In 1938, thousands of Jewish refugees attempted to come over the border from Austria. The Bundesrat gave out orders to refuse them entry. But St. Gallen police commander Paul Grüninger defied their orders. He illegally backdated visas, organised camps, and pursued as liberal and welcoming a policy he could.
Unfortunately, he was found out. Grüninger lost his job and was tried unjustly at the court of St. Gallen with a far-right anti-Semite for a “defence lawyer”. He received a heavy fine and spent the rest of his life in very modest circumstances before dying poor and forgotten in 1972.
Left, Captain Paul Grüninger. Right, the official application for residence of a Jewish Austrian refugee who appears in the film, sixty years on.
Grüningers Fall was made in 1997, at a crucial moment in Swiss self-reflection. In 1995, after the release of a popular book which inspired this film, the St. Gallen courts had finally revoked their decision to punish Grüninger, and retrospectively declared him “not guilty”. Then in 1996, the Bergier commission of historians had been formed to thoroughly investigate the actions of Switzerland during the Second World War.
This documentary interviews the now elderly witnesses to the story, flying them in to assemble amongst the fine wooden furnishings of the St. Gallen courtroom where Grüninger once stood trial in 1939. Most of the film takes place in this room. Witness accounts from Austrian Jewish refugees, whose encounters with Grüninger are brief but decisive for the lives, are mixed with those of Grüninger’s police colleagues, and his daughter also speaks. Together they paint a picture of a simple, compassionate man with pince-nez glasses who saved many, many lives.
Arvo Pärt’s music complements the witness testimony, alongside archive footage, photographs and extracts from official documents narrated by the filmmaker Richard Dindo.
Worth a watch?
Grüningers Fall is an unusual film. The actions of the main plot are never seen; the principle storytellers are elderly amateurs whose encounters with the hero are mostly only brief. Very few personal details are revealed about Grüninger, who was far from a traditional protagonist. The programme that accompanied the film, available as a PDF on Dindo’s website, concludes with the unattributed epitaph “He was no hero, but when it became necessary, he applied the law with a humanity that seemed almost naive.”
The empty chairs and wooden upholstery of the courtroom, and the stilted delivery of witnesses who may not have spoken German regularly for decades, automatically attunes you to a metanarrative: How can a society remember those who have been forgotten? At the time of filming in 1997, generations of Swiss schoolchildren had not been taught about Grüninger’s heroic actions. Now there is little left to do but for these people to come together and help recreate the man’s deeds with their words and emotions. And for the audience to watch, remember, and pass it on.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Matterhorn (Advanced). An important, but not an easy watch.
Language: Swiss German and High German, roughly 50-50. No German subtitles on the one I found, sadly. French subtitles were available on Artfilm.
Availability: On Artfilm.
Swissness Lab Report: The “Jew” Stamp
Despite what some wartime film propaganda would have you believe, there is nothing inherently Swiss about a noble human being going above and beyond to help those in need. The Israeli “Righteous among the Nations” award is given to the Grüningers around the world who altruistically saved Jews from the Nazis.
What is a good deal more Helvetic were the machinations in the background while Grüninger made his interventions. Firstly, we have the specific nature of Swiss anti-Semitism. Historian Thomas Maissen states that a conservative Catholic stream of anti-Jewish racism was paralleled by a more nuanced rhetoric of “population policy and culture”, for example when the Chief of Police, Heinrich Rothmund, wanted “alien foreigners” (artfremde Ausländer) to stay away.
More “population policy” – that’s Rothmund’s picture in the above shot from Grüningers Fall, and the quote underlined is his. “We haven’t spent the last twenty years using the Immigration Police to fight against the increase in foreignization [Überfremdung], and especially the Jewification [Verjudung] of Switzerland, to let immigrants be forced on us now.” At the same time Paul Grüninger was backdating visas to help save thousands of Jews, his Chief of Police in Bern was stating that “every Swiss, from worker to intellectual” would hardly take a Jewish person “into his circle of friends”.
Part of this “fighting against Jewification” had involved the use of a certain “J” sign. Maissen explains how the Swiss Immigration Police had been writing a “J” on certain documents to signify Jewish citizens since as early as 1914, and this had become a stamp in 1936 with the rise of the Nazis. The “J” was unsystematic policy, internal to Switzerland, but it spread to Germany in 1938, at the same time Grüninger was trying to help refugees.
The systematic stamping of all German passports belonging to Jews with a letter “J” came from negotiations between Switzerland and Germany. The former wanted to demand a visa for all Germans entering the county; but the Third Reich were afraid other countries would follow suit. A compromise was found: the “J” stamp would permit Swiss to know who was Jewish and who wasn’t; anyone who wasn’t “non-Aryan” would be asked to show their visa, or be kicked out. (Of course, having seen Das Boot ist voll we know that three years later, the mere sight of the “J” was enough to stop you setting foot in Switzerland.)
So there we have it: the “J” stamp, product of neutral Switzerland’s wartime negotiations.