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Obituary on D.S. by Katja Nicodemus
Fantasyland by Amy Taubin
The Ritual of Desire by Barbara Scharres
La Paloma by Gary Indiana
Death Flowers In Twofold Eroticism
The Boundless Freedom Of Imagination

 

The Boundless Freedom Of Imagination by Bernhard Giger

Bernhard Giger traces the Swiss director's love of travel

He has always been the cosmopolitan of the Swiss cinema, as his biography and filmography alone show: he was one of the first graduates of the newly created Filmakademie in Berlin in the sixties, and his first film was made in Venice in 1970. Later, films shot in Vienna, Morocco, Milan and Japan followed. Even his two early works, Heute nacht oder nie and La Paloma were not made in Switzerland, for reasons of production rather than because of their content - so far as that was concerned, they could just as well have been made anywhere.

Daniel Schmid has turned to Swiss subjects twice before: in 1977, when he shot his adaptation of Conrad Ferdinand Meyer's novella Die Richterin as Violanta in Soglio in the Bergell area, and in 1987 with Jenatsch, in which an investigative journalist falls between time zones and suddenly finds himself two hundred years in the past, in the company of the Graubünden freedom fighters of the time. But he has never before addressed the realities of Swiss life as directly as in his new film, Beresina. His chosen form, however, immediately signals the fact that he is keeping his distance: Beresina is not a political thriller, as it might well have been in view of its story-line, involving nostalgia for the past and the secret sex games of reactionary patriots. Instead, the black comedy of the film depicts Switzerland as operetta country. Everything turns on the figure of the beautiful Russian Irina, who works in Switzerland as a call girl, and loves the country so much that she wants to be Swiss herself.

The Hotel Schweizerhof
Schmid himself grew up in an open-minded environment. The director was born into a hotelier's family in Flims in 1941; in one of his finest films, Hors Saison, Schmid gives us a flashback from 1992 to the period of his youth. Guests from all over the world stayed at the Schweizerhof, his family's hotel in the Swiss mountain village, and in the 1940s they included many German emigrants, intellectuals and artists. Although Schmid was only a boy, it was clear to him that these guests were in flight, and it was also clear why. The stories they themselves had to tell, and those the child heard told about them, made a deep impression on him, and his encounters with European emigrants shaped Schmid's own political awareness. From 1962 to 1970, during the politically explosive sixties, Schmid lived in Berlin, although he took no part in the events of 1968. To this day, indeed, he has said very little in public about politics and his own political position. None the less, his two first films deal with the rituals of a class-structured society. Thut alles im Finstern, Eurem Herrn das Licht zu ersparen, a film about a training school for servants, contains a long take showing a servant and his master walking in a garden that is laid out as a maze. It is not clear whether the servant is following his master or trying to escape from him. In Heute nacht oder nie, masters and servants change places for a night, in line with an old custom, but the servants dare not rebel, although an actor urges them to do so. Daniel Schmid has little time for dogmatists, instead seeking to preserve an open mind in all respects; when he was in Berlin he lived in a shared apartment with Andreas Baader, later one of the terrorists of Rote Armee Fraktion, and he has described the late Paul Sacher, the richest man in Switzerland, as "a great guy". In fact, it is in the very polarization of opposites represented by these two men that Schmid finds the tension which makes life interesting to him. He has a deep aversion to ideologies and any form of totalitarianism, of which he no doubt came to know something growing up in the family hotel in Flims, and he will also have observed the revulsion felt by the emigrants for the appalling simplification of the world presented by the Nazi propaganda machine. The guests at the Schweizerhof included Douglas Sirk and his wife Hilde. Before that master of film melodrama emigrated to the USA in 1939, passing through Switzerland and France, the Nazis had tried to recruit his services, making him handsome offers - offers similar to those they had made Fritz Lang a few years earlier. All his life, and not just to Daniel Schmid, Sirk remained a figure of authority, warning his young admirers of the dangers of ideological blindness. Schmid's comments on Ruth Dreifuss in some recent interviews should perhaps be read against the background of the experiences that moulded his childhood and youth. He feels proud, Schmid has said on several occasions, for Switzerland to have "a woman, a left-winger and a Jew" as its President this year, and he obviously regards the Federal President as being in direct line of descent from those people who impressed him so much in the past at the family's hotel.

His friend Fassbinder
The guests at the Schweizerhof also inspired the boy, who lived in the mountains but liked to draw pictures of the sea, with a wish to travel. "They all came from Berlin," he said in conversation with the SonntagsZeitung, "and that was where I wanted to go too when I had taken my school-leaving exams." A crucial factor for Daniel Schmid's work in the cinema was his chance meeting in Berlin with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, five years younger than himself. Until the German director's early death, there was a close if always rather edgy friendship between them, one that - as in all Fassbinder's friendships - liberated great creative energies. The younger man was the first to make his mark in the cinema. In 1969, a year before Schmid's own début, Fassbinder not only made his first film but went on to direct four more within a very short space of time. Schmid played a small part in Fassbinder's Händler der vier Jahreszeiten in 1971, and years later he also appeared in Lili Marleen. In 1976 he directed the sensational film Schatten der Engel, from an idea of Fassbinder's and with a script written by him. This was not the first time Schmid had worked with actors and actresses close to Fassbinder, that hyper-productive enfant terrible of German culture; he had done so from his very first films. Ingrid Caven, who made her name as a husky-voiced singer of sad chansons, featured in his films on several occasions. In La Paloma she is the beautiful woman who does not love men, only their love for her. As the whore Lily in Schatten der Engel, Ingrid Caven seeks not love but release in death. Her lover, a Jewish speculator, grants her last wish by strangling her. The film, based on the play Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod, was a German entry for the Cannes film festival, where it aroused much protest. Similarly, both film and play set off waves of indignation in the Federal Republic of Germany, sometimes amounting, distastefully, to the hounding of Fassbinder. The cast of this apocalyptic drama, set in Vienna in the heart of capitalism, assumes the exaggerated form of characters in a comic strip. Besides the rich Jew and the whore with the death wish, there is a former Nazi who ventures out on the street only at night, in transvestite clothing, and his wheelchair-bound wife devouring one left-wing classic after another. There is also a pimp who is really still a pathetic child, but brags and boasts, forcing the sick Lily to walk the streets in the cold because he needs her earnings for gambling. The uproar over Schatten der Engel showed how film-makers who failed to present themselves at every opportunity as models of left-wing ideology could be misunderstood in the seventies: neither Fassbinder nor Schmid was out to discriminate against Jews. Instead, their aim was to present the picture of a decadent society in which everything had been reduced to a common denominator, without distinction between the broken and the brutes, the criminals and the victims.

Help from Visconti
Schmid said, in 1976, that in Schatten der Engel he was able to work "professionally" for the first time. By this he meant simply that he had more financial backing, for like all Swiss film directors, it was difficult for Schmid to reconcile himself to the constraints on film production in his own country. In fact he encountered even more resistance than other directors, because the subject matter of his films was outside the main trends of the new Swiss cinema. "Here came someone we were not expecting," wrote the film critic Martin Schaub. It took a recommendation from the great Italian director Luchino Visconti to persuade the Swiss Confederation to provide financial support for his first full-length film, Heute nacht oder nie.

Rien ne va plus
Daniel Schmid was soon among the best known Swiss directors on the international scene, regularly working abroad, and able to cast stars like Maria Schneider, Gérard Depardieu and Lauren Hutton in his films. At home, however, he was forced into the role of outsider, which hurt him personally as well as angering him, more particularly because in making his films Schmid has always seen himself very much as part of the Swiss cinema. He has consistently employed such Swiss film technicians as Renato Berta, the outstanding cameraman of modern Swiss cinema, who worked on most of Schmid's films. It took some time for this negative image of Schmid to be corrected - in fact not until 1977, when Violanta was successfully shown in Swiss cinemas. However, he has won most praise in Switzerland for a documentary (a popular genre in this country), when he made Il Bacio di Tosca in 1984 in a retirement home for opera singers in Milan.
"We are living in an atmosphere of rien ne va plus," commented Daniel Schmid in 1972, speaking about Heute nacht oder nie. Although he is the director of films "which make you dream", as Freddy Buache, founder and long-term director of the Cinémathèque Suisse in Lausanne, wrote of La Paloma, Schmid has never had any illusions about reality. He had no faith in revolutionary changes to society, believing only in the power of the individual imagination. Schmid has not, like most others today, sought out images of a buried Switzerland, or written history from below. His ideas of film-making have related to the old cinema and the last years of the silent movie, which are to him the most important phase in the history of film. To Schmid, wrote Buache, the present "is bloodless, like the kind of film that aims to illustrate that present."

An echo of Dürrenmatt
If for that reason alone, the comment in Facts, reviewing Beresina in its latest issue, that the film is ten years too late is inaccurate. Schmid's films have something timeless about them, with sets and production always suggesting the opera director - Schmid actually did direct opera in Zurich for years, and still does at the Grand Théâtre in Geneva. The point of departure for Beresina was certainly the producer Marcel Hoehn's idea of a Swiss coup d'état, but it would not have been in Schmid's nature to turn that idea into a story full of up-to-date references to the country's internal politics.

Daniel Schmid is not Viktor Giacobbo, nor is Beresina really a film about Switzerland. The story of the Russian call girl involved by her lover, a man from distinguished social circles, in a fateful political intrigue is first and foremost a satire on the stupidity of men and their childish power games. There is no point, therefore, in wondering whether the cold warriors of Beresina are still relevant at the end of the nineties: the paranoid old divisional commander who takes the Russian girl into the secret rock fortress of the reduit, the perverse National Bank director who likes looking up her skirt from on the floor, the slimy and more sadistically inclined lawyer - they are all, like the cast of Schatten der Engel, figures from a vanished world. The society and the insincere values represented by these men are not specifically Swiss, nor can they be precisely pinned down in time. Like Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Besuch der alten Dame, the film Beresina is a parable - based on a visit, in this case, by a young rather than an old lady. As a film made by a cosmopolitan and with a study of Switzerland to the fore, it is thus also a work typical of Schmid, dealing with the impossibility of love and the unlimited freedom of the imagination. On that level, anything is possible: at least, although she naively sees our country in a light so rosy as to be almost sickening, Irina ends up Queen of Switzerland. Only a widely travelled man like Daniel Schmid could reduce the rigidity of Switzerland ad absurdum with such a splendid feeling for kitsch.

Bernhard Giger
BZ Berner Zeitung, August 7, 1999
Translated by Anthea Bell, in association with BMP Translations AG, Basel