How Praesens Film SA invented Switzerland

by Thomas Kadelbach

Thomas Kadelbach, né en 1979. Après des études d'histoire et littérature française à Angers, Fribourg et Madrid, il collabore au projet de recherche FNS Les relations culturelles internationales de la Suisse, 1945-1990. Thèse de doctorat sur Pro Helvetia et l'image de la Suisse à l'étranger. Actuellement collaborateur scientifique à l'Université de Neuchâtel.
, Thomas Kadelbach, born in 1979. Studied history and French literature in Angers, Fribourg and Madrid. Research assistant in the SNSF research project Switzerland's International Cultural Relations, 1945-1990. PhD thesis on Pro Helvetia and the image of Switzerland abroad. Currently scientific collaborator at the University of Neuchâtel.

spiritual defense
Second World War
United States

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)

Cinémathèque suisse
Praesens Film

Schaub, Martin : Film in der Schweiz, Zurich, Pro Helvetia 1997
Wider, Werner : Der Schweizer Film 1929-1964. Die Schweiz als Ritual, Zurich, Limmat 1981


"Marie-Louise", 1944

The film Marie-Louise, directed by Leopold Lindtberg in 1944 marks a turning point in the history of Praesens Film SA. It is the first film of the studio in Zurich, which is focussed on the idea of solidarity.

Swiss National Library, poster collection

"Landammann Stauffacher", 1941

By the end of the 1930s, Praesens Film SA makes its programme available to the Spiritual defence. The contemporary relevance is particularly evident in LandammannStauffacher, produced in 1941.

© Praesens Film


"Landammann Stauffacher", 1941

The protagonist of Landammann Stauffacher, Swiss actor Heinrich Gretler also stars on other Praesens Film productions, such as Füsilier Wipfli and Heidi.

Archives Praesens Film SA

"The Last Chance" in New York

The film Die letzte Chance focuses on the idea of solidarity and tolerance just like its predecessor Marie Louise. The film was a huge success with the American audiences.

Archives Praesens Film SA

"The Last Chance" in New York

Poster of the movie Die letzte Chance in a subway station in New York.

Archives Praesens Film SA

"Swiss Tour", 1949

1949, Praesens film produces the feature film Swiss Tour, dedicated to the US-soldiers on leave in Switzerland. It serves up the usual stereotypes.

Archives Praesens Film SA


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The Swiss abroad – promoting cultural influence

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Cultural relations and the National Commission for UNESCO

1949 to 2016

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Rousseau made in Switzerland

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A brief survey of Swiss culture in Japan

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A young historian thinking about Switzerland’s cultural influence


Pro Helvetia was founded in 1939 to join the struggle for the Spiritual Defence.

The architects and the renewal of cultural relations between Switzerland and Germany after World War II


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The origins of the Swiss pavilion at the “Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris"

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Men and women working for Pro Helvetia

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Switzerland and UNESCO - a culture of peace


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