Die Käserei in der Vehfreude (“The Cheese Factory in the Hamlet”, 1958) // Swiss Commune Mentality

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s the mid-1800s, and the village council assembles in the hamlet of Vehfreude. This Gemeinde, made up mostly of farmers, has only one item on the agenda: shall we build a new school, or rather build a cheese factory to run as a cooperative?

“The parliament, those up there,” says the mayor, “shouldn’t dictate what we need in our Gemeinde. We know better ourselves.”

Meanwhile the mayor’s son, the happy-go-lucky Felix, is not getting any younger. A single man in possession of good fortune, etc. Fortunately, a potential wife has arrived; unfortunately, the beautiful Änneli is a troubled former Verdingkind who’s fled back to her impoverished, outcast family.

Die Käserei in der Vehfreude is a period comedy-drama based on a novel written in 1850. The adaptation favours an unusual overlapping plot structure: the weight in the first hour is on a satire of corruption amongst the cheesemakers, including what we’d now call gender wars between the farmers and their wives; the final act is devoted to the romance between Felix and Änneli.

Is there a premise for a film more Swiss than this? If you’re a foreigner and can find one, you’re more integrated than I.

The lovebirds meet for the first time while delivering milk to the cheese factory.

Worth a watch?

Die Käserei in der Vehfreude looks gorgeous, but isn’t very dynamic. As in the theatre, scenes are filmed towards the camera, which makes for exquisitely composed shots characterized by dull transitions between and within them. Having said that, the mix of classical and folk music in those transitions is quite addictive, and more static passages are broken up with a very fun marketplace brawl scene and a surprisingly realistic horse-and-cart chase.

Although the general silliness is fun, some of the comedy is dated, with the notable exception of a very giggle-worthy scene in a church. And like water and milk, the two overlapping stories don’t always go well together, especially towards the end when the diluted milk escapade is already over.

But you have the feeling that analysis is less important than getting involved with the story – for that, the film excels. Get a few Swiss mates together and open a bottle of wine! Argue and yell at the screen, cheer and boo at the obvious types, and argue about the details of the conspiracy plot.

Because Die Käserei in der Vehfreude is a soap opera, and a very well-made one. The characters may not be complex, but taken together they’re a smorgasbord of anxieties, hopes, sins and virtues which, via the committed performances and depth of the story, demand you voice an opinion.

An example of a “Gemeinde scene” characteristic of the movie, in which personal and political battles are fought.

Swissness Difficulty Level:
Säntis (intermediate)

Language:
Swiss German, a Bärnerdütsch which is often impenetrable (even my Bernese housemate said the dialect was hard). I found a version (cinefile.ch) with D, F and I subtitles.

Availability:
There’s a good-looking version of the film on YouTube, but with no D subtitles I was lost. It’s available to rent from a few websites; I’d recommend cinefile.ch, picture quality was very good.


Swissness Lab Report, Part 1: Swiss Commune (Gemeinde) Mentality


In some ways, the journey into Swiss films I’ve been making is the jump from Nation-thinking and Canton-thinking to Commune-thinking. Wilder, Heidi, Der Verdingbub – they all include an Alpine village community with varying takes on the fluidity of how the individual differs from the collective.

The basic unit of Swiss politics, and the key to understanding them, is the Gemeinde or commune… the essential and uniquely Swiss unit of communal activity.

J. Steinberg, Why Switzerland?

The villages in these films are intimate as hell – everyone knows everyone. As a collective they carry significant political weight which bares down on the individual psyche, often in the form of scapegoating in the wake of a catastrophe (like Alp-Öhi‘s alleged arson attack, or the avalanche which killed Rosa Wilder‘s brother).

The Gemeinde as a political entity is by definition highly gendered: it consists only of men, although the women still make their presence felt in many ways, one of the themes of the movie.

The Gemeinde voting in the opening scene (interior shot).

I adored one electrifying scene in the film which encapsulates the role of the commune – and its dangers.

(Minor spoilers from here till the end).

It’s something like the climax of the film, although it’s more like the conflation of the two storylines: the hero of the romance narrative (Felix) faces down the antagonist of the cheese factory narrative (Egli Hannes) at the village Wirtschaft.

Love and public money combine at the Wirtschaft, which normally means “economics” nowadays but can also mean “inn, pub”. Maybe it’s because of the corona lockdown going on as I write this in January 2021, or maybe it’s because I’m a Brit, but the Wirtschaft at Vehfreude looks like a fine pub atmosphere: free of television, decent live music, both men and women dressed up to get drunk and dance, court each other, gossip and ogle the body politic up close.

Suddenly, the movie’s main baddy is dancing together with its protagonist! Everyone else’s eyes pop. Egli Hannes insulted the beloved Änneli, so Felix grabs him and starts to lead. The dancefloor clears.

The staggering Egli Hannes is spun around until his dance turns to punches and kicks, but they all miss – he’s a lot drunker than young Felix. The musicians leer ghoulishly, but they play an upbeat waltz.

Suddenly, Egli Hannes grabs a bottle and throws it at Felix.

At once the band stops. A sudden crescendo of strings comes out of nowhere, and leads into a terrifying low drum-roll sustained for what seems like forever.

This brutal switch to extradiegetic sound is like nothing in the movie so far. Where do those strings and the drum-roll come from? It’s somehow the rage of the collective against this man, suddenly slipping away from their control. When Egli Hannes throws that bottle, he crosses a line from vulgar but tolerable bar-brawler to indecent outsider who has broken the rules once too often.

The bottle is caught, harmless, but Egli Hannes knows he’s gone too far. He tries to run out of the bar, but the patrons block his path and push him back. The commune wills Egli Hannes to his fate. What that fate is, nobody at that moment can say.

In fact, the waltz starts up again. Felix just humiliates Egli Hannes – crueller than before, but not dangerous. He slaps his backside, throws him around practically by his genitals, and forces a bottle of booze in his face.

The Gemeinde and their wives watch these proceedings with an eerie calm. No cheering, nor booing. For those few seconds, when the waltz stops and the patrons loom over the fight, you think Egli Hannes might be murdered.

What strikes me most of all about the commune in this scene is its sort of ethical totality. All the adult villagers we know had been seen at the dance at some point. They’ve gossiped, made business, discussed politics and debated love lives as a collective. Through this endless chatter and collective decision-making, they’ve formed their own set of moral standards of what is right and wrong.

Remember the speech which opens the movie? “The parliament, those up there, shouldn’t dictate what we need in our Gemeinde. We know better ourselves.” A space like the inn thus becomes a closed system – especially in moments like this, when moderate voices like Sepp, Bethi and the town mayor have already taken their leave.

When a space like that becomes a kangaroo court, being an outsider can be very dangerous indeed.

The Gemeinde voting in the opening scene (exterior shot).

Swissness Lab Report, Part 2: Gender and Verdingkinder again

I can imagine the army of German Studies students licking their lips at those character types and symbols to work with, combined with the themes of industrial upheaval and, of course, gender roles. God knows what a proper feminist reading would make of the very childlike, passive character of Änneli, and the “spectre of the threatening wife” that haunts those votes in the Gemeinde. All this in 1958, a year before national women’s suffrage went to the polls for the first time! (Spoiler: it was roundly rejected.)

In spite of my lukewarm review, I felt glad of having seen Der Verdingbub before Die Käserei in der Vehfreude. Änneli is in fact a sort of Berteli, a physically abused young woman who manages to escape. This is the character’s introduction in the original novel of 1850:

“She was her parents’ youngest child; when they died and left nothing behind, she was fostered [verdingt], but came to live with hard, nasty people, where she ate what little bread she had in a shower of tears and punches.”

Gotthelf Ch. 7, my translation

Oddly enough, the word “verdingt” is never used in the film adaptation. The stricken Änneli is unable to put what happened into words, so it’s easy as a foreigner to miss the context. This a poignant detail given that the Verdingsystem was still around when the film was made, one hundred years later, but swept under the carpet.

I assume the original Swiss cinema audience watched that scene when Änneli comes home, they knew: “Yep, that girl’s a Verdingkind, she’s definitely been physically abused, probably sexually abused as well.” In any case, awareness of the abusive context casts Änneli’s childlike passivity in a different light. It raises the stakes of Felix’s courtship, his need to establish trust and prove he’s not a misogynist.

Seeing Änneli as a victim of systemic abuse also reveals the virtues of the power-couple who take her in. Sepp and Bethi are a model couple exactly because they take pity on the downtrodden and the shameful. Although poor, they take in Änneli, and elsewhere are shown giving food to the needy, lending an ear to a hen-pecked husband, and not giving into temptation to dilute their milk quotas.

They are a Helvetic version of Scrooge’s nephew Fred in A Christmas Carol (1843): the benevolent moderates of the Industrial Revolution. This iteration of Fred is attuned to the Swiss virtues of consensus democracy – true Swiss don’t leave the minority hanging, they give them a voice.


References:
The Gotthelf extract was translated from the full novel on Gutenburg, here.
For more on the Swiss commune culture, the politics chapter of Steinberg,
Why Switzerland? (3rd edition) is highly recommended.

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