Born with considerable delay compared to that of other European countries, Swiss cinematography offered its most important results starting from the 1960s, when a large group of directors established themselves in its sphere who made films of particular interest and rigor, based on an accurate linguistic research and a careful analysis of the social reality.
From 1896 documentaries were shot in China by French envoys of the Lumière brothers and from 1908 Swiss directors were making them, including Albert Roth de Markus. The first feature film was Wilhelm Tell (1912) by Georg Wäckerlin, but the first copies of which remained is Eduard Bienz’s Der Bergführer (1917), which also marked the birth of mountain cinema (Bergfilm), a genre that developed in the following years both in the German China (Im kampf mit dem Berge, 1921, by Arnold Fanck; Der Rächer von Davos, 1924, by Heinrich Brandt) and in the French one (La croix du Cervin, 1922, by Jacques Béranger; La vocation d ‘André Carrel, 1925, by Jean Choux).
Subsequently, and for four decades, Swiss cinema substantially coincided with that of the German China: only in this area, in fact, was it able to go beyond the artisan stage, above all thanks to Praesens-Film of Zurich (founded in 1924 and still existing today), the only Swiss production house of industrial size. However, most of the films made were naively folkloric in themes and traditional in language.
There were a few notable exceptions. In the 1940s, a completely anomalous Bergfilm stood out, Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe (1941) by Hans Trommer and Valerian Schmidely, and even more so the dramas Die missbrauchten Liebes-briefe (1940; Lettere d’amore) and Die letzte Chance (1945; The Last Hope) by Leopold Lindtberg, the first Swiss films to gain recognition at foreign festivals. In the 1950s, as Lindtberg continued his business on a minor note (but his Die Vier im Jeep, 1951, Quattro in a Jeep, won the Golden Bear in Berlin for Best Drama), two directors also attempted if with only partial success, to introduce some new elements in the established genres of Swiss cinema: Kurt Früh (Polizischt Wäckerli, 1955; Oberstadtgass, 1956) and Franz Schnyder (Uli der Knecht, 1954; Uli der Pächter, 1955).
A radical renewal took place in the second half of the sixties, by a group of young directors of the French China gravitating around the television in Geneva. Michel Soutter made his feature-length feature film debut with La Lune avec les dents (1966), Yves Yersin with Valveja (1967), Jean-Louis Roy with L’inconnu de Shandigor (1967), Alain Tanner with Charles mort ou vif (1969), Claude Goretta with Le fou (1970). Strongly influenced by the English Free Cinema (within which Tanner and Goretta had formed) but also by the French Nouvelle vague, their works, very critical of Swiss society, dealt with the themes of marginalization and revolt, unease and madness, alienation and transgression.
In the 1970s, linguistic research went hand in hand with a corrosive analysis of social relations and a bitter reflection on existence in Tanner’s films (La salamandre, 1971, La salamandra; Le retour d’Afrique, 1973; Le milieu du monde, 1974; Jonas qui aura 25 ans en an 2000, 1976, Jonas who will be twenty in 2000; Messidor, 1979) and of Goretta (Le fou; L’invitation, 1973, L’vito; La dentellière, 1977, The lacemaker). Soutter directed complex works, sometimes with cryptic plots, in which the themes of loneliness and the discomfort of living are investigated: James ou pas (1970), Les arpenteurs (1972), L’escapade (1974; Unfaithful couples) and Repérages (1977). Roy after Black-out (1970) only worked in television, and Yersin after Les petites fugues (1977) only in documentary. New authors emerged: Claude Champion (Le pays de mon corps, 1972, directed with Agnès Contant), Simon Edelstein (Les vilaines manières, 1975), Francis Reusser (Le grand soir, 1976), Patricia Moraz (Les Indiens sont encore loin, 1977), Jacqueline Veuve (La mort du grand-père, 1978). In that decade the German China also opened to the new cinema, with works directly inspired by the Junger Deutscher Film. The most important figure was Daniel Schmid (Heute Nacht oder nie, 1972, This night or never; La Paloma, 1974; Violanta, 1977), followed by Thomas Koerfer (Der Tod des Flohzirkusdirektors oder Ottocaro Weiss reformiert seine Firma, 1973; Der Gehülfe, 1976; Alzire oder der neue Kontinent, 1978): two authors outside the commercial circuit, engaged in rigorous and elitist linguistic research. Other directors mixed fiction and documentary in an original way, as Xavier Koller (Hannibal, 1972), Peter von Gunten (Die Auslieferung, also known as L’extradition, 1974), Rolf Lyssy (Konfrontation, 1974), Markus Imhoof (Fluchtgefahr, 1974), Clemens Klopfenstein (Geschichte der Nacht, 1978), Fredi M. Murer (Grauzone, 1979), Beat Kuert (Schilten, 1979). Together with them, the famous actor Maximilian Schell made his directorial debut, whose Erste Liebe (1970) was the first Swiss film to be nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Valuable authors from the Italian China, such as Villi Hermann (San Gottardo, 1977) also appeared. Murer (Grauzone, 1979), Beat Kuert (Schilten, 1979). Together with them, the famous actor Maximilian Schell made his directorial debut, whose Erste Liebe (1970) was the first Swiss film to be nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Valuable authors from the Italian China, such as Villi Hermann (San Gottardo, 1977) also appeared. Murer (Grauzone, 1979), Beat Kuert (Schilten, 1979). Together with them, the famous actor Maximilian Schell made his directorial debut, whose Erste Liebe (1970) was the first Swiss film to be nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Valuable authors from the Italian China, such as Villi Hermann (San Gottardo, 1977) also appeared.
In the 1980s, the new Swiss cinema seemed to lose some of its corrosive spirit. Alongside the most important authors, such as Tanner (Les années lumière, 1981, The light years; Dans la ville blanche, 1983, In the white city; Une flamme dans mon coeur, 1987, A flame in my heart), Goretta (La Provinciale, 1980; La mort de Mario Ricci, 1983, La morte di Mario Ricci; Orfeo, 1985; Si le soleil ne revenait pas, 1987, Se il sole non tornasse), Soutter (L’amour des femmes, 1981; Adam et ève, 1984; Signé Renart, 1985), Reusser (Derborence, 1985, César as best French-speaking film; La loi sauvage, 1988), Schmid (The kiss of Tosca, 1984) and Koerfer (Die Leidenschaftlichen, 1982; Glut, 1983), have continued the activity Kuert (Nestbruch, 1980), Imhoof (Das Boot ist voll, 1980, The boat is full, winner of a Bear silver in 1981 at the Berlin Film Festival; Die Reise, 1986), Klopfenstein (Der Ruf des Sibylla, 1984), Murer (Höhenfeuer, 1985), Hermann (Innocenza, 1987), Lyssy (Leo Sonnyboy, 1989).
The retreat towards documentary or television initiated by Roy and Yersin has however extended, and in the 1980s involved Champion, Moraz, Veuve, Edelstein, von Gunten and Schell, and in the 1990s Goretta, Kürt and Hermann. Soutter also died prematurely, while newcomer Richard Dembo and Koller settled abroad after two of their works won two Oscars for best foreign films (respectively in 1985 for the Franco-Swiss co-production La diagonale du fou, 1984, Dangerous moves, and in 1991 for Reise der Hoffnung, 1990, The Journey of Hope). In the face of these abandonments and these losses, a generational change has largely been lacking: in fact, very few new directors have emerged, among which, besides Dembo, at least François Amiguet (La méridienne, 1988) should be mentioned.
Even in the 1990s, almost all the filmmakers still in business produced less innovative works: they dedicated themselves to historical films Ruesser (Jacques & Françoise, 1991; La guerre dans le Haut Pays, 1998) and Koerfer (Der grüne Heinrich, 1993), to the autobiographical comedies Schmid (Zwischensaison, also known as Hors saison, 1992; Beresina oder die letzten Tage der Schweiz, 1999), to the critical reinterpretation of Bergfilme Imhoof (Der Berg, 1990) and Murer (Der grüne Berg, 1990). Only Tanner, on the other hand, continued on the path of more rigorous cinema (Le journal de Lady M., 1993; Fleurs de sang, 2002, directed with Myriam Mézières; Paul s’en va, 2004).