Swiss cinema isn’t exactly stuck in a rut. Its artistically-challenging documentaries are thriving: Markus Imhoofs meditation on bees in the climate-change era “More Than Honey” from 2012 was released in 29 countries around the globe, and last year, the animated “My Life as Zucchini” was nominated for an Oscar. Historically, however, Switzerland has given rise to an outstanding list of worldly auteurs such as Claude Goretta, Alain Tanner and Jean-Luc Godard. Why haven’t we heard much about young Swiss talent making the leap out of the small alpine state?
There is one major exception here: Ursula Meier is a Geneva-based cinematographer and filmmaker who has found a string of international successes. With “Sister” in 2012, she received the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. Part of the production collective “Bande à part films,” Meir collaborates with three other strong directors from the French part of the Switzerland — Lionel Baier, Jean-Stéphane Bron, and Frédéric Mermoud — forming a collective that produces and directs films in an environment crucial for the artistic freedom that allows auteur cinema to flourish.
Some Swiss-German filmmakers are attempting to keep the momentum going. 8 Horses is a production company based in Zurich that unites directors Lorenz Merz, Tobias Nölle and Simon Jaquemet, all of whom have found some modicum of success. Merz’ “Cherry Pie,” Nölles “Aloys” and Jaquemets “Chrieg” are as artistically exciting as Swiss cinema has been for years. But internationally, these films flew under the radar.
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Lisa Brühlmanns “Blue My Mind” and Lisa Blatters “Skizzen von Lou” are other films of aspiring young talents yet to be discovered by an international audience. Brühlmann is about to get some more attention from an international crowd: her film will premiere in this year’s New Directors sidebar at the San Sebastian Film Festival. Blatter is part of the production company 2:1 Film, a collective of screenwriters, actors, cinematographers and directors similar to 8 horses and also based in Zurich. Another collective project was the film “Heimatland,” where 10 young directors contributed to a dystopian vision of Switzerland. The film premiered in the international competition at Locarno’s 2015 edition.
At this year’s edition of the festival, two other films have shown the potential to inject some fresh blood into national film scene. Dominik Locher’s “Goliath” is the a satisfying drama about a soon-to-be new father drowning himself in male self-pity and steroid-pumped bodybuilding. Locher’s film is his graduate thesis film from Zurich University of the Arts, the institution that forged many promising new Swiss talents. In Locarno, his film was shown in international competition, and “Goliath” is based on the director’s own experience of becoming a father. It’s this new confidence in the little stories of everyday life that makes contemporary Swiss cinema so exciting. Locher eludes the stagy dialogue that mars many Swiss-German films, instead finding steadier ground with an improvisatory approach.
“We support and take care of each other,” Locher said in an interview during the festival. “We all have the common interest to tell these stories, which are fundamentally important to society.”
Another is Cyril Schäublin’s debut “Dene wos guet geit” (“Those Who Are Fine”). It premiered in the Locarno sidebar Filmmakers of the Present. Alice works in a call-center in the outskirts of the financial capital Zurich. By selling insurance deals to strangers she learns the skills to trick elderly for the heritage, telling the people on the other end of the line that she is their granddaughter. She quickly makes a fortune. The camera follows Alice through the uncanny world of Switzerland’s largest city.
Zurich has never been seen from this angle before: Architecture and negative space often divide the screen geometrically and tell us more about the woman’s emotional state than any dialogue could. But about that dialogue: The movie’s screenplay is radically different from anything else in Swiss contemporary cinema—Schäublin’s characters basically talk about insurance offers, incomprehensible film plots, and the various names of telecom providers. Sometimes, they run totally out of words and only talk in numbers and Wi-Fi passwords.
The dullness of a wealthy service society has never been shown so drastically. Still, there are some scenes full of dry humor. Schäublin did research in nursing homes and talked to policemen chasing legacy hunters. In collaboration with the artist and the director of photography of the film, Silvan Hillmann, they took long tours through Zurich to scout for suitable locations.
“Dene wos guet geit” is one of the most artistically challenging Swiss films in the last few years, but its plot corresponds with many others. The production again recalls Meier’s approach: Schäublin and Hillmann founded their own production company, Seeland Film, to make the film. “Funding and production is linked in Switzerland — usually you need to have a big production company in the background in order to get some funding,” Schäublin said. Apart from national funding politics and big production companies, this new generation of aspiring Swiss filmmakers found a way to both guarantee their artistic freedom and to achieve more clout when facing essential funding boards, who do not typically want to take risks with rookies.
As collectives, these filmmakers have the chance to link their work to previous generations of Swiss filmmakers such as Goretta, Tanner, Michel Soutter, Clemens Klopfenstein, Christian Schocher, and Godard. These monolithic figures both developed a common cinematic language and established a reputation of Swiss cinema abroad. We can only hope these newcomers follow suit.