In January 1996 an interview in the French newspaper Libération with the filmmakers Alain Tanner, Fredi M. Murer and Daniel Schmid caused quite a stir within the Swiss film scene. On the occasion of a retrospective of 100 Swiss films at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the paper had asked the three Swiss feature filmmakers “best known abroad” to comment on the current state of Swiss filmmaking, including the question: “Are there young Swiss filmmakers today?” All three responded with a resounding “no”.
For these veterans of the edgy Swiss New Wave of the 60s and 70s, the film scene had become tame and bureaucratic. Schmid (b. 1941) declared: “There are film schools all over Switzerland, and thousands of students who graduate every year... but they don't make any films.” Murer (b. 1940) added: “There are about twenty young people whose films aren't bad, technically adequate, but they are perfectly interchangeable. There is less courage than before: everyone attends workshops, consults script doctors, and learns to use all kinds of professional jargon. And then they try to imitate American films, but with Third-World film budgets. As a result, there are no authors, and the films they make have no roots.” And Tanner concluded: “Don't take this as overly pessimistic, but I think it will all be over after the year 2000!”
Looking back today, the turn of the millenium does seem like a turning point in Swiss film. For Tanner it may have been the end – he himself declared the 2004 PAUL S'EN VA to be his last film – but for a new generation of filmmakers, it was the beginning. The transition began partly with the establishment of film schools in Zurich and Lausanne in the 1990s. Before this relatively late date, there were few opportunities for formal film training within Switzerland. In 1995 and 1996, the first students were graduating; not in the thousands, as Schmid polemicized, but a dozen or so at a time. Some of the most important new names in Swiss film emerged from the schools between 1995 and 2000: such as Sabine Boss, Anna Luif, Andrea Staka, and Bettina Oberli in Zurich, or Jean-Stéphane Bron and Fulvio Bernasconi in Lausanne. Other significant filmmakers to appear during this period trained abroad: such as Ursula Meier in Belgium, or Stina Werenfels and Vincent Pluss in New York. Lionel Baier followed the old model and trained on-the-job as an assistant director, after university studies in cinema and literature.
During this period of course other, older, directors were active as well, many of whom had grown out of the 1980s protest film and video scenes which had been youth movements at the time. But the filmmakers who emerged around 2000 definitely represent a new phase in Swiss cinema history – however diverse their individual styles and themes.
Unlike the New Wave directors, or the political filmmakers of the 1980s, who tended to position themselves against the mainstream, many young directors today claim the right to be popular and widely accessible – while maintaining their aesthetic ambitions. And some do indeed take Hollywood entertainment genres as a model, but combine them with local settings and – in the case of German speakers – with Swiss-German dialect. This was the path followed by the self-taught Michael Steiner, whose adaptation of the children's classic MEIN NAME IST EUGEN (2006) was the third highest-grossing film in Swiss history. And by Zurich grad Bettina Oberli, whose 2006 dramatic comedy DIE HERBSTZEITLOSEN (LATE BLOOMERS) achieved the second-highest box office figures of all time (Rolf Lyssy's 1978 satire DIE SCHWEIZERMACHER (THE SWISSMAKERS) remains in first place).
Things were definitely not “over” in the year 2000. But the Swiss film scene has clearly gone through some major shifts since the heyday of the auteurs who achieved their fame in the 1960s and 70s. As in the rest of the world, there have been vast changes in the way films are made, marketed, and consumed. In the globalized media world, national cinema movements with a shared aesthetic are becoming a thing of the past. Younger generations raised on television and video games cultivate a different visual style and different cultural references than their predecessors, and are likely to have more in common with their peers around the globe than their older colleagues at home.
Is it still meaningful, then, to speak of “Swiss cinema”? I would argue that it is. For one thing, filmmakers of all generations in Switzerland work within the same fragile ecosystem: sharing the same financial constraints, semi-professional infrastructures, and audiences split by linguistic and regional differences. In the face of these difficulties, they would do well to stand together to advance their common interests – which would ultimately be a more effective means of maintaining individual creative freedom.
For another thing, filmmakers working in Switzerland share the same cultural context and the same history, and still return to the motifs of previous decades. Then and now they have been inspired – and also irritated – by subjects such as: the Swiss landscape, the gap between urban and rural areas, the education system, the often controversial worlds of finance and, the challenges of immigration. It is the tone of their responses, however, that has changed. While the filmmakers of the 1960s, 70s and 80s often took an explicitly oppositional, socially critical position, today's young filmmakers tend to be more subtle, more subjective, and less overtly dogmatic. Perhaps one reason for this is that younger filmmakers represent new voices and identities. While previous generations made films on behalf of immigrants and other minorities, some of the younger filmmakers belong to these groups themselves.
Still, the generation gap within Swiss cinema has shrunk since the late 1990s. Daniel Schmid died of cancer in 2006, but for his last (unrealized) feature PORTOVERO had been preparing to work with young collaborators. A documentary on his life and work is currently being prepared by two Zurich film students, Pascal Hofmann and Benny Jaberg. Fredi Murer joined forces with younger filmmakers for the collective documentary DOWNTOWN SWITZERLAND (2004), and for his last – and very successful – fiction film VITUS (2006) (2006) collaborated with young filmmaker Peter Luisi on the screenplay. As for Alain Tanner: no other Swiss filmmaker has been as influential on young filmmakers, or as widely imitated. Some, like Ursula Meier, have paid homage to his influence in interviews and statements. Others have provided deliberate nods to him in their work: like Lionel Baier's 2004 GARÇON STUPIDE, which plays on references to Tanner's 1971 LA SALAMANDRE. All of which shows that if the generations have clashed, they still belong to the same family.
(b. 1969 in Montreal, Canada) is a film historian and media consultant. She is currently working on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Zurich on self-critical images of Switzerland in Swiss film.