Swiss ‘trouble’ takes over Berlinale film festival


“We must destroy all institutions, all states, all legislatures – except Switzerland.” With a certain pride, Schäublin repeats the words of the 19th century Russian revolutionary and anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, buried in Bern, when asked what image of Switzerland he wants to project with his film.

Bakunin believed that Switzerland, with its federalist and decentralized system, was in fact an anarchist state compared to the great powers of the 1800s. The filmmaker evokes this historical energy in Unrueh.

The drama, which won him the Best Director award in the Berlinale’s Experimental Films showcase, is an unusual work. Schäublin, from a family of watchmakers in the Jura, links the beginnings of the watch industry to the role that Switzerland played in the anarchist movement of the second half of the 19th century.

Schäublin tries to look at society from inside and outside, because one of his sources of inspiration is a real historical figure, the Russian geographer and anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, who wrote about his experiences in Switzerland.

The film succeeds as an impressionistic portrait of how factory and office workers in the early years of industrialization spent their days. It questions the different forms society can take, how we can use technology responsibly, and the meaning of time.

Unrueh is also innovative in its structure. The scenes are laid out almost like panoramas, so the people in them look like extras in the background. The cold, severe aesthetic that Schäublin and his cameraman Silvan Hillmann created in their debut effort Dene wos guet geit (Those Who Are Well) is masterfully rendered here.

External content The glory of Godard intact

Schäublin is not the only Swiss film to have won a prize in the Encounters section. One Friday, Robinson (See you Friday, Robinson) won the Special Jury Prize for Iranian director Mitra Farahani. A Swiss co-production, this is Farahani’s first feature film and a neat, sometimes overly mannered documentary.

Keystone Mitra Farahani / Ronny Hartmann

The film follows the correspondence between two of his artistic idols, Iranian filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan and Jean-Luc Godard – the most famous Swiss director of all time and a man who has spent most of his career in France.

It’s a testament to the unflinching adoration that 91-year-old Godard continues to enjoy today that he’s portrayed here, and not just in front of Farahani’s camera. Two of his films are presented in the retrospective section of the festival: Sauve qui peut (la vie) with the young Isabelle Huppert and the 2004 documentary essay Notre Musique.

But Farahani’s film also shows how dependent Swiss productions are on international funding. One Friday, Robinson was produced by Switzerland, France, Iran and Lebanon. And although his film has a direct link with the Alpine country, it is not really a prerequisite for Switzerland to help finance a project. Making a film costs large sums of money – and funding rarely comes from one source.

External content International co-productions

For Swiss films to be eligible for international partnerships, Switzerland must also finance certain foreign productions. This money allows the Swiss film industry to remain visible on the world stage. Creative and professional exchanges also become more feasible.

Two foreign productions financed by Switzerland presented at the Berlinale. One, an experimental documentary film, Jet Lag, combines its Chinese director Zheng Lu Xinyuan’s experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic with consideration of his family history.

The other is a large-scale feature film by Italian Chiara Bellosi. Calcinculo (Swing Ride) is an intimate coming-of-age story and Bellosi’s second film co-produced by Switzerland.

The two Swiss films in the festival’s main competition were both international co-productions. The line, a clever and heavily staged tragicomedy by Ursula Meier, which explores the entangled relationship between a mother and her three daughters, was funded by investors in Switzerland, Belgium and France.

Meier brought in a host of French actors, including Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi as the do-gooder mother and co-screenwriter Stephanie Blanchoud in the lead role.

External content Switzerland in all its diversity

Meier had an international breakthrough with her feature debut, Home (2008), starring Huppert. The Franco-Swiss director said she couldn’t imagine making her films anywhere other than Switzerland, despite her close ties to Belgium and France – or rather because of them. She feels that she needs a somewhat detached perspective to grasp the realities of Switzerland.

The canton of Valais, the filming location of La Ligne, had a great influence on her during the filming. Different natural environments – mountains, rivers and plains – as well as social spaces come together closely, which inevitably has an impact on society. This variety in such a concentrated form is rare outside of Switzerland.

External content

The location also played an important role in Michael Koch’s visually stunning drama Drii Winter (A Piece of Sky), a Swiss-German co-production. Filming in the Uri Mountains in central Switzerland, Koch told SWI he was aware of the delicate balance he had to strike to avoid creating a Swiss-Alpine romanticism.

Koch wanted to observe people, drawn by their closeness to nature and their composure in the face of life’s difficulties. Her experiences are reflected in the muted but intense love story told by non-professional actors in an isolated, inhospitable but beautiful alpine setting.

While La Ligne left the festival empty-handed, Drii Winter was awarded a special mention by the jury.

Souheila Yacoub Keystone / Sascha Steinbach

The Swiss presence at this year’s Berlinale shows how varied Swiss cinema is in both form and content. It also highlights the multicultural character and social complexity of Switzerland. Souheila Yacoub, born in Switzerland to a Tunisian father and a Belgian mother, has been selected as one of the European Shooting Stars – promising young actors – at this year’s Berlinale, following in the footsteps of her compatriots Joel Basman, Carla Juri and Luna Wedler, who also pursue careers abroad.

Adapted from German by Terence MacNamee, Geraldine Wong



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Gerald R. Schneider