Wilder, Season 1 (TV 2017) // The Arabs are Coming!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A helicopter descends on the Alpine hamlet of Oberwies, and out steps Mr Baroudi, a Shifty Egyptian Investor. To his right, a beautiful, arrogant daughter. To his left, the Icy Attorney General of Switzerland (who used to live round these parts). Together, they plan to turn Oberwies into a luxury tourist resort. Motives ahoy!

Meanwhile, villagers are gathering for the anniversary of a hideous tragedy. Thirty years ago, an avalanche took down the school bus – along with twelve poor Oberwieser tots.

Into this mess drives police detective Rosa Wilder, just dropping in on her home village for the weekend. But she should be able to guess this is will be a six-part season of dastardly goings-on. Especially when that human foot drops on her car.

“The unusual incisions on the bone indicate cliffhanger endings, melancholy electronica and very little humour.”

Worth a watch?

Wilder is something like Broadchurch + The Bridge (PG-13 version) + lots of snow. And it works! The Alpine village setting, it turns out, is a great fit for TV crime.

Production values and acting were never going to be as high quality as those matinee Scandi Noir or Brit crime shows Wilder appropriates; the script, while tight, never matches those thrills. But the main actors do a stand-up job, the atmosphere and tone is very consistent, and there’s just the right amount of information to keep you locked in without being over-complicated.

So all in all, you’ll likely have a good time if you can keep expectations in check – best watched with a friend and a pinch of salt!


Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners)
Language: Swiss German (Bärnerdütsch). It’s SRF, so dubs in F and I, subs in D, F and I, but no English to be found – Wilder sadly never made it to BBC Four.
Availability: Swiss-intern, on PlaySuisse (as of now only the second two seasons are on Netflix). A DVD should be easily available in Germanophone regions, and streams available on some of the major websites.


Swissness Lab Report: The Arabs Are Coming!

We’ve seen in Heidi and Der Verdingbub how “the villagers” play an important backgound role in a Swiss rural stories – they watch and judge our protagonists, and intervene at certain crucial moments to affect the story. But the village rabble in those two films contained no rounded characters – it was more of a collective entity.

Police investigations in Wilder force this entity apart. Individual elements are prised out of it for our examination. In a Swiss context, in which careful containment of one’s inner life sometimes plays a key role in maintaining public face, uncovering skeletons in the closet gives us plenty of sadistic pleasure.

Our main cop, Rosa Wilder, has been linked romantically to multiple men in the village – and everyone knows it. The Sleazebag Mayor also heads the construction company which stands to profit most from sweeping changes. And then we have the Icy Attorney General, a former villager (and Rosa’s godmother) who’s been brokering the tourist resort deal from Bern.

Left to right: Dodgy Suspect 1, beloved detective Rosa Wilder, Dodgy Suspect 2, Dodgy Suspect 3, arty cuboid

In any other setting, an Attorney General’s intimacy with the main cop would feel contrived, but this is Switzerland, and Switzerland is Small. As an example, while walking down the street in Zurich one day, I passed Ueli Maurer, one of the “Co-Presidents” of the country, just pottering along in the other direction with a solitary bodyguard.

But one character was very unusual to me: the Egyptian investor Mr Baroudi. This elegant foreigner is referred to suspiciously as “the Arab” by the villagers who voted to sell up to him. In the TV crime world of identifiable types, what’s going on here? To find out, we have to go back to the mid-2000s to the small Urner town of Andermatt, and find out this man, Samih Sawiris.

(Photo: SRF)

Sawaris laid down an initial 1.7 billion Swiss Francs, and plenty more after that, to build a luxury tourist resort in Andermatt. Thermal baths, five-star hotels, a golf course, the lot.

The real-life Sawiris and the fictional Baroudi and have a lot in common. Both are charming Egyptian billionaires who speak very good German. Both are tourism magnates who decide to “rescue” a “failing” Alpine settlement.

The image of charming investor-innovator is fostered in both cases by very high-ranking connections in the Swiss capital. In Wilder it’s the Icy Attorney General character; for Sawiris at Andermatt, just look at the bald fellow in the picture above… Why, it’s Ueli Maurer, Minister and Co-President of the country! (And also that bloke who once walked past me in Zurich. Switzerland is Small.)

A cracking documentary on SRF follows Sawiris and Andermatt between 2007 and 2013, with the opening of the ultra-luxury Hotel Chedi. The process is framed as a pact between struggling Andermattner and the all-powerful Sawiris.

An FDP politician, an Egyptian investor and a construction work boss smiling on an irritating poster for their project (SRF)

The SRF documentary portrays the locals as initially regarding Sawiris with careful optimism, but slowly turning on the project when stuff goes wrong. Cue shots of befuddled elderly folk at the Andermatt retirement home, losing their entire view of the mountains to scaffolding and concrete. Relationships become even more fraught under political waves of uncertainty such as the the Egyptian Revolution (2011) and, closer to home, the 2012 popular initiative restricting second homes (darned direct democracy again!).

But the SRF documentary ends on the most cynical of high notes. After the delays and the doubt, the Hotel Chedi is finished. All the townsfolk are invited to eat at the ridiculously posh hotel restaurant, and meet their Mephistopheles. The naysayers look visibly awestruck by the sheer decadent elegance of it all. Suddenly they glimpse how rich than can become, and clamour to thank Sawiris. One salt-of-the-earth old geezer, who’s spent the whole documentary complaining, now gets misty-eyed admiring the Hotel Chedi’s glittering interior, as if it’s just birthed a fine young calf.

How does all of this translate to Wilder, Season 1?

Well, in a nutshell, if you follow Wilder’s Baroudi saga from the beginning to the end, you get an extraordinarily consistent liberal-right view of Andermatt-style foreign investment. It legitimates giving up autonomy to an outsider, by normalizing the outsider’s image as “secretly one of us”.

In order to do business with the Egyptians with a clear conscience, each aspect of their “foreignness” must be made significantly more palatable for Oberwies. The “Arab image” is essentially split into three: Mr Baroudi, his daughter Amina, and his bodyguard Rachad. Each of these three parts represents more or less acceptable forms of otherness which are dealt with methodically over the course of Rosa Wilder’s investigation.

(BIG SPOILERS from here until the end)

Like his real-life model, Mr Baroudi is a pragmatic, modest, charming businessman. These qualities fit right in with the Swiss Alpine business culture. But this is just appearances, right? Inside he’s bound to be filled with funny ideas and strange values.

Or maybe not. In the first episode, he shows Oberwies that he has experience with livestock thanks to a bit of “goat-based improvisation” with poor old Rosa’s father. He might have a certain cut-throat side, but this is tempered in hospital by his kind wife when his daughter is endangered. That’s all very well and good, you may say, these Arab types, aren’t they a bit backward on human rights? Not in this case. The last we see of Baroudi is when he acknowledges a Swiss character’s gayness with warmth and empathy. He’s a good guy. He’s one of us.

Then we have Amina Baroudi, the highly-strung, spoilt offspring. This is a Swiss stereotype I’d already encountered, in the Schweizer Tatort episode “Kleine Prinzen” (below left). In this lower-budget crime show, two unruly diplomat’s sons from an unnamed “Arab country” get their asses covered by pandering Federal authorities. This stereotype almost certainly has its roots in the 2008 Hannibal Gaddafi affair.

Following the arrest of Colonel Gaddafi’s son Hannibal (above right) in a posh Geneva hotel, and his dad’s subsequent displeasure, a sort of cold war existed between Switzerland and Libya. Various high-ranking ministers/panderers flew out to Tripoli to claw back some of that precious oil money, much to the disgust of the Swiss media, and the “spoiled Arab brat” image stuck around.

How to shake off that particular negative image from the back of Swiss minds? Simple – literally smash the petulance out of Amina Baroudi! That’ll shut her up for four episodes, and by the time she awakes from her coma she’ll be pliant and helpful to the case before being ushered out of sight.

And finally, we have Rachad the Bodyguard – or should I say, Durka Durka Muhammed Jihad. Oh dear. My Swiss co-viewer and I had to wince at them wheeling out the most obvious stereotype. But if you are following the theory so far, you will see he had to be a terrorist. You see, any arrival to Switzerland from the Middle East is bound to carry that connotation. Just think of all those minaret posters. How to get around the T-word when you want to do business with “Arabs”?

Wall-racism, ca. 2009

For Sawaris in Andermatt it was easy – he’s a Coptic Christian. Wilder plumps to exorcise that demon more dramatically by telling us real terrorists like Rachad don’t come from Egypt – they come from places like Lebanon; nowadays, they are repentant for past crimes; and anyway, the Swiss authorities are perfectly capable of tracking them down and killing them.

To sum up, the presence of the Egyptians, rather than being the catalyst for murder most horrid, is really just a side-story. In fact, you could make the case that Business With The Egyptians is a kind of Princess which needs to be rescued for Rosa to complete her quest. In order for Oberwies to live happily ever after, Amina Baroudi must survive, her name must be cleared, and her father’s money must be secured.

A goat, approving of this transaction

So who is the real Wicked Witch of Oberwies? Why, left-wing activists, of course!

Like the Egyptian faction, this “red menace” manifests in different forms: the wild anarchist “pirate”; the left-leaning careerist politician who was a violent environmentalist in her youth; a talented, but perverted artist; and the local farmer, who confuses regional patriotism with dangerous ideology. Together they are responsible for almost every death in this season of TV. And each of them get their just rewards: either gruesome death, or a lengthy prison-sentence. Ladies and gentlemen, the Left!

I don’t mean to cast judgement on the choices made by the people of Andermatt. And what does the politics of a crime show matter, if it entertains us in a smart way like Wilder does?

It’s just pretty weird to look back on the main story and think that, if the Egyptians had never taken an interest in Oberwies, it wouldn’t have changed anything. In effect, a plot point which implies the cultural transformation of an entire community is nothing more than a portion of gently spiced hareng rouge – served with fava beans on a rösti base, in the opening ceremony of a five-star hotel.


References:
All the Sawiris stuff comes from this SRF Dok (sadly no German subs, and the Urner dialect is tough).
The Gaddafi info comes from here and personal memories.

My interpretation of Amina Baroudi in light of Hannibal Gaddafi was inspired by a Prisma reviewer’s comment on the Wikipedia page for Tatort: Kleine Prinzen.

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