Divine Order/Petra Volpe

Where did women not have the right to vote until 1971? Where did they still need their husbands’ permission to work in 1988?  Where do political parties still advocate no punishment for rape in marriage? The Middle East? Africa? Central Asia? No: It’s Switzerland, where the church says that women who vote violate the divine order. In Divine Order, Petra Volpe tells this historically bizarre story with a good deal of insight and a great deal of charm. Switzerland’s submission for the Academy Awards Best Foreign-Language Film. •Availability: Opens October 27 in New York City, Film Forum. Click here for trailer and theater listings near you. Thanks to Jessica Uzzan, Hook Publicity, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: When Americans think of Switzerland, we think of mountains. We rarely think of the people or the social history. Is Switzerland such an enigma to other countries as well?

PV: Switzerland was very good at pushing a very particular image. After 1945 there was a very conscious process of the Swiss creating a very positive image of the country. There are a lot of positive things like the Red Cross and the chocolate, but there was a big scandal in the 1990s when the banks were sued because they had hidden all this Jewish money—that was the first time Switzerland got a little black mark. But I think in general Switzerland was very successful at consciously building a very positive image. Every country tries to do that, but Switzerland was really very successful.

DT: It almost feels like a world apart from Europe.

PV: It is, actually. Switzerland is not in the EU. It always kept to itself. It has always had a very special position within Europe: It wasn’t harmed by the wars, not the First World War or the Second. In the Second World War all of Europe was in ashes, burned to the ground, and Switzerland was like a little oasis.

I believe that contributed to the conservatism in the country. There’s very much a notion in Switzerland that we must be doing something right. Our little system must be OK as it is, let’s not change anything. A woman’s right to a vote would change things in our society and we don’t want that. We want to maintain the old traditional Switzerland because it’s good for everybody. So there was also a very nationalistic idea why Swiss women shouldn’t vote. It was considered anti-Swiss to be for the right to vote.

 

DT: Can you talk about the real suffragette movement the film was based on.

PV: As I found out in my research—I didn’t learn any of this in school, because it doesn’t exist in schoolbooks in Switzerland—

DT: Still?

PV: I think there are certain chapters in the schoolbooks now, but when I went to school there was absolutely nothing. Of course I knew that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1971, but we didn’t read or learn anything about the hundred-year history of women fighting for the right to vote, about this very, very rich women’s movement. These women in Switzerland were internationally connected, they were networking, they were going to international congresses, they were doing political work, but it was like a parallel society of women doing very important social and political work but not being allowed to vote.

DT: They were doing this work in Switzerland?

 

PV: And also internationally, supporting other women. They petitioned, they put forward a lot of motions, for a hundred years they constantly said we need the right to vote, you can’t deny it to us. In 1959, the first time men went to the ballots with this— Switzerland is a direct democracy, so the men voted on it—it was struck down. It’s the only direct democracy where it happened like this. Sixty percent of the men were against women’s right to vote. 1959 was already so late. Here [in the US] they had it in 1920. In Germany, all of the surrounding countries, women had the right to vote already for twenty years, but in 1959 in Switzerland the men struck it down. It was a huge humiliation for the women in Switzerland and also for all the organizations that worked so hard to bring it to the ballot. It took another twelve years until they voted on it again.

But it wasn’t a case of the women sitting back and waiting submissively until they were given the right to vote. They were fighting for it, but they were ignored by politics. It wasn’t just the population that was against it. The politicians and the churches didn’t support the idea either. In 1971 they were about to sign a human rights treaty in Europe [Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms], but they wanted to sign it with a special chapter saying “but in our country the women can’t vote.” That gave the last push to the women’s movement, which said, There’s no way you’re signing this without us having the vote. Internationally it was so embarrassing for the Swiss that they just couldn’t keep it up anymore. So they supported the women’s right to vote because they were embarrassed internationally—not because they thought it’s so unfair towards our women.

 

DT: Divine Order is very dark in some ways, but it’s also very humorous.  How much did you veer from the reality of the real-life right-to-vote movement?

PV: What I tried to do was really capture the atmosphere of 1971. I wanted to make a very sensual story. I didn’t want to make a school lesson. I wanted to really look at the times and what it meant for women to live in these times; to make it almost a physical experience, how they were treated like objects, how they were treated like little children who couldn’t make their own decisions, who couldn’t go to work if they didn’t have their husbands’ permission. So it wasn’t really about depicting this whole movement but depicting this moment in time, showing how women were treated, and how realizing that the private is political, which is a very, very universal topic that can bring this person, this Nora, a very simple wife and mother who was a little bit like my mother, into motion. I felt that it was also very timeless. She’s definitely a woman of her times, but the process she goes through is also very timeless. We see it in the media today, happening now with all these women coming forward to talk about how they’ve been sexually harassed and abused. this whole thing was brought into motion by one woman speaking up. She made the first step, somebody wrote about it, and now all these women come out in solidarity. I think there is power in that.

 

DT: Switzelrand has four language groups. The one depicted in Divine Order is Swiss German. It was an extremely oppressive culture, not only to the women but also to the men—the grandfather in the film absolutely destroyed his sons. Can you talk about that specific culture.

PV: It’s very Swiss. The grandfather is modeled a little bit on my Swiss grandmother. The French part of Switzerland is a little bit more progressive, and they’re always very angry with the German-speaking part because they’re politically more conservative. They vote more conservatively, and the French don’t like that. The Italian part of Switzerland is also more conservative. The French part is really the most progressive and the most leftist.

The village in the film is like a metaphor for Switzerland. It’s a deeply conservative society, and it was not good for men and women. There was a lot of social control and a lot of ideas about what is a true man and what is a true woman. All these ideas were supported by the church, who said, This is the divine order. This is what a man is, this is what a woman is, and if we start to disrupt this order there will be apocalypse. That was really still an argument in 1971—they said it’s against divine order that women go into politics. God didn’t intend for women to be political. So the women in 1971 weren’t just up against the men; they were up against the divine.

DT: That’s a tall order! Are you speaking about the Lutheran Church?

PV: Switzerland is very Protestant and Catholic; it’s a mixture. The most conservative areas of Switzerland are Catholic, so the Catholics believed that if women vote, it will disrupt the peace in the family, the couple will fight, politics is dirty, women shouldn’t do dirty work. All of the arguments used by the antagonist in the movie—who is a woman—are all original quotes from their propaganda. I didn’t invent them. They would actually say that emancipation is bad for women. It’s a great gift that you can work for your family only. It’s against the divine order. I took that title from original material.

DT: Did the Protestant and Catholic churches work together?

PV: When it came to the women’s right to vote, they were pretty much on the same page. They wanted to maintain a traditional family, and for that they needed the women at home. They also had this image that if women go to vote, they don’t do the housework anymore, they don’t cook. It was very exaggerated, really propaganda. They also had these shows on television where professors would explain why women shouldn’t do politics. They created a science around it, how women are more for the inside and for the family, their brains weren’t wired for politics. They had a science proving that…even in 1971.

I really love one of their posters. You see a cradle and a baby falling out of the cradle. The window is open and a black cat sits in the window, and it reads, “Mother went to the ballots.” One of my favorite arguments is, “Look what happened in Germany when the women were allowed to vote. They voted for Hitler.” That was one of the arguments why women shouldn’t vote in Switzerland—they could vote for a potential new Hitler!

DT: Where are the mountains? Where’s the edelweiss?

PV: Unfortunately I’m ruining the nice image.

 

DT: That’s OK. How much has the country changed since women got the vote?

PV: Of course it’s changed, like it’s  changed here. I grew up with more liberties and freedom than my mother and grandmothers, and laws have changed. Marital law changed in 1988 so that a woman didn’t have to ask her husband for permission to work or open her own bank account. It took another many more years for marital law to be changed. Only thirteen years ago they voted on whether rape in marriage is punishable. There was still one party that was against the punishment.

DT: This is the image we have of Saudi Arabia.

PV: Exactly, and it’s not so long ago. We were always pointing a finger at them and saying, Look how primitive they are. I have a very good quote. One of our politicians was speaking to the Chinese minister, talking about human rights, and he said, “When did you women get the right to vote in Switzerland?” i thought that was a really good answer. We always think it’s so far away, and what they’re doing is so cruel and horrible. No question; women’s rights is a huge issue there, but we have enough shit in front of our own doors.

We can see the whole thing happening right in front of our eyes right now with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. So you ask if Switzerland has changed. Yes, it did change, the law changed, women are studying, a lot of young women feel they’re free to do what they want, but if you talk to them after they’ve become mothers, you can still say that a woman’s life after she gets married and has children goes back to the 1950s. That’s a bit exaggerated, but it’s true. Switzerland is still very conservative. It doesn’t encourage mothers to work—I I think Switzerland rates very, very low when it comes to support for mothers who want to work. Underneath all these changes there’s still the very traditional idea that a mother stays home with the kids and the husband brings home the money. We don’t have pay equality.

DT: We don’t have it here either.

PV: Yeah, it’s like here. We don’t have enough women in politics, we don’t have enough women in high positions in all kinds of industries and work environments. There’s a deeply rooted gender bias, and it’s as rampant as it is here [in the US] and everywhere else.

 

DT: Did you have trouble making the film?

PV: Actually, no. Because everybody was a little bit ashamed, they were like, Oh my God this is such a horrible part of our history we should support this film because maybe we can redeem ourselves. I had quite a hard time to get money for my previous film, about human trafficking in Switzerland. Then I wrote Heidi, which was very, very successful, so I already had a little bit of a track record. For this movie we got all the federal funds we needed. We got a lot of support, because these cultural organizations really saw the necessity for the movie and its timeliness also, so that’s a good thing.

 

DT: Can you talk abut the Swiss film industry? The only thing most Americans know about it is Alain Tanner.

PV: That was a long time ago.

DT: Exactly.

PV: The Swiss film industry is not really an industry. It’s extremely small. We have federal funding and state funding, so all our films are funded. There’s hardly any private money in our films, which is a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is you can get screenplay funds and treatment funds, so if you have a good producer and you write stuff that people want to see, you get paid for writing. I haven’t written a single word in the last fifteen years without getting paid. That doesn’t happen for writers here, because you first write, then you might get paid or not.

Of course it doesn’t work like this for everybody. The funding system also has a dark side, because it’s sometimes very random. When they didn’t give me the money for my human trafficking film, we couldn’t have done the film if my producer hadn’t stepped in. Then you don’t know: Is it a political decision? It’s always dependent on who the people  are on these juries. You may be unlucky, or they’re people who have a beef with your producer or are biased against you for some reason. It’s such a small scene, where  everybody knows everybody, and on these juries are all the people from this business. They’re not objective, and that’s a huge problem with the funding system in Switzerland.

DT: What about international coproductions? Can you look for money outside Switzerland?

PV: You can, but it’s not so easy. You can look for money in Germany, but of course the Germans also have a funding system, and usually they want to give the money to their people. There are also coproduction possibilities with France, but that doesn’t apply to every movie. This movie, for example, is such a Swiss topic that we knew we weren’t likely to get money. We thought we’d be able to  sell it internationally once it was made and it will be easier once it’s clear that it appeals to an international audience, but on the paper, people woulf say, “Why should we fund this movie? It’s completely Swiss, it’s about Swiss history.” So for this movie we really had to find the money within the country. That’s why we had a really small budget for a historical film, and it was only possible because I had the most amazing crew: a lot of women. Director of photography: woman. Composer: woman. Set designer: woman. Costume designer: woman. A lot of other positions: women.

 

DT: Good for you!  How’s the film dong in Switzerland?

PV: It’s a huge box office success. We can say it’s the Wonder Woman of Switzerland.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

Land of Mine/Martin Zandvliet

Convinced the Allies were going to launch their European invasion through Denmark, the Germans laid more than two million landmines under the Danish coast during WWII. When Germany surrendered in 1945, German POWs were put to work clearing the mines from the coast. Director Martin Zandvliet uses this little-known bit of history to explore the emotional horrors that war forces upon us–and which we subsequently force on each other–as Danish Sergeant Carl Rasmussen commands German boys as young as fifteen years old to march onto the beach to near certain death. Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. •Availability: Opens February 10 in New York and L.A., with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Click here for trailer. Thanks to Aimee Morris, Sophie Gluck & Associates, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: Tell me a little bit about the real-life boys who had to clear the mines.

MZ: In my view, they were innocent boys who were brainwashed into joining a war that was started by adults. That’s why it’s so difficult for Carl [the Danish sergeant in charge of forcing the boys to clear the mines] to get his anger away: because they’re boys.

 

DT: There are many different ways of telling any story, but the story as you told it had a very delicate feeling, much of it coming from the cinematography. Tell me why you wanted to go for that rather than some other way of telling the story.

MZ: I’m very much inspired by movies from the ’60s and ’70s. I’m probably stuck there. I’m in love with characters and natural light. My wife, who’s my cinematographer, feels the same way: we wanted to portray the beauty in the darkness. It was mankind ruining nature and not the other way around. The beaches should look beautiful and underneath was the danger. I used to work as an editor, and I always  like to keep the cut as long as possible, to make the feeling last longer. I think this movie needed that touch of beauty; otherwise it would have been unbearable to watch. That’s why we chose that approach.

DT: Which films from the ’60s?

MZ: Everything from Cassavetes, Lenny, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Marathon Man—all the classical ones.

DT: American films.

MZ: It’s always been American films, funny enough. I loved when in the ’60s you had the closeup and the characters came out of the screen. In the ’50s it was always half tonals and you didn’t really relate to the characters, but then psychotherapy overtook New York, and character was interesting and demons were interesting and all the things you had inside yourself were allowed to come out. You could see that in film because suddenly the lenses moved closer to the face. That’s the place where I still am. I think that’s what’s interesting. That’s what got lost through the ’80s and the ’90s, and it’s still lost in a lot of action movies. I need characters to tell the story; in film, it’s one of the most important things.

 

DT: Characters are certainly critical to this film. You created a very interesting combination of historical fact and very, very raw emotion. That’s always tricky. Can you talk about maintaining that very fine balance between fact and fiction?

MZ: It is very difficult. When the film came out in Denmark, it got the best reviews, people ran to see it. But the historians also came out. They said, “Oh, you’re tricking a little bit with history here.” For instance, the death march [boys were forced to walk over the beach to set off unexploded mines] was actually something they were forced to do from the beginning, but I used it as an element of Carl’s anger, which I think I’m allowed to do.

DT: If you had invented it, it would have been one thing…

MZ: Exactly. That was in the fine balance of tricks I used: how to disarm a mine, how many mines, etc. I think it’s important that as a director I don’t just seek to tell the true; I also have the responsibility of entertaining. People pay ten or fifteen dollars to go watch a movie and they shouldn’t walk out thinking they’ve watched the History Channel. They should walk out thinking they’ve watched a film. They actually were entertained. They should laugh or tear up or have some kind of emotion and learn something at the same time.

There are a lot of things about this movie that was a fine balance, such as not portraying the Germans as innocent victims. I gave them horrible backstories even though they may look innocent. I was very much afraid that this was just going to be a movie about the good Germans. It wasn’t really about that; it was about the fact that they were too young. This was the dilemma Carl was caught up in: what to do with his hate. Is it OK to hate that much? Is it natural, or should we get rid of it somehow? What is the right response to something like this? What happens in the aftermath of war?

 

DT: But the horrible backstories didn’t come out in the film, and the boys do come off as innocent victims. In fact, at one point, one Dane says of them, “These boys didn’t know anything.” But in terms of actual history, these boys definitely knew what the Nazis were doing.

MZ: I totally agree. And in that matter they’re not innocent. But I think that if you’re seven or eight years old when the war starts—six years old, some of them—you’re an easy target. You’re brainwashed. It’s like being the son of a man from Aryan Nation. I don’t think it’s fair to blame them; I think we should have treated them better. We definitely should have let them disarm the mines and clean the beach because they were Germans, but we should have helped them better. Fed them, taught them how to disarm the mines. Whether they knew or not is not what the film is about. It’s about the eye-for-an-eye mentality not working. It never helped anybody. It’s about the payback time.

Look at where the world is now. Full of fear. It’s terrible. You think we can just bomb and do people harm and it’s going to be a better world? No, it’s not. We need to see each other as individuals and treat each other better. I’m not saying we should all hug each other and then it will be hunky-dory, but I definitely feel that when people get together, we find out that maybe we’re not that different after all and we all have the same needs. That’s also the point of the movie. Something went terribly wrong in Europe, and we have to make sure that it never happens again. It’s seventy years since the war, and I’m getting a little scared when I see what’s going on here. We’re building walls and Europe is building borders and we won’t let Syrian refugees in because they’re apparently all terrorists. Jesus Christ. It reminds me of what happened once, and that’s terrible. So for me it’s a movie about not letting fear and hate control us.

SPOILER ALERT

MZ: That’s why I let the boys go in the end, because I need to believe that we as humans have something beautiful in us. That’s why I chose a fictionalized ending, because in real life they were all stuck there until the bitter end.

DT: It was a very emotionally satisfying ending. Not because it was a “Happy Ending” but because had Carl been a German living in Germany, that would have been the moral question he would have faced: Do you do the right thing even if it puts your life in peril? So his moral quandary transcended the border into the very country he detested; it should have been the boys’ moral quandary. I found that fascinating.

MZ: There was a version of the script where they all just died, but it was too tough. I couldn’t bear it. Then we might as well give up as humans. I need to believe that there’s something good in all of us.

END SPOILER ALERT

 

DT: Whenever I hear about a period film, I think, Oh God, not another one, because they frequently have a very cumbersome feel. You avoided that. How?

MZ: I was very aware of that because I feel the same way about period pieces. I did not want to end up there. From the beginning, my wife—Camilla Hjelm Knudsen, who was my DP—and I talked about not making a dusty old war movie. We said, “Let’s try to give it a contemporary feel, let’s try to do what we did with our other movies, let’s try to bring the characters out there.” We almost saw the beach as a theater stage. We also said, “Let’s be prescient. Let’s feel like we’re alert all the time and not at a distance.” You never know whether you’ve succeeded or not, but I hope we did somewhat.

 

DT: That idea about being prescient is really interesting. Can you talk about working with the actors, especially the young kids. Was it difficult to get them to relate to that historical period?

MZ: First of all, they came with their trust. They believed in me, in whatever I said, so that’s always a good start. When I would say, “Such and such happened in Germany,” they believed in me despite the fact that I’m Danish and they’re German.

They’re all untrained, so most of the time I sat on the side and said, “You should talk about this, you should talk about that.”  A lot of it was improvised, something that either they or I made up right there. I felt it was my job to find the boys, and I spent a lot of time finding them with my casting agent, Simone Bar. When we cast it, none of the boys knew what part they were going to play—Sebastian came in for Helmut—but a kind of natural hierarchy developed. I took the boys into a room and they kind of found their own part, so to speak. Of course I chose boys who I thought were natural talents. When we have six and a half weeks for shooting, I don’t have time to teach people how to act. So these boys were just very good. I could guide them, they could lean up against me, they could trust me, they could break down, they could cry, they could feel that emotionally it was the toughest thing they have ever been through, but I would always be there to comfort them. That’s what I do, and they felt that. They could trust me. We’re best of friends now.

DT: What did you get out of not casting them for specific roles?

MZ: I didn’t want to just find a person who was going to play Helmut because he looks like a troublemaker, or he looks a little evil, or they look innocent. I wanted them to be that character. Sebastian is very much like he is. He’s very clever, very intellectual, from a different layer of society. I also tried to make a small picture of society. Some of the boys were working class, and they actually didn’t like each other.

DT: According to class lines?

MZ: Yeah, we made a small society there.

 

DT: You mentioned before that you were a documentary editor. How did that experience affect your directing?

MZ: I’m not saying I do realism, but I do something I call naturalism, which is what I see as American film from the ’60s. You act in a certain way that is more progressive, more present. It’s not realism; it’s definitely a form of performance, but we eat it. We believe it to be real, but it has nothing to do with the new realism that some directors use now. Being involved in so many documentaries helped me in finding the realness of the characters—people always act well in documentaries because they’re not acting. I seek that performance, basically.

 

DT: The boys didn’t know German history?

MZ: Not this particular story [about the mines]. Nobody did. Even the producer didn’t when I came to him. Of course the boys know about Hitler and what happened, but it’s such a big topic. These boys are totally freed of shame and guilt, and I’m happy I experienced that. I have a brother and sister who are German. They’re  a slightly older generation, and they’re still a little bit ashamed. When they say, “I’m German,” I can hear it in their voice. But these boys, they’re Instagram culture. They’re freed of all things, but it did take seventy years. I was actually enjoying being with them because they weren’t stigmatized.

 

DT: Your DP, who was your wife, studied photography at ICP [the International Center of Photography], and your composer wrote ballets. What do you think that brought to the film?

MZ: A lot. Really a lot. I’m so lucky that my cinematographer is my wife and she only works with me and we have a great working relationship, and my composer is my best friend. They bring a different kind of life to it. They don’t see it as work. It’s their hobby, and they would die for what they do. It’s like a living organism. They see it as art. Music is art, photography is art, theater is art, literature is art, and when you try to combine these artforms, you have a movie, and it’s rare that you succeed in having all these artforms being able to talk together: You say this…now you say that. I’m very happy that this is what we tried to do.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017