Dear Beloved Reader(s)
To celebrate 20 reviews, and to reinforce my modus operandi of perfectionistic, unfocussed smartarsery with an ambivalent genre and ill-defined target audience, here’s an interview with myself which answers any questions you almost certainly don’t have.
If you’d like to leave me any questions or messages of love/hate/perplexity, I’d love to hear from you – comments, as always, are open at the bottom.
dr Alp-Michi, 15.05.21
What’s your favourite Swiss film?
How did Swiss Me Deadly begin?
With my getting ready for the Big Swissness Test. Shortly before New Year 2021, I posted the following on my Facebook page:
So, I’m going to become Swiss… at some point. First I have to pass the citizenship test in Feb. To get to know my potential new nationality a bit more, I thought I’d watch one Swiss film a week, fictional or documentary. Got to have something Swissy as a theme. Anyone got any recommendations? Grazie mille!
How long does it take to write all those long texts?
Writing a full review can take many hours of my free time in a week. A short one like Heidi was more impressionistic, so just 2 or 3 hours (although actually that’s a bad example, as it was an early review and I was even more perfectionistic than I am now… that text underwent a lot of changes). For reviews like L’heure du secret I watched a documentary on Swiss watches, read a couple of articles and part of a chapter in a history book, so that would be quite a lot more, and that’s not including watching the bloody thing.
Each review has a good editing before publishing. I cut a lot out. First drafts are even longer. Much too many of those accursed superfluous, overelaborate adjectives.
Your “Swissness Test” for citizenship was done and dusted back in February. Why bother going on with it?
Watching all the movies has been good for my French and Swiss German, although that’s been more of a side-effect. The real reasons are:
- Egotistical reason #1: It’s fun. I have an excuse to watch movies and accompanying documentaries for the Swissness Lab. I often watch them with friends which is always good craic. Plus I like noticing new stuff about them as I write the reviews.
- Egotistical reason #2: I’m learning about Switzerland. I’m not just talking about the documentaries and history books, I mean all the dots which get joined together in everyday life. Walk past a charity team raising money for Pro Juventute? Die letzten freien Menschen. Meet a friend at Bellevue and end up having a couple of beers in the Langstrasse? Cafe Odeon and Bäckerei Zürrer. People are familiar with names like Sawiris and Andermatt, historical events like the stopping of Jews at the border, and the Women’s Strike of 2019, so I can chat more with them, associate, participate in the discourse. The films also lead me to think about more global issues like women’s rights, the Second World War and modern-day global finance. Also, with any luck I’ll have the red passport, and I’ll know more context on some of the many things I’ll be voting on.
- Noble reason #1: I’m a language teacher and I believe in the usefulness of “extensive reading/listening/watching” (i.e. exposure to a lot of language without too much thought, rather than grammar exercises or whatever). That can be really good for extending your “passive vocabulary” – that’s the phrases you’ve heard before and you know if you see, but you aren’t likely to use in conversation. But I reckon that extends to “passive cultural knowledge” too. Also, if I use Kite Runner for my grammar school kids to thematize immigration issues and make links to political events in Afghanistan today, or Brave New World to get them talking about the Second Industrial Revolution or modernist utopias – well, why not get to know some Swiss culture that way myself? I kind of hope this will be inspiring to immigrants in this country to find a more fun way into a culture which is sometimes said to be a tough nut to crack.
- Noble reason #2: In reality, the vast majority of my readership is in Switzerland, almost certainly Swiss German. Not enough of them have seen fantastic five star movies like Mais im Bundeshuus or Dällebach Kari. Almost nobody my own age has watched the class fifties movies like Bäckerei Zürrer, which holds up excellently today. What they do watch is a lot of middling American TV and cinema, much of which is actually rather distant to the Swiss context, no matter what they’d like to think. I’m totally guilty of this myself, of course. And there are reasons – US output is huge and very widely available; Swiss output is small, frequently low budget and sometimes difficult to find online. So, yeah. This is also a foreigner barging into this country and telling y’all what you should do: Watch Swiss movies! (If you don’t like it – well, I’ve not told you my Gemeinde, so you won’t be able to come and kick up a fuss about my naturalization…)
So is Switzerland doomed to forget its cinema heritage?
Fortunately there are some good signs. The rise of Artfilm.ch, Cinefile and PlaySuisse have made many decent Swiss movies easily streamable in high quality, for free in the case of PlaySuisse. Cinefile’s sister site Filmo has a lot of useful information on the films. Meanwhile, SRF and RTS (the Swiss German BBC) have put a lot of good 50-minute documentaries online, either on their YouTube channel or their own website. There I saw great shows on the watch industry upheaval of the 1970s, the reality of the naturalization process nowadays and the politics of the Verdingkinder reparations.
What’s next on the list?
A cracking TV show, Helvetica, and an average one, Frieden, both from the last two years [links added later – MS]. I’ve also got some postcolonial stuff coming, that will be really interesting. And I want to cover the Geistige Landesverteidigung propaganda of the Second World War soon, that was a busy and influential time in Swiss movies. I’ll probably do Gilberte de Courgenay, since it’s free with subtitles, and I used to live near the part of Romandie where it’s set.
Any more interviews planned?
I’ve got Ana Sobral, the Zurich-based expert on all things postcolonial, to talk about how that aspect of Swiss history and about how to read a nation’s culture in general. And Eveline Stalder, the director of the Zug Film Festival which has a focus on young Swiss filmmakers. That should be particularly interesting as she’s just made her own movie as well. I’m totally inexperienced at interviews though, I hope I don’t mess it up.
You’re doing great as an interviewee.
Ditto as an interviewer!
Anyway, why all the TV shows and lesser-known documentaries on your blog? The remit is “Classic Movies”, no?
Well, over the last five months, Swiss Me Deadly has evolved. At first I was trying to be funny all the time – looking back it looks pretty smug. It’s a little cringy, especially Der Verdingbub. But the Swissness Labs took on a life of their own and I was really thirsty for knowledge. It was the height of the second corona lockdown and I had quite lot of time on my hands. By the time I’d got to Wilder and read all about Andermatt my posts were getting long!
Basically, if you really want to read a plot summary and review of the movies and series I post, you’ll probably find it in German or French and be able to translate it into English. It probably won’t be as lengthy as mine and won’t focus on the storytelling as much (that’s what interests me the most), but that part of my reviews aren’t particularly innovative.
More interesting is the Swissness Lab. OK, sometimes it veers towards the “Swiss History for Dummies” style. But more often than not I’ll try and use what I find to analyse the movie as well, and use the movie and the research to bring new stuff out of each other. It’s the most interesting part to write. If you’re lucky I’ll also include a wee anecdote or association from my time in this country which shines a light on things.
Where I’m going with this is, the Swissness Lab bit isn’t at all dependent on the quality of the movie. Even a properly wack TV show or film can tell us a lot if you read it the right way, I reckon.
(Still, I don’t like rewatching the bad stuff. That’s why I’ll probably never cover the Reformation – the only film I can find on it is Zwingli, which was one of the few Swiss movies I’d seen before starting this blog. Interesting for history, but less fun than a pile of medieval horse manure.)
What about all the legendary Swiss movies you’ve not done, like Ueli der Knecht, Grauzone, Les petites fugues and Reise der Hoffnung?
In the secret, highly encrypted SMD servers I have a very long list of Swiss movies and can normally hazard a pretty good guess about which ones I’ll love – often the acclaimed classics like the four you listed. However, it’s a pain to watch a bloody good movie and to have to force myself to find something to write about for the Swissness Lab part. Instead, I’ll sometimes let the tail wag the dog, which is how the L’heure du secret review got made. A gentle Swiss French thriller about the watch industry – perfect for my purposes, and I can watch an episode over lunch.
I really like analysing proper mainstream, blockbuster culture, not just the wanky popular culture which everyone knows is really “prestige”, like Mad Men. It gives you an idea of what a lot of people might actually actually watching, not just what a tiny group of hipster Mad Men nerds think is cool. (Only joking. Mad Men‘s my fave TV show and I took a course on it in Uni. Not the furthest away from real life I travelled at my time in the Ivory Tower, but not far from it.)
So anyway, you can expect to see very “mainstream” Swiss movies like the boner comedy Achtung, Fertig, Charlie! (focus on the Swiss Army) and the Ticino farce Frontaliers Desaster (focus on relations with Italy) at some point.
The other thing is the book project.
Yeah, I’ve kind of developed a whole model for watch Swiss movies to understand the culture. It’s based around character constellations and thematic scope, without giving too much away. I’d definitely have enough material for a book. I have a huge list of movies to consider using, most of them classics, and I don’t want to repeat material from the website, so it doesn’t make sense to do a lot more of the “Big Classics”. In fact I’ve watched quite a lot of films which haven’t ended up on here. A couple of five-star barnstormers too, Unser Garten and Dällebach Kari. They’re marvellous, you should go and watch them right now.
So you have a publisher for your book?
I am a very proud recipient of my first ever rejection email, from a well-known firm which seemed totally suited to my project. I sent a rabidly enthusiastic email. They waited a couple of months, then sent me a one-line rejection saying film stuff is better suited online.
Is that true?
Okay, you got me. I actually sent two rabidly enthusiastic emails. By the way, are you a publisher?
No, I’m yourself, pretending to interview you.
Well you never know. You have to get the word out.
Speaking of which, are you not on, like, social media? How can people outside your Facebook friends and the mailing list find out about your wonderful blog?
I was on Twitter for like a day before realizing I don’t have a clue about using it and the risks of addiction are large. I keep saying to myself I’ll get that sorted, and make a proper Facebook page, and advertise on the expat forums, but it all makes me want to puke. Writing the reviews is a lot more fun (and also very time-consuming). Too bad I don’t have much of an audience yet.
Finally, you said you were applying for citizenship. Are you Swiss yet?
It took two and a half months to get the bureaucracy together. I finally got it all sent off in mid-April. A letter came back saying they’ll need up to two years (!) for processing at the three political “levels”, Gemeinde, canton and nation.
With any luck, by the time I get my passport I’ll have watched a film from Ticino…