Culture

Alain Tanner obituary

The film director Alain Tanner, who has died aged 92, was a leading light in the Swiss new wave at the start of the 1970s. Tanner’s cinema attempted to arouse “a smug nation drowsed by a facile ideology of neutrality” by looking at alternative lifestyles.

In 1968, Tanner and his friend Claude Goretta co-founded the Groupe 5 collective of Swiss film-makers. They proposed an idea to Swiss TV for the funding of full-length features to be shot in 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for release. This enabled Tanner to make his first feature film, Charles Mort ou Vif (Charles, Dead or Alive, 1969), which won first prize at the Locarno festival, and became the first Swiss film in more than two decades to be shown widely abroad.

In the film, Charles (played by François Simon), a middle-aged watchmaker, opts out of the rat race, abandoning business, his family and a comfortable bourgeois life, to move in with an artist and his mistress. Inspired by the spirit of May 68, it suggested the sociological themes that Tanner would develop in his films, which explore people who grow alienated from society and try, but fail, to forge a new one.

Alain Tanner in 2010. He wanted to arouse his native Switzerland out of being ‘a smug nation drowsed by a facile ideology of neutrality’.
Alain Tanner in 2010. He wanted to arouse his native Switzerland out of being ‘a smug nation drowsed by a facile ideology of neutrality’. Photograph: Vittorio Zunino Celotto/WireImage

In La Salamandre (The Salamander, 1971), a novelist and a journalist interview a working-class girl (Bulle Ogier) suspected of shooting her guardian. This intelligent study of a non-conformist, seen from different angles, became one of Switzerland’s first domestic box-office hits.

Le Milieu du Monde (The Middle of the World, 1974) follows a young Italian woman who comes to a small Swiss town to work as a waitress at a railway cafe. She has an affair with Paul (the first name used by most of Tanner’s heroes), a married engineer, who tries to make her enter his bourgeois world, but she finally rejects it and him.

Although a simple love story on the surface, there is a parable of the conflict between rich and poor, male and female and north and south embedded in it. The title refers to a posh restaurant but also to Switzerland.

Tanner and the writer John Berger created that rare species, a polemical comedy, with Jonas Qui Aura 25 Ans en l’An 2000 (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, 1976). It views its eight characters – who include a copy editor, a rural worker, a teacher and a supermarket cashier – warmly and vividly as they try in different ways to maintain the ideals of May 68 and find alternatives to capitalism.

Alain Tanner, right, with the British actor Trevor Howard in 1981.
Alain Tanner, right, with the British actor Trevor Howard in 1981. Photograph: Phoenix/Slotint/Kobal/Shutterstock

Messidor (1978) focuses on two young women, a university student and a shop assistant, who meet while hitchhiking and begin to hold up stores, becoming wanted criminals until the spree ends in their deaths. Tanner stated that he was instinctively averse to filming physical violence. “Killing a person,” he said, “is generally a gratuitous special effect.”

However, he uses the plot to convey his preoccupation with the limits of freedom. Tanner observes his amoral heroines with a cold but fascinated eye as they travel across Switzerland – not the country of the tourist brochures, but one of crowded motorways and roadside cafes. Arguably the most shocking scene is when one of the girls defecates in the idyllic Swiss countryside.

Tanner, who was born in Geneva, studied economics at the city’s university, where Goretta was a fellow student and founder of the university film club. In 1955, the friends travelled to London and found work at the British Film Institute, organising archives and subtitling foreign films.

In 1957, they co-wrote and co-directed Nice Time, a 17-minute documentary about Piccadilly Circus, as part of the British Free Cinema movement. It was shot in 16mm on light-sensitive stock over 25 weekends and edited down to represent a single Saturday night in the West End of London.

After working as an assistant producer for the BBC, Tanner returned to Switzerland, where he made a series of documentaries for Swiss television in the cinéma vérité style of the time. One of the best was A City at Chandigarh (1966), about the work of the architect Le Corbusier in India. It was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with Berger, whom Tanner met through Lindsay Anderson at the BFI, and who narrated the film. Berger co-wrote three of Tanner’s feature films.

A scene from the 1976 film Jonas Qui Aura 25 Ans en l’An 2000 (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000), directed by Alain Tanner.
A scene from the 1976 film Jonas Qui Aura 25 Ans en l’An 2000 (Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000), directed by Alain Tanner. Photograph: Citel/Kobal/Shutterstock

Influenced by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht, many of Tanner’s films sought to create a distancing effect between the audience and the characters, though they gradually became less didactic. In 1981, he emerged from a heart operation claiming to have finished with political and social discourse.

Light Years Away, his first film in English, released that year, was an allegorical tale set in Ireland with Trevor Howard as a kind of guru who teaches a rebellious young man that individual freedom is more important than a cosy world of anodyne conformity. It won the grand jury prize at Cannes.

Dans la Ville Blanche (In the White City, 1983) was set and shot in Lisbon, where Paul (Bruno Ganz), a depressed ship’s engineer, goes ashore and lodges in a little waterfront hotel where he falls in love with the maid. He decides not to return to his ship, and wanders the city with a Super 8 camera, sending his wife the films. Tanner reflects Paul’s alienation in his contrasting images of place – dazzling sun-bathed Lisbon, then its evening backstreet shadows eerie and threatening, and Switzerland, where Paul’s wife sits in ordered domesticity watching the films that reflect her husband’s state of mind.

The title of No Man’s Land (1985) refers to the rural zone between the Swiss and French borders, where a group of young, small-time smugglers eke out a precarious, in-between existence. Beautifully framed, with leisurely landscape shots, the film ponders the equation between the need for home and the urge to flee.

One of the leading characters in the film was played by Myriam Mézières, with whom Tanner had a long relationship. Her presence in Une Flamme dans Mon Coeur (A Flame in My Heart, 1987), Le Journal de Lady M (The Diary of Lady M, 1993) and Fleurs de Sang (2002), all written or co-written by Mézières, brought a new sexuality into Tanner’s films.

“The love scenes were made in a joyous atmosphere,” Mézières said. “Tanner and I felt that sex and purity were not necessarily enemies.”

Tanner’s final period, in which he collaborated with the writer Bernard Comment on Fourbi (1996), Requiem (1998), Jonas et Lila, à Demain (1999) and Paul s’en Va (2004), was a return to his earlier films made in the shadow of May 68.

Alain Tanner, film director, born 6 December 1929; died 11 September 2022

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