Au milieu du monde: Alain Tanner and Swiss Film

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

Alain Tanner, now 45, served a long apprenticeship before he was able to make his first feature film six years ago. Before he could become a Swiss filmmaker it was necessary to invent Swiss film. There had been some activity in the German-speaking part of the country during and just after the war. Exiles had provided Zurich with a modest film industry (and even a studio), and during the war years about ten to fifteen features per year were produced in Swiss-German dialect. Since the borders had been closed to imports, these films were extremely popular. But when the war ended, the exiles departed and the Zurich filmmakers retrenched, concentrating on documentaries and industrial films.

Meanwhile, in Romand Switzerland (the French-speaking Swiss comprise approximately one-sixth of Switzerland’s six million population) there had never been any native film culture to speak of while Tanner was growing up. “Switzerland exists much more for the German Swiss than for us,” Tanner explains. “They have a real identity while we don’t. There are some differences between the French and us, but we are much more of a French province than the German Swiss are a German province.” So, after having studied literature at the University of Geneva following the war, Tanner left the country, working first on cargo ships around the world, then doing a little journalism, waiting for “something to happen.” In the middle Fifties he settled in London (choosing that city, even though he knew nothing about England, because in Paris it was so difficult to get work). He met people like Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz who were just starting the Free Cinema movement; “we got to be quite good friends,” Tanner says, “and they managed to get us work with the Film Institute.” In 1957 he and fellow Swiss exile Claude Goretta (the two of them had known each other since university days and had, in fact, founded one of the first film societies in Switzerland then) made their first film, a short, Nice Timea study of Piccadilly Circus at night.

Alain Tanner, a couple of decades after the interview

Soon after, Tanner left for Paris where he spent his days in the Cinémathèque and managed to survive by getting the odd job here and there working as assistant on commercial productions. Eventually, the opportunity to make a documentary—Ramuz—passage d’un poète (1960)—brought him back to Geneva. For the next eight years he supported himself with television work, occasionally producing a theatrical documentary (Les Apprentis, 1964; Une Ville à Chandigarh, 1966). It became clear that if ever there were to be a Swiss feature film industry, it was going to be necessary to find some quasi-public method of financing the films. Television seemed to hold the answer. In 1968, together with Claude Goretta, Michel Soutter, Jean-Louis Roy and a fifth person (who fell ill and had to quit the group), Tanner founded the Groupe 5 specifically in order to co-produce films with the Swiss network, SSR.

Working with painfully small budgets (“we tried to pay enough to keep people alive”), the four directors quickly produced seven or eight films, shot in 16mm and blown up later for theatrical release. Since they cost so little (Tanner’s first film budget was $25,000—about one-quarter the amount the early New Wave films had cost a decade previous), some of the films were bound to make a little money, and did. Charles, mort ou vif was the first of the films to break through the border, managing to get a showing in Paris, “and doing quite well there.”

The French imprimatur assured the future of Romand Swiss films and gradually the situation improved. A new law was passed providing some government financing; more important, perhaps, French producers were now approachable for co-productions, a vital· source of cash for Swiss filmmakers (“But we always keep the majority,” Tanner warns, “so that we aren’t too dependent on the French film industry”). The co-production arrangements were cemented when Tanner’s second film, La Salamandre (1971) broke every attendance record in Swiss theaters where it played and gained a first run in Paris of 64 weeks.

“What we are trying to do now,” Tanner explains, “can be thought of as the third step: Now we can get backing from distributors (who completely ignored us at the beginning) and from television, and from one Swiss producer—Citel Films—who is at the center of what we are trying to do. And then we can co-produce in France.” The result is that Romand Swiss film is now on a fairly solid footing, the main danger in the immediate future being the heavy influence of French money. The situation is not unlike the relationship between English-speaking Canadian filmmakers and the U.S. film industry, and Geneva may yet become just another training ground for workers in the French film industry.

But at the moment, the new financial security is salutary, and the renewed interest in the production of native films is being felt in German-speaking Switzerland as well. Zurich filmmakers have been making “hundreds of short films for years,” according to Tanner, “and have just now begun making features.” As it happens, the German Swiss director who has so far received the most attention abroad, Daniel Schmid (Tonight or Never, La Paloma) is much more closely associated with the Munich group and, according to Tanner, does not at all represent what is happening in Zurich. “German Swiss are much more on a political line,” he says. “Some of them do underground, too, but the majority is more sociologically and politically minded about films.” Two recent films from Zurich which have received some festival exposure outside of Switzerland are Peter von Gunten’s The Extradition and Thomas Koerfer’s The Death of the Flea Circus Director.

* * *

Alain Tanner’s most recent film, Le Milieu du monde, marks a quantum advance over his earlier films. While it shares with them a controlled, almost transparent tone and a fascination with the metaphorical equation Tanner makes between private domestic life and larger political matters, its structure is significantly more complex. For the first time, Tanner has experimented with the development of a dialectic tension between the style of a film and its materials. Le Milieu du monde is a deceptively simple film, one which refuses to be assimilated easily.

‘Le Milieu du monde’

The title refers to the continental divide in Switzerland, the balance point between the watersheds of Northern and Southern Europe. Even before the film begins we have been given a concrete geographical metaphor by which to measure the structural qualities of Le Milieu du monde. It is to be a film about the dead center of a system—watersheds, or politics—and the paralysis of that finely poised balance. If the place is “the middle of the world,” then the time of the film, as a title tells us, is “1974: a time of normalization … when exchange is permitted—and nothing changes.”

Yet there is nothing in the narrative material of the film which serves this theme didactically. Tanner has worked out the profound meaning of Le Milieu du monde not in the story proper, but in the interrelationship between the materials of the film and its style. Paul (Philippe Léotard) is a young engineer—married, busy, successful—who has been chosen by the A.D.P., a fictitious centrist political party, to run in the next election. The A.D.P. has no politics except the status quo, and Paul recommends himself as a candidate simply because he is neutral enough not to offend too many people, young and good-looking. Paul falls in love with Adriana (Olimpia Carlisi), an Italian immigrant who works as a waitress in a café. The film gives us, matter-of-factly, the progression of their affair over a period of four months in winter. Paul is ardent, but he never quite bothers to understand Adriana and the affair ends when she breaks it off. They are separated not only by a geographical continental divide but by a multiplicity of metaphorical divides, sex and class being primary. “Paul knew only what he wanted,” the narrator tells us at the end. “Adriana knew only what she didn’t want. So their hopes were normalized. Hopes are born every day. But they are shattered against lies, opportunism, and fear.” Le Milieu du monde is, then, a love story, but one whose structure is innately political.

I asked Tanner how he arrived at the unusual structure of Le Milieu du monde:

AT: It’s sort of difficult to tell the story of a film’s beginning because it’s a very long procedure that embraces many different things: my own life, people I meet, what I read, what happens in the world, what happens to my kid … there can be so very many things. It’s like a fruit that takes time to mature, you know. There were several things together: there was the girl—the actress, not the character—whom I had known for a long time. And then there was a real story which interested me. It happened in a small town. A man who was the mayor of the town (and also the boss of an industry which employed the whole population) met a girl, ran away with her, and the whole town was turned upsidedown. When he came back, after it was over, the town returned to normal. And then there was the place. I go through it often to visit friends who live on the other side. The place completely fascinated me. I saw it at every season of the year and—especially in winter—I became completely infatuated with it. And then I sat in that café. And the whole thing sort of grew. We worked on the script in two periods. First with John Berger, mainly on characters: we had about 300 pages. Much of it is not in the film, but it was important for us to know. Then we cut it down.

The idea of normalization came when we were writing and we wanted to provide a sort of perspective. In all the previous films there are characters who are articulate, and I wanted to change that because I found it really a little simple just to put words in their mouths, you know, and make the young leftist audience rock with pleasure and laughter and be completely sort of relieved by that. This comes from a very, very precise thing: watching the first two films (especially La Salamandre) with audiences made me withdraw because I sensed very clearly what the audience was getting. I felt very strongly that it was a little facile and simple just to put good revolutionary phrases and sentences in the characters’ mouths and be satisfied and maybe have a good laugh.

So I then decided to have people who were not articulate in the film. I mean shift the work of—this is perhaps what few people still really understand—the work of the politics of the film, to put it in the shape of the film and not so much in what you say. That is to say, not so much in what you are saying, but in how you are saying it, which is to me much more important.

This came out of a long period of reflection on how a film operates in the eyes of an audience. What they get out of it. And what to do about it. I studied many films—even bad ones. I’d turn on the TV for fifteen minutes, just to see what they were giving the audience, what they were selling—especially in terms of their language. What is this language, really, that has been so successful, which Hollywood has raised to near-perfection? How do they manipulate? How do they control?

I discovered that there had been something in silent cinema that had been completely stopped by the arrival of sound and by the development of the economic imperialism of the American cinema. The traditional way of manipulating is in the editing—and this is very funny because it is, in fact, a paradox—which gives the impression of reality by completely destroying reality and preventing people from seeing what the camera really sees. This American style—the sharp cutting—has been brought to perfection to prevent any kind of dialectics from getting into it. When you don’t do it, there is another paradox because there is a very strange feeling of alienation, of distance because you bring time and space back into the shot and people have become so much used to the other technique which they think is reality….

JM: And it is to avoid space and time that people go to the cinema….

AT: Exactly! This was in fact the basis of the analysis I did which I tried to put into Milieu du monde.

— — —

Tanner, of course, isn’t alone in wanting to destroy the oppressive and manipulative effects of classical montage, but it seemed to me that he also wanted to avoid the kinds of things that, for example, Jacques Rivette is doing.

AT: Well, Jacques Rivette is really someone who is very much apart in cinema, you know. Politically I would be much closer to Godard or Straub. But, then, where I don’t agree with them is that instead of …

JM: That they have no audience …

AT: No, it’s not that because I am quite prepared to accept the validity of what Godard told me: “I’m making films now for 14 people, like physicist in a laboratory.” That’s a valid position. But I would be completely incapable of doing what Godard does. What he is doing is filming theory. What I want to do is to use theory to film things. It might look like a compromise, but for me it isn’t. I do keep in my films something of the traditional—characters and story, characters you can have interest in because they exist in real life. I’m very much attached to that, to characters and story. But I want to change the narrative technique. It’s a way to cheat the spectator—cheat in the good sense of the word—to give him the appearance that he’s going to see a movie again, and from that, show him this story differently.

I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded at all, because for me everything is a sketch for the next film. It’s a real tightrope, the sense of balance between two things. It’s a very complicated thing, especially when you shoot, because actors don’t quite understand what we are doing when we use this technique.

JM: What exactly did you do during the shooting of Middle of the World that was different from what you’d done before?

AT: It was very clear from the beginning, for example, that we would use very long shots, that the film was built as a series of a hundred little short films each done in one take—and this of course is directly influenced by Brecht’s epic theater. This is, in a sense, epic cinema. I also reduced the story to its utter banality and simplification just because I wanted to have the film not in the story but on top of it…. The actors were very difficult to work with because they sensed that they were not in the foreground completely. They were part of a structure and not more important than a camera movement. Some of the camera movements are very traditional—the camera moves when the characters move. But more often the camera moves when everything is completely still—this puts the characters in the surroundings, and it also creates a very strange impression in the eye which is very alienating from the action of the events. It makes you feel the presence of the camera and I’m all in favor of that. That’s also why we show the crew at the beginning.

I want people to carry the film away. Not to be relieved by the film. I really want them not to have the usual catharsis from the film, not to be secure about what they have just seen.

***

Whether or not Tanner has succeeded in constructing an epic film on the Brechtian model is of course still unclear, as he himself suggests. Like Brecht before him, Tanner may discover that the bourgeois audience’s capacity for self-induced catharsis is prodigious and that only a complete Godardian break with bourgeois content as well as form is necessary before the full effect of Brechtian distancing is achieved and guaranteed. But that means that it simply won’t be possible to create epic cinema on a popular scale. The design of Le Milieu du monde is, nevertheless, still fascinating to those who want to study it. It is a materialist film with an extraordinarily intense physical reality to it, a sense of place and time that is acute and direct. Then, too, despite (or more properly because of) the fact that the characters do not have full claim on the foreground of the film, they have an extraordinary air of verisimilitude which, by itself, would make Le Milieu du monde of more than passing interest. When we couple these two qualities with the reiterated structure of the “continental divide” motif we have what must certainly be one of the most subtly complex narratives since Stromboli and Viaggio in Italia—which, come to think of it, were also deceptively simple materialist love stories set in a time of “normalization, where exchange is permitted and nothing changes.”

© 1976 James Monaco

A pdf of the original issue can be found here