Living the cliché: reel Switzerland
"Switzerland sounds dreamy. You can get a Swiss watch and learn to yodel," we are informed in Magnificent Obsession (1954). The country, as the Swiss themselves know, is a cliché of mountains, snow, yodelling, banking, 500 years of peace, spies and cuckoo clocks*. What's less well-known is that the Swiss enjoy making fun of each other for their eccentricities.
Now, a one-time location scout for television chain Home Box Office in Los Angeles, Cornelius Schregle, has put together a 400-page picture book of foreigners' clichés of Switzerland found on film.
Backdrop Switzerland (L'Age d'homme, CHF75), drawing largely on photos in the Swiss Cinémathèque, its co-publisher, provides a record of all those foreign films that have used this country as the scene for their stories. Not surprisingly, the cover is of Sean Connery on the Furka pass in Goldfinger (1964). The fictional car chase is now commemorated by a plaque.
The author, a Geneva-born teacher of creative writing and curator of exhibitions these days, was in Sierre on 13 May 2017 along with Swiss 70s star Marthe Keller (the last person you can imagine being bound by Swiss stereotypes), who has written a foreword to the book.
Schregle and Keller came to an early morning presentation organized by DreamAgo, film enthusiast Pascale Rey's effort to establish a Swiss Sundance festival and a screenwriting workshop known as Plume et Pellicule.
Both Keller and Schregle admitted Switzerland is a word that "makes people dream", and that's part of its attraction for foreign film-makers. The fantasy's so strong many don't even bother to come here.
Location, location, location
So Prague stands in for Zurich in The Bourne Identity (2002). Geneva was recreated in England for Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women (1999). Lindau, Germany, stood in for Montreux and Geneva in The Holcroft Covenant (1985). The Sound of Music (1965) used Obersalzburg, Austria, for the Swiss Alps, with some excuse.
But cheekiest of all, Fuessen (Germany) became the Swiss frontier for Steve McQueen and his motorcycle in The Great Escape (1963), and Big Bear (California) was as close as Shirley Temple's Heidi (1937) got to the real Switzerland.
Many foreign film-makers have brought their cameras to the physical Switzerland, of course. Usually for its easily identifiable qualities: "chalets, mountains and banks[...] a land of spies and lawyers [...] a land of adventure," writes Frédéric Maire, Director of the Cinémathèque Suisse, in his introduction to Backdrop Switzerland.
That dream-view of Switzerland — as Schregle told the early morning audience of perhaps 50 people — has meant a "proportionally enormous" emphasis on the Valais, particularly Zermatt and the upper-Valais, home to only 1% of the country's population, including me.
Bollywood, as well as Hollywood, loves Switzerland for its natural beauty but Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) is one of the few to set its plot in the country where it was filmed, he notes.
Our terrifying cows
George!, a largely forgotten comedy from 1972 about a St.Bernard dog, 20 years before Beethoven (1992), advertised itself as "filmed entirely in the Swiss Alps" (it gets 6.8 out of 10 from viewers on imdb).
Other films in Switzerland you might not remember include American Friends (1981) with Michael Palin, Ken Russell's Women in Love (1969), and Bobby Deerfield (1977), starring Keller and Al Pacino. You see the couple riding up the road to the Grand St Bernard pass. "For someone who is familiar with this route," she points out, "the scenery appears out of order."
Keller, who has since made herself a career in opera production and theatre, also recalls: "One day Al Pacino, who had never left New York, found himself nose-to-nose with a cow for the first time in his life. He was terrified!"
Biting comedy, gentle ribbing
Swiss film-makers are less forgiving of this nation's unappealing traits, and draw Swiss audiences into the cinema in hundreds of thousands. Die Schweizermacher/The Swissmakers (1978), a biting comedy about Swiss naturalization rules, was the country's highest grossing movie for nearly 20 years until Titanic (1997), and receives a 7.3 rating on imdb.
The DreamAgo session offered its audience a gentler ribbing of stereotypical Swissness with Bienvenue en Suisse/Welcome to Switzerland (2004) by the Genevois Léa Fazer, and a hilarious teaser for Plume et Pellicule made by Fabrice Bracq as the director from hell with Jacques Gamblin as his victim.
* Peace and cuckoo-clocks were the subject of Harry Lime's inaccurate jibe against the Swiss in The Third Man (1949). As most Swiss could tell you, I think, the cuckoo clock comes from Germany's Black Forest and the yodelling was originally Austro-Bavarian. And Swiss watches originated with the Huguenot refugees from France: in Jean Calvin's time Geneva had to call on a French clockmaker to fix the tower clock in the centre of town.
Welcome to Switzerland: how did we get so rich?
Welcome2CH (available in full on YouTube) tells of a Swiss anthropologist living in France (Denis Podalydès) who returns to Switzerland with his French partner (Emmanuelle Devos) for his grandmother's funeral to discover that there's a whole family of cliché Swiss he doesn't know in (where else?) Schwyz and he stands to inherit a mountain of money.
Unfortunately, he turns up late and says four-score and ten-seven (quatre-vingt-dix-sept) instead of ninety-seven (nonante-sept), casting doubts about his Swissness. So his uncouth cousin (Vincent Pérez) offers him a course in being Swiss, from mountain climbing, to milking a cow, shooting at clay pigeons and — the climax — making fondue. Meanwhile, his partner shows her Frenchness by talking of the famous Swiss founding legend, the sermon of roesti (Rütlischwur, staged in a meadow in the canton of Uri near Lucerne, for those who still have to take their nationality test).
The garbage bag protest
Soon we see the suave anthropologist kitted out in an oversized Swiss plaid shirt, non-matching baseball cap and sandals. The group find themselves watching a demonstration in favour of the right to use non-official garbage bags.
The clichés of mutual Gallic incomprehension infuriated many viewers (see the YouTube commentaries). But its underlying theme is a question that puzzles and bothers many Swiss themselves: where do all the country's piles of cash come from?
The story we hear is that great-grandfather made his money during the Second World War from his chocolate factory and he then invested his profits in chemicals.
Unfortunately, the chocolates are terrible. And the family then asks itself: how did Swiss who got rich during the war make their money? Collaborating with the Nazis is the only answer they can come up with. A black cloud hangs over the inheritance that only gets dissipated in the last few minutes (this is a comedy not a drama).
In the meantime, the anthropologist finds his Swiss soul and corrects his French partner for complaining of some local peculiarity: "I'm Swiss. I have a right to be critical." Bazinga.
Peter Hulm freelanced as English editor of the Swiss Film Centre's annual catalogue in the glory years of independent Swiss film-making (Alain Tanner, Claude Goretta, Marc Soutter, Markus Imhof and Yves Yersin) and has subtitled a number of Swiss films.