Coucou Kulturmagazin Winterthur invited me to write two reviews for their cinema special. A shorter, German translation of the following can be found at Coucou from March. The second review covers Imhoof’s Flammen im Paradies (1997).
I’ve lived in Winterthur for over ten years. The sixth largest town in Switzerland is an inconspicuous satellite of Zurich known for engineering and insurance. Its reputation as a “punk”, working-class place, has often baffled me.
Factory closures hit the big Sulzer engineering works in the 1980s – but that was the same all over Europe, wasn’t it? Working folk had it rough after the oil crisis and when neoliberalism hit. But Winti recovered, better than the North of England where I come from, and nowadays it’s undergoing gentrification. Anyway, as every millennial Englishman knows, “punk” was invented by Vivienne Westwood to sell leather jackets.
Bullshit. Take, for example, the case of Sulzer in 1980, when it sold nuclear power parts to the Argentinian military junta. Protests in Winterthur were small but noisy. But they escalated in 1981 at the “Waffenschau”, an exhibition of modern weapons at the Eulachhalle. Thousands took the streets, made a “human carpet” in protest, and things got violent.
The demos included future members of the “Wintis”, punks from occupied houses who met in the Widder to drink, talk politics – and plan political attacks. Small things at first, graffiti and paint bombs. The punks provoked, the cops hit back – hard, with prejudice. Paint bombs became molotov cocktails. Only a matter of time before Bundesrat Rudolf Friedrich, Winterthurer and Head of the Police Department, became a target.
“We have young people fraught with problems,” the Police Chief announced, “who struggle with our civilisation and our way of life.” Looking back at this time, Aleks Weber, the charismatic painter and leading voice of the Wintis, disagreed: “We belonged in society, but wanted it to be different. We were part of it, not a foreign element.”
On the 7th of August 1984, a bomb exploded at Bundesrat Friedrich’s window. Noone was harmed, but they might have been. Later the Rieter offices were targeted, and then the Technikum, the engineering school.
Finally, in November, 32 young people (many of them “Wintis”) were arrested and put under intense interrogation. Suspected ringleader Aleks Weber was high on their list; they also took his pretty, sensitive girlfriend, Gabi (24), who worked in the Widder and had little to do with the violence
They took Gabi to “U-Haft” and pushed her hard, very hard, for two months, until she made a confession. Later that night, she hung herself in her cell with an immersion coil.
Richard Dindo (Grüningers Fall) constructs this Winterthur story patiently, with Aleks Weber and Gabi’s death at its centre. He grants respect and empathy to the town and its inhabitants, and gains moving testimony from those deeply implicated by the “interrogation and death” in the film’s title. Weber’s neoexpressionist paintings, shown throughout, are infused with profound sadness and searing anger. He died from HIV in 1994, and his ashes were thrown into the Töss.
What happened to the other “Wintis”? When Verhör und Tod in Winterthur came out in 2002 most were already dead, abroad, or in psychiatric clinics. Winterthur may be less “punk” nowadays, but it’s vitally important that newcomers to the town, its children and its immigrants like me, understand its troubled past.
The film taught this Englishman something about the true spirit of punk, and how it may live – and die – in a town like Winterthur.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Matterhorn (advanced). It would help to know Winti and/or something of the early ’80s “Unruhe”, ideally both.
Language: Swiss German and High German.
Availability: Free on PlaySuisse.
Erich Schmid’s book Verhör und Tod in Winterthur (German), which inspired the film, is still in print.
The Wikipedia page on the so-called “Winterthur Ereignisse” (in German, accessed 31.01.2022) is extensive and contains several interesting links.
The SRF archives have clips from Winti demos against the 1981 weapons exhibition.