Though the first cinemas in Switzerland were opened before World War I and found a public eager to see all kinds of films from the beginning, the home market for Swiss movies was to narrow to sustain an own film industry (then 3.3 million, now 7.2 million inhabitants).
Among the earliest Swiss films (1921) were the documentary movies Himatschal, Thron der Götter by Charles Duvanel and Le pauvre village by Jacques Béranger (about the changes in the life of a mountain village due to the erection of a dam for a hydroelectrical power plant). Swiss emigrant Emil Harder made a film about the foundation of the Swiss confederation.
One of the first sound films made in Switzerland was Bünzli's Grossstadterlebnisse [Babbitt in the big city] featuring comedian Fredy Scheim and directed by Robert Wohlgemuth (1929). The soundtrack - three songs - was released on a record as well. A controversial film Frauennot - Frauenglück [Women's distress - women's happyness] by Sergej M. Eisenstein for Prasens Film in Zurich in 1930 dealt with abortion and brought politics right into Switzerland's cinemas.
Contrary to foreign movies from the same era (starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton or Marlene Dietrich) hardly anybody in Switzerland below the age 80 has ever seen or even heard of these Swiss productions, however.
In the 1930's and 1940's short news reports (Filmwochenschau) were produced and shown to the public on a weekly basis. They were replaced in the 1960's by television news.
While Swiss intellectuals detested films as vulgar in the beginnings, they changed there minds when they realized the influence films had on people. With some reluctance and delay the Swiss Army also discovered films as a medium for mass-communication in the late 1930's and during World War II. A few very patriotic propaganda films (among others Füsilier Wipf [rifleman Wipf], 1938 and the historical film Landammann Stauffacher by Leopold Lindtberg) aimed to support what Switzerland's government called spiritual defense against nazism. Some other, shorter films of this era can still be seen in the permanent exhibition of the Forum der Schweizer Geschichte museum in Schwyz, central Switzerland.
Leopold Lindtberg, an Austrian emigrant and director at Zurich's theatre from 1933 to 1945, who is remembered for bringing dozens of anti-nazism plays to the stage, continued to make demanding films, both from an artistic and from a political point of view. Among these were Die letzte Chance [the last chance] about refugees (1945), Wachtmeister Studer (1939) and Matto regiert (1946, both based on novels by Swiss author Friedrich Glauser critizising corruption in Bern in the 1930's and starring Heinrich Gretler, one of Switzerland's best know actors). Die Vier im Jeep [four soldiers (American, British, French and Russian) in a jeep] (1950) tried to sue for agreement between nations.
Though very important at their time, all these pioneer films are almost forgotten in Switzerland.
In a time of rapid economic growth and social change after the end of World War II, Swiss movies based on conservative 19th century Swiss novels found a remarkable response by the public.
In 1952 Luigi Comencini directed a film based on the world-famous children's novel Heidi by Johanna Spyri) with Elsbeth Sigmund as Heidi, Thomas Klameth as Geissenpeter and Heinrich Gretler as Alpöhi. The original novel had already proved to be the best selling Swiss book, and so was the movie - no other Swiss movie had more success in the USA: 300 copies were displayed in 4300 American movie theaters.
In 1954 and 1955 Franz Schnyder directed two films based on Jeremias Gotthelf's popular novels Ueli der Knecht [Ueli the farmhand] and Ueli der Pächter [Ueli the tenant], starring Johannes Schmidhauser as Ueli and Liselotte (Lilo) Pulver as Ueli's wife Vreni. For Lilo Pulver it was the starting point of an international career. The Ueli films have become real classics in Switzerland, they were shown on television again and again - the last time in autumn 2004 (to mark the 150th year after Jeremias Gotthelf's death).
In 1955 Franz Schnyder tried to follow on with his version of Heidi. This first Swiss color movie has been critized for being much too commercial in the service of tourism-advertising - an absolutely deadly sin in the eyes of many Swiss artists and intellectuals.
Popularity is something different, however. Swiss actress Ursula Andress has become famous as a James-Bond girl and thanks to her the bikini became a success in 1957 - while separate municipal swimming-pools for women and men remained quite widespread in Switzerland until the early 1970's ...
While film director Lindtberg had tried to make movies combining a political message with appeal to the taste of a broad public, a younger generation of intellectuals and artists growing up with rebellious rock'n roll music was getting sick of the ongoing cold-war mentality and narrow-mindedness in Switzerland. A deep mistrust towards established social and political rules and structures was predominant in the scene for the rest of the 20th century.
The fruits of the new approach were a series of films produced on low budget, well worth seing but not very successful on the market. German language Swiss film directors Kurt Gloor, Peter von Gunten, Fredi M. Murer (Höhenfeuer) and Markus Imhoof (Das Boot ist voll [the boat is full], critical about Switzerland's refugee politics in World War II) focused on documentary films while their French language colleagues Alain Tanner and Jean-Luc Godard concentrated on feature films. Alain Tanner was awarded a prize for his life-work by the national agency for the advancement of Swiss motion-pictures in 2005.
Rolf Lyssy's 1978 satirical comedy Die Schweizermacher [the naturalizers] (about the strange methods of Switzerland's officials trying to check whether immigrants are integrated well enough to be naturalized) was a rare combination of political commitment and humour appealing to the masses. The success within Switzerland as well as in Germany and Austria was tremendous (at least compared to other Swiss movies ...).
While the 1968 rebels are getting older, a new generation has grown up. Liberties their parents had struggled for so hard seem to be a matter of course to them and they know of the pre-1968 atmosphere only by hearsay, if at all. How this will influence Swiss movies remains to be seen.
There is one commercially very successful example of the new generation of films, however: Achtung, fertig, Charlie!, a comedy about today's life in the Swiss Army, was shown in Switzerland's picture theatres in 2003. Its popularity is comparable to Die Schweizermacher - though the quality of the plot was certainly not. While the older film reflects a controversial debate dominating the political agenda to date by caricaturing narrow-minded officials in hundreds of subtle details, the new comedy is based on sitcom-type effects and owes a considerable part of its success to the physical attractiveness of leading actress Melanie Winiger.
Achtung, fertig, Charlie! boosted the market share of Swiss films from an average of 2 - 3 % to extraordinary 5.7% in 2003. Hollywood productions account for almost three quarters of ticket sales while films from European Union countries make up for 20 to 25%.
A total of 335 picture theatres in Switzerland show some 1,500 movies per year on 540 screens. Every major Swiss city has one or more multiplex picture theatres operating up to six screens under one roof. These companies dominate the local market and concentrate on blockbusters. Most films in Switzerland are shown in the original language version (usually english) with German and French subtitles, but some of the real blockbusters are shown in parallel in synchronized versions.
A few alternative picture theatres are struggling hard for cultural diversity (and for their own survival). An audience of only a few dozens of picture-goers is not unusual in these cinemas. During summer, temporary open-air cinemas show some movie classics.
There are also many cinemas in smaller towns, but some of these are only open on weekends and they have to wait for up to one year until they get a copy of a popular movie.
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