When it came to the Classic Children’s Novels, I was a Narnia, Alice, and Peter Pan kid. The Secret Garden was too girly, and Treasure Island too boy-y. We weren’t cosmopolitan enough have any of the foreign ones like Heidi, Pippi, or Little Women.
But this one story most Swiss know. A teenage version of Heidi even used to flirt with you on the shuttle train through Zurich airport. So, in the name of integration, time to pack my cone of Student Food, “impregnate” my old boots, and roam Heidi’s valleys.
The story begins with a nine-year-old little girl hanging out in deepest, darkest Graubünden with her granddad “Alp-Öhi” and a lovable urchin called Goats Peter. She’s not irritatingly virtuous, nor some kind of genius; she’s just quite positive and naturally curious. She’s sound.
Her granddad keeps her away from the village below, but Heidi (the brilliant Elsbeth Sigmund) still has a blast hanging out with the goats while admiring lakes, lighting Alp-Öhi’s pipe, and so on. This is Adorable.
I had tears in my eyes after only 23 minutes, from watching a child’s happiness when pulling a rope.
It got me.
But then Heidi gets abducted. (!!) A random aunt shows up and cons her into taking the train to Germany. Granddad sprints down the mountain after them – in vain.
It’s a cracking end to act one of the story – the stakes of the story rise massively. Heidi is to be a fish out of water, but it’s in the large city of Frankfurt, in a totally different country, where no-one speaks her dialect and she can’t even see the mountains.
Our heroine meets well-meaning posh German folk with their own problems, including another genuinely nice ally-child in a wheelchair. Low-stakes adventures unfold and everyone learns things about each other in touching ways.
While this goes on, we can almost see the Alps looming just behind Heidi’s consciousness, massive spectral presences. I won’t spoil too much more but at least three other scenes made me tear up.
Worth a watch?
Absolutely. Apart from being a bloody good story, this version is proper cinema. I loved how real the village scene and cabin looked, always filmed with lively but uncontrived angles. The music is full of yearning and joy, and always means something for the characters, beyond what words and pictures could show us.
The changes of pace are masterful – teasing the emotion out of you before ramping up the story again. In fact, the film was so snappy it might have benefitted from packing in another 10-15 minutes to deepen our understanding of Heidi’s relationship with the Frankfurters.
Both the inhabitants of Heidi’s village and her adopted family in Frankfurt gawk and stare at her because she’s an outsider. This is authentically intimidating to the viewer, like a good-natured kid finding out that, given half a chance, adults will corrupt the shit out of you.
Swissness Lab Report: At Home on the Mountain
The story is shot through with a key binary I’ve encountered in this country – farming-oriented village communities versus the urban upper-middle classes. It’s an iteration of the Romantic “nature versus culture” split, with Mother Nature the clear victor, give or take the odd literacy lesson.
As a Brit from the industrial north of England I don’t feel the rural/urban split intuitively. But in Switzerland you scan over the tabloids and see Bauer sucht Frau, you meet meeting students in the city who grew up on a farm, and you see huge divides on the Swiss German political voting map (sometimes equivalent to the Trump split on a state map of rural and urban counties).
Above all, you see it from hiking. The city-dwelling foreigner get the sense of a whole other Switzerland, one which exists only on weekends, and to get there you have to take your rucksack and boots on a regional train with strange colours on the seats.
When Goats Peter takes Heidi up the mountain and says “There’s your beginning of the beginning”, she looks out at the vista and says, simply, “That’s beautiful” (“Das ist aber schön”). I’ve heard that exact phrase from multiple Swiss on hikes. The mountains here retain a spiritual, mystical quality here for many.
Plus, let’s talk about the scene with Grandpa Alp-Öhi sprinting after the abducted Heidi… This scene is visceral if you’ve ever had to slog down the side of an Alp after a long hike, with the train station in sight but somehow never getting closer. The excellent director (Luigi Comencini) lets it play out and ends on a full body shot of Granddad, devastated, his Alpine brawn no match for the steam train.
But let’s climb the tower and take a look at the bigger picture… (Spoilers and wildly associative interpretation from a former literature student ahead, feel free to skip the next part 😉 )
…So Heidi is a metaphor for Switzerland, right? She’s a tad too curious, and her identity nearly slips out of her hands. Other people want to take charge of her, order her around, and are even somehow seduced by her – Goats Peter and Alp-Öhi want desperately to have her back at the cabin, and the Frankfurt contingent have their own reasons – Klara’s loneliness, and Aunt Dete’s guilt for abandoning her in the first place.
That’s what you get for having a positive, decent, free-spirited personality. Just like a certain plucky wee country! Little independent Switzerland, who often has to tread very carefully to stop itself getting sucked into the concerns of the surrounding empires (Napoleon, the two World Wars).
Of course, the film is saying, Switzerland can have fun meeting outsiders. It should be polite to them – even teach them something, like Heidi helps Klara to walk. But it can’t get corrupted by them. Otherwise we’ll end up like the emigrant cook Aunt Dete, and no-one will take us seriously.
And even worse – all of this fighting over Heidi’s fate has serious negative consequences. The good doctor states that Heidi is developing “a neurosis” and can only be cured by going back to her “beginning of the beginning”. Back the mother country.
And there, when she’s of age, Heidi can be mother to a whole new generation of plucky Swiss. Goats Peter knows what I’m talking about!
Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners)
Language: In the original, rather difficult Swiss German (in the Alps) and German (in Frankfurt). But there are other options around (see below).
Availability: Three different versions on YouTube. The original, in quite poor quality and tough dialects for the Swiss German parts; a dub in Swiss-accented High German which has by far the best quality picture; and French. If you can speak High German watch that dub and switch to the original for the Frankfurt parts. There’s also an American English dub at archive.org, but it’s pretty uncanny.
References: Here’s a link the opening credits of the massively popular Japanese anime version in the 70s.
And here’s an excellent analysis of that wonderful tower scene by Johannes Binotto, who recommended me the film.