Flammen im Paradies (“Fire in Paradise”, 1997) [Coucou Winti-Special!] // Colonial Switzerland, Part 2

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Coucou Kulturmagazin Winterthur invited me to write two reviews for their cinema special. A German translation of the following can be found at Coucou from March. The first review covered Dindo’s Verhör und Tod in Winterthur (2002).

What did the colonial era ever do for the Swiss?

To answer that question, we can start with a simpler one: Why did two Winterthurer go to India at the turn of the century? Georg Reinhart, co-founder of the Volkart Stiftung, travelled to trade colonial goods. Gustav Imhoof of the Basel Mission lived there to spread the word of God. The latter needed something, and was sent it: a young woman to marry a man she’d never seen. The couple eventually became grandparents of director Markus Imhoof (Das Boot ist voll, More than Honey).

His Flammen im Paradies, inspired by those tales of Winterthur, plunges Georgette, a rich factory owner’s daughter, into colonial India. She confronts the intentions and the reality of the Basel Mission, Swiss interactions with the colonials, and the role played by local children as labourers and servants. Within this utterly alien world she also confronts a love she cannot permit – because she is in fact already married.

Imhoof’s screenplay leans towards melodrama, but the viewer swelters under the tropical heat with Georgette, fears the mosquito bites, and struggles in vain to comprehend the missionaries. The experience intensified by Bruno Coulais’ excellent soundtrack, an elegant, brooding fusion of Western and Indian classical (it’s on Spotify and YouTube – search for “Les Raisons Du Coeur”).

The movie’s criticism of the Basel Mission is subtle but consistent, without resorting to crude demonizing of the Swiss “paracolonials”. A darkly beautiful film driven by powerful, passionate women.

Swissness Difficulty Level: Säntis (Intermediate).
Language: Either French or Swiss German, although I’d recommend French as most of the principal actors speak it.
Availability: PlaySuisse.

Swissness Lab Report: Colonial Switzerland, Part 2 – Colonial Trade

In Part 1, we examined how the colonial mindset informed the Swiss image of Africa in Mischa Hedinger’s African Mirror.

For Part 2 I was considered analysis of the Basel Mission, but something feels off; missionary work is a global Christian tradition, and we haven’t begun to tackle Swiss religion yet. Markus Imhoof’s second inspiration for the movie, the wealthy colonial trader Georg Reinhart, is a more intriguing subject for now.

Reinhart and his all-powerful clan of Winterthur tradesman cast a more subtle shadow on Imhoof’s narrative. We see it in the name of the lead (Georgette) and in her vastly wealthy husband – Reinhart himself also married a textile heiress. And then there’s the character Robert Oppliger, the missionary outpost’s affable handyman and engineer. His brainwave? A khaki-dying business, to provide work to the Indian locals and trousers to the English colonials.

Khaki, cotton and English-governed India may sound pretty irrelevant today. But let me show you how a well-managed, stable colonial trading family can influence the contemporary world, including my everyday life here in Winterthur.

  • The Reinharts co-founded the earliest antecedent bank of UBS.
  • The School of Management and Law of our university, the ZHAW, is based in a former Reinhart office (above).
  • The ubiquitous Volkart Stiftung, the Reinhart’s culture foundation, own the Coalmine, the café-cum-photo gallery in which I met classmates during my student days. One Reinhart’s (very good) post-impressionist art collection is in the Römerholz, where I once had “Christmas brunch” with a former employer. And one of them founded the Fotomuseum, which I’ve visited several times with friends.
  • The Volkart Stiftung gave money to at least one film already on this blog (Loving Highsmith) and two great Markus Imhoof movies which will no doubt be covered soon (More than Honey, Eldorado).
  • The Reinhart who came up the Fotomuseum in the early 1990s also produced Imhoof’s Das Boot ist voll, my favourite Swiss movie, ten years previously.
  • “AXA” is plastered all over Winterthur partly because of the Reinharts. They co-founded an influential insurance company in the nineteenth century; in 2006, AXA Insurance bought up its descendant firm.

I’m getting a lot of this information from a 2019 article in the WOZ, a left-wing weekly newspaper. Much of its content comes from a historian, Christof Dejung, who wrote a book about the Reinhart family. It’s 500+ pages long and I have no doubt a lot more could be written. Take, for example, that last bullet point about AXA. When I moved here the company was called AXA Winterthur, but now it’s just AXA Switzerland. “Globalization, eh,” I moaned from afar when the logos were replaced, “proud local industries swallowed up by global conglomerates.” What I didn’t know was that the original Reinhart money invested in 1875 was itself a consequence of deregulated global economy.

It all started with “us Brits”, of course. We repealed the Navigation Acts and allowing a whole lot of free trade. Previous to 1849, India-based companies only dealt with the “mother country” (ew); the UK therefore had exclusive access to Indian tea, coffee, spices and rubber, and in return would supply soap, matches, paper and so forth to the subcontinent. But after the Navigation Acts repeal, other countries could get in on the action. Enter the Reinhart clan, and their Gebrüder Volkart brand, in 1851.

By the 1860s, the Reinharts, a.k.a. Gebrüder Volkart, specialized in cotton . They’d bet on the right horse, since when slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, Indian cotton got a whole lot more interesting for the European market.

Around 1900 (twelve years before events in Flammen im Paradies), Gebrüder Volkart was one of the most important cotton traders in the world. Their principle trade was between Winterthur and Bombay; they bought Indian cotton and other raw materials for import into Europe, and provided the Indians with machines, clocks and textiles. You know, Swiss stuff.

All this is all well and good, until we think about the scene in Flammen im Paradies in which Georgette, the textile heiress, eats a posh, awkward meal with her Swiss trader husband. They do so from the finest Victorian silverware, in an immense, opulent palace built and populated by English colonials and their indigenous servants.

The point of this image is that jolly old neutral Switzerland, who “never had a colony”, did rather well for themselves by hanging on turmeric-scented British coattails. Here’s that WOZ article on the Reinharts:

The Swiss company profited directly from the imperialist system; existing colonial infrastructure was cleverly used for their own trade actitivities. The Volkart raw material suppliers, i.e. the Indian cotton farmers, financed the British colonial government with their taxes. If the price of cotton sank, “they would literally starve,” writes [historian Christof] Dejung, because they only farmed for export and not for themselves. Over sixty million Indians died in famines between the late 18th and early 20th centuries, because the farmers hardly had an alternative to serving colonial capitalism.

To draw our conclusion from all this: What did the colonial era ever do for the Swiss? It made them some of them very wealthy indeed – partly off the backs of those sixty million Indian farmers. The evidence is all around me, on those Winterthur buildings and logos.


WOZ article (main source, German):
Daniela Janser (2019), “Kulturgelder aus Britisch-Indien”

Filmbulletin review (German):
Martin Schlappner (1997), Flammen im Paradies

Interview with Markus Imhoof in the BaZ, via his website (German):
“Ein filmischer Wind unter den Flügeln des Realismus von Verena Zimmermann” (1997)

Winterthur-Glossar entry on Gebrüder Volkart
Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz entry on Gebrüder Volkart

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