title character of Vitus, a 12-year-old boy burdened with the strain of being a world-class piano player. Directed by veteran Swiss filmmaker Fried M. Muer, Vitus seeks to entertain rather than analyse. Enticing the audience to go with the flow, it’s an uplifting movie brimming with emotion, though it might be too sentimental for some. Muer clearly enjoyed himself immensely.
Directed by Ursula Meier, Home is one of the best art-house movies to have emerged from Switzerland in the last twenty years. Shot mostly in Bulgaria, it stars Isabelle Huppert as Marthe, who lives with her family on the edge of a deserted highway. When renewed construction confronts them with a permanent traffic jam, they have to cope with the loss of their hitherto sheltered existence. A modern parable of home invasion, the film benefits from Meier’s original direction to make for a unique viewing experience. Her equally impressive follow-up Sister premiered at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival to rapturous acclaim.