Café Odeon (1959) // City Communities

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A stricken country wife bursts through the doors of Zürich’s Café Odeon. “Is Anny here?” she cries.

Leni’s left her husband and run away to her sister in the big city. But that sister has become a woman of ill repute, seducing the Café’s rich married husbands to pay for her livelihood, along with the expensive dresses and lingerie. Anny means well, but what will happen to Leni as she transforms from a lost country hick to a “working woman”?

Like the Langstrasse milieu in his earlier Bäckerei Zürrer, Kurt Früh gives the main location a starring role. All sorts of colourful characters populate the café: a depressed grammar school teacher whose manuscript just got rejected; a passionate artist who gives up the booze for every two week love affair; a Hungarian opera singer constantly asking for money to cover his bills “before the next big show”. Keeping tabs on them all is the ageing head waiter. played by Emil Hegetschweiler. He begins the movie as the neutral observer, but can’t help getting more involved as Leni’s cluelessness triggers his paternal side.

Unfortunately, by getting too close to one of the customers, Leni might have already gone one step too far.


Worth a watch?

I have walk past the Café Odeon at least twice a week for the last ten or so years. I was always going to find something interesting in this movie.

Having said that, when Margrit Winter’s Leni plunges into the “loose women” scene of the Café Odeon, I must confess to a certain cynical distance at first – just another stereotype of a country hick. But it becomes increasingly obvious that Leni is not like Winter’s smart homely roles in Die Käserei in der Vehfreude and Bäckerei Zürrer. Here she plays a true naive, a vulnerable adult very much in need of protection.

A delicious moment of sorrow comes when we cut to Leni’s husband, doing his time in prison, deeply anxious about his wife’s disappearance. “Her sister is a whore,” he tells the prison warden, “she shouldn’t be in Zurich.” “She’s an adult,” the warden replies. “No,” states the prisoner, and he articulates what we have be slowly suspecting – “she’s a child.”

The men in Leni’s life paternalize her intensely, but then, so do we. She is emotionally unstable, lost in her world of dreams and shepherded around by women with a hundred times the nous and a good deal less to lose. When the penny drops, we only want the best for her. The Café Odeon, and city folk it sucks into its vortex, isn’t her world.

If Leni is a fish out of water, what a sparkling, fascinating aquarium she finds herself in. Its inhabitants’ flaws and tics are played for gentle laughs, as are the “loose women” at the Seestern hotel milieu. But director Kurt Früh also finds depth to these sketches, whether in character growth or the tragedy of repetition.

Apparently Früh was a frequent guest at the Odeon, and the film was a kind of love letter to the scene. As in Bäckerei Zürrer, he lets his actors fill the space with humanity and tolerance for all walks of life. It will be a pleasure to walk by the café again later this week, and remember that space.


Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners).

Availability: PlaySuisse, Artfilm.ch.

Language: Swiss German, with D, I, F subs available.


Swissness Lab Report: City Communities

Watching Café Odeon back to back with Bäckerei Zürrer got me thinking about the interplay between “community” and “city”. These films were made in the same decade as those ’50s ensemble pieces set in Alpine villages, like Heidi and Die Käserei in der Vehfreude, and featured several of the same actors.

I’ve talked before about how the village communities in those movies are closed spaces which create and change their own rules, which are upheld by constant surveillance and gossip. You get a big pool of allies to rely on, and the beauty and freedom of the countryside – but at what cost? The claustrophobia always leads to scapegoats, such as Alp-Öhi in Heidi’s village and those inhabitants of Vehfreude who are blamed for business problems.

After her husband ends up in jail, Leni became the target of such a village. “I couldn’t take it any more,” she weeps to her sister in the moonlit streets outside the Odeon. “They were pointing at me.”

How is life in a Swiss city community, like the Café Odeon or the Langstrasse neighbourhood in Kurt Früh’s earlier film, different to those Alpine villages?

The social bonds are clustered differently. Smaller “cells” of couples, families, or mini-scenes gather within them. A small number of key members with economic functions, like the Emil Hegetschweiler character in both movies (well-established baker, head waiter), are social hubs. But these hubs aside, the actions of one “cell” are not likely to have repercussions for all the others, as in the village communities. The recent crime series Wilder, set in an Alpine hamlet, does a great job in showing how everyone’s dirty secrets are inevitably interlinked in the traditional country setting.

They are more open-ended. Theoretically, anybody can just wander in to the Café or down the Langstrasse streets and quite quickly become part of the community. This is especially true in a postwar Swiss environment of urban growth and mass migration from Italy.

Partly as a result of that, they are more heterogenous. The lived experiences of individuals are different to the villages, also for simple economic and geographic reasons. In the larger social network of the city communities, there is more chance of not having anything in common with your neighbour, or even of being at odds with her.

A final, fundamentally Swiss difference between communities like the Café Odeon and the Langstrasse and village communities of equal size like the hamlet of Vehfreude is that the latter are to some extent democratically self-governing. The café guests, however, have no say in the rules which govern their space; at any point, the head waiter may present a refusal card to the women if he thinks they’re soliciting too openly. Everyone lies under the thumb of the Zürich government, which is a tier higher than the community and distanced from many of its members. On the one hand, this means they can proceed with more rebellious and socially deviant acts, like the strip show which shocks Leni so much, or the system of near-prostitution. On the other, there are more chance for people to fall through the cracks, as Leni and the Baker Zürrer come close to doing.

The inhabitants of city communities may observe each others clothes and social status, but they don’t always keep an eye on each other, and that has its weaknesses, too.

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