The Daily Telegraph
Director whose Left-leaning politics suffused his portrayals of idealism, radicalism and alienation
ALAIN TANNER, who has died aged 92, was the best known director of the Swiss film industry; his work evolved over the years from social criticism to what some critics regarded as verging on softcore pornography.
In his younger days, he was a committed Leftist, though never a polemical one. He insisted that radicalism was reflected more in his films’ form than in their content. Unlike Jean-luc Godard, whose work he nevertheless admired, he never favoured peppering his scripts with undigested Marxist slogans.
As he grew older, he became increasingly disillusioned with politics, concluding that “neither capitalism nor communism does anybody any good.” He remained instinctively a man of the Left, but it was reflected less and less in his work. He described himself as “a socialist, if anything – but not a member of a political party. I’m not so much politically minded; I think more about the individual and people’s lives.”
Later films such as A Flame in My Heart (1987) and The Diary of Lady M (1993) displayed an unabashed raunchiness. These films could not have been more different in approach from the realist work on which he cut his teeth. His first short film, Nice Time
(1957), made with his compatriot Claude Goretta, was shot in London and formed part of the so-called Free Cinema programmes pioneered by Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz.
Though its themes – it was partly a portrait of the sex market in and around Piccadilly Circus – anticipated the accent on sleaze in his later films, it was filmed in documentary fashion, using hidden cameras.
Tanner formed a fruitful association with the Left-wing novelist John Berger, who wrote the scripts for several of his early hits, including The Salamander (1971), The Middle of the World (1974) and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). They tried to reproduce the celebrated Brechtian “alienation effect” – telling the story dispassionately, as if from a distance, so that audiences were encouraged not to identify with the characters but to think about what they represented and revealed of underlying political and social forces. In later films, he abandoned formal scripts and allowed the actors to improvise.
His career reached a turning point after
Messidor in 1978. That film marked the beginning of a period of “exile”. Afterwards, he began to shoot abroad – in Ireland, in Portugal, in France – anywhere but Switzerland. “Once you know how to make something,” he said, “you have to make something else.”
But he failed to carry his fans with him. Productions such as Light Years Away (1981) were found inferior to his Swiss work, while
In the White City (1983), set in Portugal, was considered so open-ended as to be inconsequential.
Alain Tanner was born in Geneva on December 6 1929; his father was a writer and painter, his mother a Chicagoan actress who wound up in Switzerland when her French-born mother decided to return to Europe (his Hungarian grandfather had been a prospector in the Klondike).
He studied Economics at the University of Geneva, where he nearly flunked by devoting too much time to the local film society. Though mad about movies, he saw no prospects in Switzerland, so on graduation he joined the merchant navy – experience that he said underpinned his 1983 film In the White City.
With Goretta, he went to London and, after a period working in a department store, they found work with the British Film Institute. Tanner was employed for two years in the information department, working in the archives, subtitling foreign film and translating notes.
This led to his participation in 1957 in the Free Cinema movement with his first film, Nice Time. Free Cinema, founded by film-makers close to the BFI, aimed to restore to British cinema the realist tradition it had enjoyed during the war in the work of Humphrey Jennings and which had passed to Italy in such films as Bicycle Thieves (1948).
On the back of Nice Time, Tanner was invited to join the BBC as an assistant producer on the Living with Danger series. It taught him, he said, “how not to make a film”.
Back in Switzerland, he was invited to make a short film on the writer Charles Ferdinand Ramuz for television. He jumped at the opportunity, going on to make some 40 documentaries, of which the best, A City at Chandigarh, (1966), about the Indian city rebuilt according to the designs of Le Corbusier, marked his first writing collaboration with John Berger.
On the strength of these films, Tanner and four others set up a company called Groupe Cinq and asked the Swiss TV company SSR whether it would put a little money into a number of feature films that it could show on television after one year in the cinemas. To their surprise SSR agreed and Tanner received $50,000 to make his first feature, Charles Dead or Alive (1969).
It was about a watch-maker who abandons his money-grubbing life to seek an alternative society but is tracked down by his son, who consigns him to a mental asylum. It won the top prize at the Locarno festival and was the first Swiss film in 20 years to achieve international distribution.
It was followed by The Salamander (1971), and The Return From Africa (1972), in which a young couple sell their Geneva home in order to follow a friend who has joined the third-world struggle in Africa. Then they receive a telegram urging them to stay, by which time they are camping out in their own apartment. When their friend returns disillusioned, they realise that they have enough problems to face in their own country without romantic gestures of helping overseas.
Tanner’s fourth feature, The Middle of the World (1974), charts a love affair between an Italian waitress and a Swiss technocrat which founders on class distinction. It was not a great success, but in 1976, he and John Berger achieved their biggest hit with Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000.
It focuses on eight young Genevans in the aftermath of the student rebellion of 1968, and a baby, Jonah, born in the course of the film and destined to reach his quartercentury at the millennium. Tanner and Berger managed to encapsulate the aspirations and disillusionment of a whole generation of young Swiss people.
After returning for a time to Swiss television, Tanner hit upon the idea for his 1979 film Messidor from a newspaper story about two hitchhikers who became involved in murder. In the film they meet by chance and spend three weeks hitching through Switzerland, sleeping rough, begging, stealing and becoming the objects of a nationwide hunt. The title – the word for the harvest month in the French Revolutionary calendar – is perhaps the last conscious trace of Tanner’s radical convictions.
Most of his subsequent films made a clean break with his Swiss roots. Light Years Away
(1981) was a fable set in Ireland with a largely British cast, including Trevor Howard as a mad Russian attempting to prove that man can fly like a bird. The drifter who stumbles upon him in the year 2000 is called Jonah, who, naturally, proves to be 25. Though it won the Grand Prix at Cannes, many felt that it was a fey follow-up to a picture that had had a serious intent.
In the White City (1983) was not well received. The story of a Swiss sailor seeking a new beginning in Lisbon but in the end drifting without direction, it was partly autobiographical, but judged to be as meandering and pointless as the central character, played by Bruno Ganz.
No Man’s Land (1985), shot on the Franco-swiss border, was another study in rootlessness, involving four people with pipe dreams that they hope to finance by operating a smuggling ring.
He intended, in 1987, to follow it with The Phantom Valley, starring Jean-louis Trintignant and Jacob Berger (son of John) as two men in search of their muse, an Italian actress (Laura Morante). Trintignant, however, fell sick and shooting had to be postponed. At a loose end, Tanner contacted the actress Myriam Mézières, who had already appeared in Jonah.
He suggested they fill the gap by making another film together. The result, written in two days, was A Flame in My Heart, the story of a nymphomaniac that widened his audience but at the expense of losing many erstwhile admirers.
His last films fared little better. The Woman from Rose Hill (1989), about a mail-order bride, was uniformly condemned at the Venice Film Festival, while The Diary of Lady M (1993), again starring Myriam Mézières, was another sex frolic. His final film was Paul S’en Va (2004), about drama students (played by real-life drama students) who react to the disappearance of one of their teachers.
Alain Tanner married a former stage actress, Janine. They had two daughters, Nathalie and Cécile, both of whom appeared in Jonah and later worked in films.