1914, and Switzerland’s army is mobilised on the outbreak of the Great War. The barber’s apprentice Wipf is called up, his division eventually sent to the Italian border, high in the Alps. Along the way he goes from clumsy, rather foppish Milchgesicht (“Milk-face”) to respected Swiss man and soldier.
The tales in this episodic movie mostly have low stakes. Wipf is the butt of pranks, until he learns to stand up for himself; a ditzy love interest is ditched in favour of a more patriotic one; back in town, respectable barbershop customers bicker until a shaving cream fight breaks out.
In spite of this, Füsilier Wipf remains an important film: the first production of the propaganda movement Geistige Landesverteidung (“Spiritual Defence of the Nation”). The modus operandi is clear in every frame of the movie: appropriating stories of the previous war with the goal of uniting the country in a time of social and economic crisis, i.e. the encroaching Second World War.
Swiss neutrality dictates that the soldiers in this war movie don’t do any shooting. Conflict between characters is swiftly resolved; no spies or deserters populate the ranks: our heroes get sad on the border, but never totally flip out, get racist, or get rapey. The only note of real action, which occurs on the 80 minute mark, doesn’t put our heroes in peril; rather, two escaped Czech prisoners must cross the Alps into Switzerland while avoiding Italian bullets.
Most of all, Füsilier Wipf confuses outsiders like me by being a war film with no specific antagonist. War itself is the enemy, and must be contained at all costs to save Swiss sovereignty. The best means of doing this, we are told, is jovial, uniformed brotherhood in various picturesque landscapes.
Worth a watch?
How do you create pro-neutrality propaganda? Aside from the historical and curiosity value offered by its answer to this question, Füsilier Wipf also gives us the chance to catch two Swiss Me Deadly mainstays in action: the cabarettists Emil Hegetschwiler and Heinrich Gretler would go on to co-star in Matto regiert and Die Käserei in der Vehfreude; Hegetschwiler plays a leading role in Bäckerei Zürrer and Café Odeon. One of the two directors, meanwhile, is Leonhard Lindtberg, who we’ll see a lot more of in the coming weeks.
But maybe you just fancy watching a classic black and white movie? A slice of 1930s cinema history whose quality story and universal message shines through the years? Or a nostalgia blanket to wrap up in on a rainy Sunday?
In that case, you should watch Wachtmeister Studer (1939). Because the protagonist of Füsilier Wipf is boring, and his character arc is more clump of grass than Alpine pass. The silly city folk are an amusing diversion, and the showdown between Wipf and his bully intrigued me (watch out for a cracking upside-down shot of Wipf’s crush), but apart from that there’s no meat to get your teeth into. This movie was made with a very specific purpose in mind which is now, fortunately, obsolete.
What saved me from fully tuning out was imagining the atmosphere in cinemas where Füsilier Wipf was shown. Half the audience would have remembered the First World War; older gents would have served in circumstances similar to Wipf, and their sons knew they were soon to be called up; everyone felt Hitler breathing heavily down their neck. Cinema itself was young, and Swiss German movies were still rare. So even if this is a dull film for us, its contemporary audience saw every shot, heard every line of dialogue as laden with meaning they brought to it.
No wonder, then, that the film was seen at the cinemas by 1,200,000 spectators – one in every three Swiss. The box office success of Füsilier Wipf has never been equalled.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (intermediate).
Language: Swiss German, with G, F, I subs.
Availability: PlaySuisse for free.
Swissness Lab Report: Pro-Neutrality Propaganda
When Wipf returns to the city barbershop, radiating manliness from his new regime of camaraderie and country air, he’s asked to take sides as “neutral for Germany” or “neutral for France”. He smiles and proclaims: “I’m for Switzerland.”
In a heterogenous country with various affinities to outside powers depending on first language, family members over the border, and Christian denomination, the need arose to promote a positive common spirit. Although no French Swiss or Italian Swiss soldiers populate Wipf’s troupe, picturesque scenes were shot in each of the three language regions. The geographical locations are proudly vaunted in the opening intertitles and on posters for the film: “Sunny Ticino”, “The highest peak in the Valais”.
The “Geistige” of Geistige Landesverteidigung can mean both “spiritual” and “intellectual, mental”. This collective feeling and attitude rests, as I see it, on the everyday actions of the individual as he encounters his fellow man. (Masculine form used intentionally; the film, and this period of Swiss history in general, is intensely patriarchal.)
The Bundesrat responsible, Philip Etter, boiled the ideology down to three parts: Bündische Gemeinschaft, which basically means “alliance between states” or federalism; Ehrfurcht vor der Würde und Freiheit des Menschen, so “reverence for the values and freedom of people”; and the Zusammenfassung des Geistigen, which is the hardest term to translate, but refers to combining the spiritual/intellectual/mental values of all three language regions.
The historian Thomas Maissen, when introducing the concept, is careful to note what Geistige Landesverteidigung is not. Firstly, it avoids the “blood and soil” race rhetoric of the Nazis; secondly, its recourse to Bündnische Gemeinschaft doesn’t take its cue from the nineteenth century forms of nationalism and liberal democracy, but rather from the much older Helvetic oath between founding cantons.
The democracy promoted by stuff like Füsilier Wipf is supposed to be centuries old, and specifically Swiss. It has its roots in the hills and mountains which purify Wipf of his urban foppishness. This part of the movie’s message was most surprising to me – in effect, Wipf’s arc is one from city dweller under the thumb of corrupted, vain and feminine men to farmer, about to invest in a plot of land in Ticino. The countryside, and his brotherly alliance with hard-working older men of various walks of life, has made him honest, smart and masculine. City life disgusts him.
Film historian Hervé Dumont writes extensively on Füsilier Wipf. For us deep divers in the Swiss lakes it’s well worth quoting from his topology of cultural clichés, which affirm this clear city vs. country binary I picked up on:
- “Real” Swiss man: robust, disciplined, rural.
- “Real” Swiss woman: quiet, well-behaved, hard-working.
- Modesty (or false modesty) is a virtue.
- Total lack of any aspirations to heroic airs and graces (this attitude paradoxically associated with self-adulation)
- The accumulation of minor symbolic actions such as: dancing to the Swiss-style accordion (see Unerhört Jenisch), eating rösti (see L’heure du secret), playing the card game Jass (Wachtmeister Studer), milk cans (Die Käserei in der Vehfreude), and Swiss wrestling (Der Verdingbub); also, symbolic places such as the vegetable garden (Unser Garten Eden) and barns (Ueli der Knecht).
- Sentimentality which suppresses any chance of critical reflection.
- A habit of getting around the delicate subject of “freedom” by cutting to photogenic Alpine mist.
Overall, I’d say of the three aspects of the “Spiritual Defence of the Nation” mentioned by Etter above, the one which is pushed hard in Füsilier Wipf is the “reverence for the values and freedom of freedom of people”. 1938-9 was not yet the time to address bringing the language regions together, or the mythical Helvetic oath – there would be time for that in the other propaganda classics Gilberte de Courgenay (1940) and Landammann Stauffacher (1941). In this early stage of the war the most important thing was to remember what we were fighting for.
This is articulated by Wipf’s father figure Leu in the key speech of the movie. In the scene, the exhausted, apathetic troops have been spending months on end in passive, stationary border deployment high in the Alps. In a moment of weakness, they let a fire go out and begin fighting with each other about who is responsible. Leu intervenes:
We all let this fire go out. Who knows – maybe there’s something smouldering under the ashes… You see? At the end of the day, everything’s still there.
And when the going gets tough, I’d bet my life on it – there’s no one here who wouldn’t defend us, with all his power, until his dying breath. Fusilier Schatzli, or Hungerbühler – or Leu. Or do you want sit with foreign local councillors instead of Fusilier Gmür? And become cannon fodder for foreign generals? And let them take our speech and thoughts away from us? Then we don’t need embers.
Freedom. Sometimes in the inn with our friends, or at official speeches, some of these phrases about freedom really get on your nerves. But if things really kicked off, we’d defend our freedom with everything we’ve got.
Freedom. Now we’ll just have to stand guard a while, even if our fingers and toes are freezing. [The camera pans down to the fire, which is back roaring again.]
What must be defended, then, is sovereignty at the level of politics (vs. “foreign local councillors”), at military level (vs. “foreign generals”), and in everyday life (“our speech and thoughts… in the inn with our friends [Stammtisch]”). There’s a noticeable modesty, almost embarrassment to throw around big, abstract words like “freedom”, and a kind of tautological rhetoric in that, when you boil it all down, Swissness is defined simply by one’s not being foreign, or at least not dictated to by foreign powers. The “enemy” is foreignness itself.
The implications of this idea, and its twentieth century transition into a ubiquitous anti-immigration ideology, is explored in my review of Willkommen in der Schweiz.
Hervé Dumont, Geschichte des Schweizer Films: Spielfilme 1896-1965.
Thomas Maissen, Geschichte der Schweiz.