Hitler is dead. Germany has surrendered. But while the war in Europe may be over, for Heinrich Zwygart (Michael Neuenschwander), the Swiss ambassador to Berlin since 1937, peacetime presents a new set of challenges. Switzerland’s famously declared neutrality will not, he knows, hold up to post-war scrutiny; his countrymen made fortunes backing the Nazi war effort, and turned away refugees with Jewish in their passports. ‘Do you know what they say in Berlin?’ he asks, as he contemplates his compromised past and uncertain future. ‘Six days a week, the Swiss work for Hitler, and on the seventh, they pray for Allied victory.’ Either way, he notes wryly, Switzerland was determined to end the war on the winning side.
Zwygart is particularly haunted by the real-life fate of Maurice Bavaud, the Swiss student who was executed for attempting to kill Hitler in 1938, and on whose behalf the ambassador, acting on orders from his government, refused to use his diplomatic powers to intervene. Zwygart burned the evidence of this shameful episode before leaving Berlin, but his future son-in-law (Yann Philipona) is digging into the story, and other examples of Swiss collaboration with the Nazis, drawing Zwygart’s family into the mess. Meanwhile, his elderly father, a former soldier, has swallowed the party line that it was the Swiss Army’s deterrent value, not bank loans and arms deals, that kept Switzerland safe.
Inspired by Thomas Hürlimann’s 1991 play ‘Der Gesandte’ (‘The Envoy’), itself drawn from the true story of Hans Frölicher, Swiss writer-director Laurent Nègre’s absorbing film is shot in the same stark-monochrome-with-one-shot-of-red employed to great effect in Schindler’s List, here with a hint of pre-war German expressionism. Unfortunately, there are also some heavy-handed, even trite manifestations of Zwygart’s guilt over the Bavaud affair, which have the effect of undermining the seriousness of Nègre’s intent.
Few filmmakers have challenged assumptions about Swiss neutrality so directly
Few filmmakers have challenged assumptions about so-called Swiss neutrality during World War II so directly, and Frölicher’s story is the perfect thread to pull in order to unravel the myths that surround Switzerland’s wartime position. Yet Nègre’s narrative seems more concerned with humanising Zwygart/Frölicher than re-examining his (or his government’s) role, either in Bavaud’s execution, or the Jews’ extermination. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course; Nègre is free to fictionalise the story any way he wants. The times, however, arguably call for a more clear-eyed examination of the dangers of turning a blind eye to the less palatable actions of ostensibly friendly nations.
In UK cinemas Nov 10