Few cultural products enjoy such a wide audience as film. In Swiss cultural foreign policy, cinema is not a mere means of information; it also reflects the filmmakers’ views on their own country.
Swiss cinema is inseparable from the image of its country of origin. From the very beginning, it was part of the imagery, codified from the late 18th century onwards by travellers’ stories, by writers and painters. The alpine iconography and the mountain scenery, charged with their function of building a national identity, also provide a setting much appreciated for feature films. During the interwar period, feature films often promoted tourism, directly inspired by the widespread iconography of posters, prints, and illustrated publications.
The Spiritual defence of the 1930s and 1940s reinforced the national orientation of Swiss cinema, which then became an essential aid in strengthening and spreading Swiss values. After World War II patriotic films increasingly lost significance, but filmmakers continued to portray Switzerland as an idyllic country, well sheltered against global violence. Change did not occur until the mid 1960s, when young filmmakers began to focus on the contemporary reality of their country and created the “New Swiss Cinema.” Subsequently film turned into a means of criticism, denouncing conformity and the traditional images of the nation.
This change affected the Swiss image abroad, for which films play an important role, even though their influence is primarily based on private initiatives. After World War II, feature films produced by Praesens Film SA in Zurich greatly helped to restore the image of Switzerland in the world. From the 1970s onwards, however, the Swiss Film Weeks, organised by Pro Helvetia worldwide, provided this element of cultural policy with a critical dimension, often leading to controversy over the intended message.
Film remains an essential aspect of the Swiss image abroad. Official institutions such as the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs use documentary films for publicity and information. Today it is the foundation Swiss Films, having taken over from Pro Helvetia, which is responsible for promoting feature films abroad.