In 1926, Polish engineer Lazar Wechsler, who had arrived in Switzerland during the First World War, and aviation pioneer Walter Mittelholzer founded Praesens Film SA. Especially during the 1940s and 1950s, the company had a decisive influence on the perception of Switzerland abroad. Consistent with official information policy, Praesens SA dedicated the films produced to the idea of solidarity, thus reinforcing the myth of Switzerland as a humanitarian nation.
Most of Praesens Film’s productions were also internationally successful. The film Marie Louise, directed by Leopold Lindtberg, released in 1944, tells the story of a French girl escaping the horrors of war and finding shelter in Switzerland. It won an Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1946.
In 1945, Praesens Film reiterated the topic in The Last Chance, a movie portraying a motley group of refugees who are at long last accepted into Switzerland. Avoiding sensitive political issues, such as Switzerland’s tough asylum policy, the film focussed on universal values of tolerance and solidarity. Abroad, the image of neutral and humanitarian Switzerland was restored and Lindtberg’s use of the majestic scenery of the Alps catered to the stereotyped expectations of an international audience.
Only international success finally prompted the Federal Authorities to support the distribution of The Last Chance after having massively obstructed its shooting because of sensitive questions it might raise concerning Swiss asylum policy. In 1946, Federal Councillor Eduard von Steiger, responsible for Switzerland’s asylum policy during the war, who had coined the phrase the phrase “the boat is full”, even commissioned a documentary by Praesens, entitled Switzerland Welcomes Refugees. The movie was mainly shown to representatives of the foreign press, putting its humanitarian message to propagandistic use.
In the early 1950s, also to avoid bankruptcy, Praesens Films SA continued in this vein by producing Heidi and Heidi and Peter, two films dedicated to one of the most familiar icons of “Swissness”. In the United States, Heidi’s huge success gave rise to a number of projects including a painting competition for children. The lucky winner was awarded a trip to Switzerland. In 1953, "Heidi" (Elsbeth Sigmund) and “Peter” (Thomas Klameth) went to New York for the opening of the movie in the States, equipped with a few words of greeting from the mayor of Zurich to his counterpart in the big city.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the productions of Praesens Film SA amply demonstrated the significance of the medium as an important influence on the perception and image of Switzerland. In contrast to traditional media, cinema has a global impact. By reaching all social and age groups it offered new opportunities for Switzerland’s cultural influence abroad.(tk)
Schaub, Martin : Film in der Schweiz, Zurich, Pro Helvetia 1997
Wider, Werner : Der Schweizer Film 1929-1964. Die Schweiz als Ritual, Zurich, Limmat 1981