Die Schweizermacher (“The Swissmakers”, 1978) // The Roots of Modern Swiss Racism

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A charming pen-pusher by the name of Fischer joins the Zurich naturalization authorities. He’s assigned a mentor – Bodmer, a petty-bourgeois nationalist. They are “Swiss Makers: they spy on foreigners who’ve applied for the Swiss passport, interview their neighbours and employers, and write a report on whether the poor buggers are “Swiss enough”.

The two men (and the audience) follow three applications: a German doctor couple, an Italian factory worker, and a dancer who’s spent her life in Switzerland (but was born Yugoslavian). The liberal Fischer loosens up and starts to see the positives of multicultural Switzerland, hurrah.

But the real subject, and star, of the film is Bodmer. His side-comments are subtly, and ingeniously coded for racist prejudice and nationalist paranoia.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (Intermediate)
Language: Swiss German.
Availability: Find it in your local library; there may be a streamable copy online with English subs; or rent it, from e.g. Cinefile.ch.

Worth a watch?

Ten years after that first viewing, I was grabbed by every scene with the eerie familiarity of it all. The satire felt more biting in every one of Bodmer’s double-edged platitudes. It’s a cracking setup, executed with a lot of patience and care. Thoroughly recommended!

Swissness Lab Report: The Roots of Modern Swiss Racism

The message is clear: Bodmer aims to uphold a “Swissness” which is less liberating than it is a straitjacket for all concerned (in one more farcical scene, assistants in a psychiatric ward try and section him).

A bit less obvious is the “posh multiculturalism” promoted in the film. Those scenes of international harmony in a smoky apartment are very bourgeois-bohemian, an dull utopia inhabited by dancers from the Zurich Opera House.

The Germans, surprise surprise, are the most anal and conniving of the foreigners! And the working-class Italian applicant is basically a gentle child.

But I’m being a bit mean – the meat on the bones here is the precision skewering of a more insidious kind of racist prejudice. To my British eyes it’s very subtle – in the UK, a conservative stickler like Bodmer would be played for laughs as farce (I could see Rowan Atkinson doing it) or cringe comedy (Ricky Gervais?). Here, he’s relentlessly ordinary. His generalizations are so politely banal it’s dangerously easy to overlook the sheer frequency of the message that “foreignness” should be eliminated (no wonder I didn’t quite get it the first time).

We hear it in the reasonableness of the tone in which Bodmer insists foreigners “must do something to get what we have to give them” – contrasted with the absurdity of what they actually have to do, i.e. prove they have the same values as a small group of middle-aged male bureaucrats.

Of course, newcomers to Switzerland nowadays would never experience this type of “othering”.

…Oh right.

Well, to be fair, the recent policies of the populist right would have looked positively open-minded back in 1978, when Die Schweizermacher came out.

Switzerland had just gone through a series of popular votes on “Überfremdung” (literally “Inundation by foreign elements”). Both the film and the initiatives were products of Switzerland post-war boom years, when it became a very desirable place to work for the nearby war-ravaged countries who could speak the same language.

During a huge wave of Italian immigration, a politician called Schwarzenbach tried to bring in a 10% quota of foreigners in every Canton. Hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers would have the boot.

In 1966 they came close to pulling it off, with 45% of the vote.

None of the old Überfremdung initiatives made it – but the pro-immigration film Die Schweizermacher did, and is hailed as a classic even today, when 25% of the population are non-Swiss.

So if the Fischers of Switzerland won, then the Bodmers no longer exist, right?

Well, I watched the film with a friend from Bern who told me she’s met many people like Bodmer. “I was living in an apartment block in Zurich a few years ago,” she said, “and I had my laundry hung up at the window. Suddenly I got a phone call from my landlady.

“‘I’m sorry to disturb you,’ said the landlady, ‘but is it your window with the washing hung up outside?’

“‘Er… Yes, why?’

“‘That washing is making the building look messy, you’ll have to take it down. We don’t live in Portugal, you know.'”

If you want to go behind the scenes of the naturalization process nowadays, I can’t recommend this four-part SRF documentary series highly enough (Swiss German with High German subs, 2020).
This one-off SRF documentary tells the story of the fight against Italian migrants in the 60s and its connections with the SVP today (Swiss German, 2014).

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