Bäckerei Zürrer (“Zürrer’s Bakery”, 1957) // Swiss Shame

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Langstrasse, Zürich in the 1950s. Italian migrants, tramps and grubby kids hustle outside Baker Zürrer’s window. But that old gentleman is deaf to all that city noise, due to the trouble with his three adult children.

Zürrer’s eldest son is wringing him for money for his hare-brained financial schemes. His well-meaning daughter is getting on in years and too shy to bag herself a man.

And as for his youngest, 23-year-old Heini – where to start? Papi Zürrer always blamed him for the death of his wife in childbirth. Heini isn’t totally opposed to working at the baker’s, but with his old dad always nagging, who could blame him for hanging out at the racing bike track, or canoodling with the beautiful daughter of Italian migrants?

Old Zürrer means well, but he’s getting more and more fragile, and his bad temper often gets the better of him. How far can he fall before something terrible happens?

Worth a watch?

Bäckerei Zürrer rides the line hard between comedy and tragedy, and you’re never quite sure how things will all end (despite the odd little details of city life keeping the tone lighter – I adored the tween triplets who materialize in the bakery to demand a single cornetto ice-cream between the three of them).

Caberettist Emil Hegetschweiler, who pops up in Die Käserei and Café Odeon amongs others, is a life force and always brings dignity to the cantankerous Baker Zürrer. The Langstrasse milieu itself is an equally vivid co-star. We’re taken to the middle-of-the-range bars which Zürrer visits at the start of a bender; the seedy dives inhabited by professional tramps where he ends his night; the cafés for courtship and gossip, and the dancehalls where throngs of latter-day hipsters are pushed up close to their parents playing cards and doing business deals. The latter scene is reminiscent of the country inn in Die Käserei in der Vehfreude.

A modern audience needs a few minutes to get used to melodramatic plot beats and theatrical elements. This tone may even make us a little queasy when we veer into darker territory, such as when the spectre of abortion is raised. But the internal consistency is constant. Bäckerei Zürrer is like a well-written soap opera performed by highly experienced entertainers: a script deftly juggling multiple plots to deliver a decent emotional “bang for your buck”. In the climax of the movie an innocuous good deed done earlier comes back to pay dividends in a lovely, uncontrived way.

So all in all, a very worthwhile watch, and an ideal urban companion to Die Käserei in der Vehfreude.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners).
Language: Swiss German with D, F, I subtitles.
Availability: PlaySuisse, Artfilm.ch.

Swissness Lab Report: Swiss Shame

Intertitles in Bäckerei Zürrer‘s opening emphasize loneliness as a theme, but I’d say the dominant energy here is shame.

The city streets around the Langstrasse are actually quite free of spite and guilt, its people much more tolerant than the Alpine villages of other films films from the era like Die Käserei in der Vehfreude or Heidi. In those Heimatfilme, gossip and surveillance fills the village air, threatening and clingy. It binds the cheese factory cooperative in Vehfreude as they stagger towards ruin, and makes a scapegoat of Heidi’s grandfather. But back in Zürich, no-one apart from Zürrer really gives a hoot that his son Heini is courting an Italian; everyone is willing to forgive the old bloke for going on a bender in broad daylight. His daughter Trudi is terribly embarrassed to be using the local paper’s lonely hearts column to find a man, but she still fixes a date in the local café where everyone goes. Meanwhile, the Italian chestnut seller is constantly cursed at, but never takes it to heart. Even the tramps feel free to walk the streets in the daytime, dirty and drunk, knowing they have just as much a role to play as everyone else.

In this utopian version of city relationships, why does Zürrer become so ashamed? He certainly clings to an old-fashioned sense of decency which prohibits public drinking, and takes a dim view of his son publicly associating with suspiciously overdressed foreign women, who he considers loose.

This may have to do with a certain sense of distance associated with Swiss politeness strategies. In her book on intercultural communication in a Swiss context, Margaret Oerig-Davidson notes how many Swiss favour politeness strategies of independence rather than involvement: They’re more likely to use silence in the public sphere as a form of distancing from a topic, for instance, and they value correct behaviour more than friendly behaviour.

This puts old Zürrer at odds with his Italian neighbours. His future father-in-law equivalent, Signor Pizzani, is constantly laying hands on him, cajoling him to join in family activities; Pizzani expresses his emotions loudly and openly as a way to reinforce bonds. In that sense the “Italian way” is a kind of benign virus which has spread through the Langstrasse, changing forms of interaction, especially amongst young lovers.

But I’d argue the real reason for the baker’s self-imposed exile lies elsewhere. One of the dark pleasures of watching this difficult and unhappy man come close to the brink is knowing his weaknesses – they are laid out to him (and to us) from the off by his nearest and dearest. But this knowledge simply won’t get through to him, until a moment of utter crisis which will bring about his intense shame.

Zürrer’s first weakness is his pig-headedness. Refusing second opinions following his wife’s death, he makes rash decisions with his money and lashes out at his son. In that sense , Zürrer has a distinctly un-Swiss aspect. His leadership fails to include elements of consensus, of taking into account those with different opinions.

Similarly, Zürrer’s unfair treatment of his sons breaches the Swiss code of neutrality. Instead of listening to their dreams and claims for money fairly, he castigates Heini and wages war on him. He frequently lets both his anger and his sentimentality get the better of him when customers and co-workers are present, which is rather un-Swiss, according to Oerig-Davidson.

Once Zürrer realizes his faults, he realizes too what Heini and Trudi have been trying to tell him – how indecently (unanständig) he has behaved, treating his adult family as subjects, not as equals. In order to restore harmony, the old man must turn his back on a life of loneliness, and be ready to form part of the new group which has arisen in his absence.

In the final scene, Zürrer joins his son and new Italian relatives in arguing over how to stop the baby crying. He has lost money, and his position as “Chefbecker”, but he has gained a harmonious position in a group in which his voice will be heard. In a Swiss setting, he thus has no more reason to be ashamed.


Margaret Oering-Davidson, The New Beyond Chocolate

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