Switzerland is a pristinely clean country, so the parliament building of the Swiss federal government should always gleam. Tina is one of the cleaning staff who keeps the Bundeshaus spic and span. She’s a thirtysomething Swiss French of Kosovan origin in a happy family home with no complaints apart from her overbearing “Baba” – her sleazy father, who emigrated to Switzerland during the Yugoslav Wars.
Everything turns upside down when “Baba” and his shady friend force Tina to spy for them. Her orders? Do what it takes to get a shift in the Army department, then extract data from a certain computer. If she doesn’t do it, the lives of her kids are on the line.
In more stately surroundings on another floor of the parliament, Swiss German Bundespräsidentin Kathy Kunz is trying to get one over on her nemesis, a suave Italian-speaking Bundesrat. A Swiss diplomat has just been kidnapped, which could just be the stroke of luck her image needs – get him back and it could snowball into a peace treaty for the Yemen government and its Al-Qaeda rebels.
Meanwhile, moustachioed intelligence agent Reinald Mann has just been demoted. It turns out that roughing up a mosque on thin evidence is not the best way to find an Islamist terrorist after all. So Mann and his mate set up a secret underground bunker and start playing dirty. That Bundespräsidentin Kathy Kunz sure looks like she’s up to no good. And who’s that Kosovan cleaning lady who’s started sniffing around?
As Tina, Kunz and Mann become entangled with Albanian arms dealers, Middle Eastern terrorists and homegrown Swiss scumbags, anyone in their wake might find themselves dragged under. Who would have thought it? The Bundeshaus isn’t so squeaky clean after all…
Worth a watch?
The long-term Swiss French TV collaboration with Denmark and Belgium is reaping big rewards. Helvetica‘s plot takes its cue from the Danish thriller Borgen, and in Belgian actress Flonja Kodheli the creators struck gold: a bilingual French and Albanian speaker with the acting chops for a huge character arc. Kodheli’s Tina turns from everywoman cleaner to badass triple-crossing spy over the course of six episodes, with asides as both neglectful mother and betrayed daughter, and we stay with her all the way.
Meanwhile, other key players such as Roland Vouilloz as the “loose cannon” Rainald Mann and Lisa Chapuisat as Tina’s teen daughter Sandra are trusted with a lot of emotional work, which both pull off very well. Sandra’s subplot in particular, revolving around a first sexual experience, is woven beautifully into her mother’s espionage shenanigans. This moving adolescent tale mirrors the key theme of enforced secrecy and merges organically with the main narrative.
A commitment to avoid insulting our intelligence is repeated in the editing: obvious exposition is weeded out and establishing shots are dispensed with, so we have to quickly work out what is going on. The pace of thrills and info-dumping is tightly controlled, building to very tense climax in each of the six episodes. In general, the writers keep things just complex enough to keep us on our toes without being too confused to care.
Helvetica takes on big targets, but not just for the sake of it – rather, to raise the stakes and elevate the realism. Corrupt members of the Bundesrat, Swiss arms dealers, Islamic terrorists “made in Switzerland” – all are fixtures in the national news, but rarely addressed so matter-of-factly in fiction as something intertwined. I loved the very specific references: President Kathy Kunz is not negotiating with an unnamed Middle Eastern country, but rather with Yemen. Dialogue slices through Swiss tact and tradition, for example when the Foreign Minister tells Kunz: “You were only elected because you’re a woman,” and she replies, “And you because you’re from Ticino.”
Weaknesses? I’d have liked to see well-known Swiss German actress Ursina Lardi have more fun finding the blackness in Kathy Kunz’s soul. The lack of chemistry between Tina and her husband made their scenes less than thrilling. And “the bombs” become too much of an abstract MacGuffin in a series which otherwise employed specificity well.
But that shouldn’t stop you watching this excellent thriller. It’s the second series from creator Romain Graf, and I’m looking forward to discovering his previous show, Station Horizon.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners). Understanding the Bundesrat politics part doesn’t require knowledge of the Swiss system, but it would help.
Language: French, with F, G and I subtitles available. For Swiss Germans there’s a dub, but internet reviews have panned it – original language is the way to go.
Swissness Lab Report: Crypto AG – CIA Spy Tech, Made in Switzerland
Helvetica succeeds in drenching its many surveillance scenes with that paranoia we know from The Conversation and Lives of Others. All of the main characters are bugged, followed or ogled through binoculars at various points; they are frequently under threat of discovery. None of the main locations – Bundeshaus offices and corridors, homes and neighbourhoods, and a seedy brothel – are free from infiltration.
Well, not quite. The hideout set up by intelligence agent Reinald Mann and his buddy is a safe haven, where the heroes can retreat and examine their ill-gained evidence or listen to Tina having sex via the bug in her phone.
For decades, Switzerland was also the centre of an industrial-scale spying racket which hit the news at more or less the exact same time as Helvetica was released. The Crypto AG scandal is well-documented in the English and German press, so I won’t go into much detail, but it’s worth repeating the bare bones of the story for the sheer scale and audacity of the operation.
Following World War Two the Americans were desperate to keep control of a certain genius Swedish cryptographer called Boris Hagelin. Hagelin sympathized with the American cause and had found success with his M-209 portable encryption machines. Now there were bigger fish to fry. Hagelin set up his company Crypto AG (AG means Corp. or PLC) in Zug, a smallish town not far from Zurich, expressly to manipulate the code machine market in favour of the Americans and their allies.
The Washington Post exposé on the case documents the evolution of Crypto’s relationship with US intelligence. It began in the Fifties with a simple trick – Hagelin sold the really good machines to countries on the CIA-approved list; the rest would get the bog-standard tech.
In the mid-Sixties, technology changed (see also: quartz watches) and electronic circuits revolutionized the machines Hageline was selling. Crypto could make machines which produced seemingly random characters, but which in actuality could be read by NSA experts. In fact, its 1967 electronic model H-460, hawked to governments across the world, was designed by the NSA itself! As the Post puts it: “No longer was Crypto merely restricting sales of its best equipment but actively selling devices that were engineered to betray their buyers.”
But the 1970s-1990s were the true golden age of information harvesting. As Hagelin aged and the future of the company became unclear, the CIA got together with its German equivalent the BND and… bought Crypto AG! They hid their identities with a series of legal tricks centred around a Liechtenstein law firm. In essence, countries were literally paying the CIA and BND millions of dollars for the privilege of being spied on.
Crypto machines proved invaluable while the US brokered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1978 (while monitoring Egyptian communications) and resolved the Iran hostage crisis of 1981 (while monitoring Ayatollah Komeini’s messages). It was interesting for me as a Brit to discover that the US also had access to Argentinian information during the Falklands war, which they duly passed on to the UK.
The Post also speculates on the ethical dilemmas faced by US interceptors of information. What did the US and Germany know about human rights abuses – but not speak up on, for fear of betraying their sources?
And where was Switzerland in all this? According to an excellent SRF documentary, Switzerland was chosen as a base simply because it was “a neutral country with few moral scruples”. Good old neutral Helvetica hadn’t taken a side during the Second World War, and had an impeccable record with specialized tech, so there was no chance it would take sides for something like this, right? For its part, the Swiss government probably knew what was going on, although they’ve denied it.
Which brings us back to Swiss film and TV. The Swiss intelligence in Helvetica have a protected safehouse from which to listen to Tina and follow her using tracking devices. But “loose cannon” cop Reinald Mann is sometimes followed himself, and is frequently caught unaware of vital information which scuppers his investigations. Meanwhile, more corrupt officials are themselves engaged in illicit snooping for an ill-defined “greater good”.
Two Swiss films I’ve seen also feature a strong focus on surveillance. Die Schweizermacher features a pompous bureaucrat whose pedantry with rules – the official ones of Swiss naturalization and unofficial ones of “Swissness” – combined with a license to spy nearly get vulnerable people in trouble. In Der Fall, a private detective spends the first half of the movie following suspects around, and the second half himself idiotically falling into a “honey trap” plot.
The reality, reading between the lines of the Crypto story, is that the Swiss role in all this has been a mixture of all three. Illicit, cynical snooping on behalf of a well-meaning but potentially malignant power; petty-minded bureaucracy with little regard for actual human beings; and genuine blindness and naivity.
But, like its fictional counterpart at the end of Helvetica, the Swiss government seems to have come out of this filthy business more or less politically and economically unscathed.
How they did it is a code I’m still unable to crack…
Washington Post article on Crypto AG, drawing on leaked CIA and BND histories.
SRF documentary including many fascinating interviews with Crypto employees.