A Swiss Rebel: Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942)

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Carole Bonstein.

Over the past decade Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach has become a cult figure, known for her charm, her fascinating androgynous appearance, her outspoken lesbianism, and her journeys to Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Belgian Congo, places few Western women dared visit in the 1930s. She vocally opposed Hitler and her nation’s neutrality, and her excessive lifestyle, which involved heavy morphine addiction and numerous affairs with women, contrasted sharply with the milk-pure Switzerland of the early 20th century. As filmmaker Anne Bisang notes in Carole Bonstein’s informative and intriguing documentary A Swiss Rebel: Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942), screening this Saturday at Landmark’s Century Centre as part of the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival, the young writer contradicted the Alpine image of good health and broke with Switzerland’s mood of introspection, its “spiritual defense,” during World War II.

Bonstein’s film documents the eventful and tragic life of an outspoken woman, but it also raises questions about the Swiss past. Since the mid-90s, Switzerland has become the subject of international debate because of its economic and political policies during the Nazi era, and it still fights the image of greedy bankers and financiers coldly profiting from war and genocide. In her day Schwarzenbach provided Swiss readers with a critical worldview–one honed on the sociopolitical realities she encountered in the Middle East, the U.S., and Africa–but her efforts brought her little reward in her lifetime.

Her father, Alfred Schwarzenbach, was one of the biggest silk manufacturers in the world and one of the richest and most powerful men in Switzerland. Her grandfather was a general in the Great War, and her family embraced the Prussian military tradition; during the early years of National Socialism they were enthusiastic about its progressive potential. Annemarie’s love of morphine and women, not to mention her politics, estranged her from her family, and judging from her letters and opinions voiced by her friends Ella Maillart and Erika Mann, her rebellion against her family consumed a great part of her strength and energy. Frequently ill, weakened by drug and alcohol consumption, she was deemed “a hopeless case” by her mother, who barred her from home after a scandalous stay in New York that landed her in a straitjacket in Bellevue Hospital. In a letter to one of her best friends, Klaus Mann, she wrote that one of her brothers had done his utmost to get her out of confinement, but in A Swiss Rebel, Bonstein presents remarks from the same brother to the effect that his lesbian sister sickened him and wasn’t worth the money that would have been expended to break her morphine addiction for good.

Soon after the Nazis seized power, Schwarzenbach wrote to a friend, “They don’t see what’s going on with their German friends–one day they will see, these capitalist rats blinded by their financial affairs.” She acknowledged the failures of communism in the Soviet Union and of social democracy during the Weimar Republic: writing to Mann in 1933, she argues against glorifying the Social Democrats, whose party had lost so many people to the National Socialists. She believed opposition was the only responsible attitude for any intelligent European to take: “Every human being who uses his or her mind and intellect belongs in the opposition….We are all involved….To turn away from the realities is tantamount to suicide.”

Schwarzenbach died in 1942 from injuries sustained in a bicycle accident, as the entire world made war, and for 50 years her novellas and short stories, her journalistic and photojournalistic reports were forgotten. The reworking of Swiss history that began in the 1980s led to her rediscovery as Switzerland celebrated its World War II veterans in 1989 and its 700th anniversary as a nation in 1991. Suddenly she attracted a great number of biographers, historians, literary scholars, and critics–mostly in Switzerland and surrounding countries. In the past decade she’s been the subject of two biographies and two novels, one in Italian and the other in French. In Switzerland an international symposium gathered to discuss her life and work, and publishers have brought out her fiction, journalism, and letters to Klaus and Erika Mann (whose father was Thomas Mann). Postfeminist scholars focus on her poetic rendering of her experience as a world traveler and homosexual woman in the 1930s; closer to home she’s considered a welcome challenge to the exclusively male canon of great Swiss writers and photojournalists. Schwarzenbach was one of the few female authors who consistently addressed Swiss politics, and she’s also one of the few Swiss lesbians whose writing has an international readership.

During her lifetime most of her readership was Swiss, and the country’s homosexual subculture was practically nonexistent. She had many European and American friends who were gay or supported homosexuality, but she learned early in her career that homoeroticism in literature was still largely taboo. A long poem and a three-part novella both featured lesbian characters; an editor and supporter cautioned her that she needed to find better literary disguises for her feelings. In 1988 the renowned Swiss literary scholar and critic Charles Linsmayer republished The Happy Valley (1939), a novella Schwarzenbach wrote on her second journey to Iran in 1935, as part of a series intended to acquaint German-language readers with neglected Swiss authors. Originally entitled Death in Persia, the novella had been narrated by a woman and included a lesbian relationship; The Happy Valley made the narrator a man (one whom Linsmayer finds “not psychologically credible”).

Roger Perret, who edited and initiated the publication of Schwarzenbach’s complete works, points out that her physical and psychological breakdowns were directly related to political events. In December 1934, Erika Mann had written a satirical comedy about Hitler’s Germany, The Peppermil, that was banned in Swiss towns; Schwarzenbach, writing in the Zuercher Post, advocated free speech and blamed the banning on right-wing intruders. Throughout her life she was emotionally attached to Mann and to her own mother, whose political beliefs had made them archenemies. Mann even temporarily broke off the friendship because of the friction, which eventually led Schwarzenbach to attempt suicide. This was but one of the many crises caused by her intense emotional and intellectual involvement with the world catastrophe. Her most severe crisis, the one that led her to Bellevue, took place after France capitulated to Hitler.

No surprise, then, that she spent most of her life outside her home country. She studied in Paris for a year, received her PhD from the University of Zurich at age 23, and moved to Berlin during the last year of the Weimar Republic, where she encountered the international intelligentsia. Besides her lifelong friendship with the Manns, Schwarzenbach befriended German-Jewish actress Therese Giehse, American photographer Barbara Hamilton-Wright, and novelist Carson McCullers, to name just a few, and met many great artists, including Marlene Dietrich. In 1933 the Manns abandoned Germany for Switzerland and later the U.S., and despite Schwarzenbach’s support of German refugees, photographer Marianne Breslauer recalls that she and others in that position lost patience with the “Swiss kid,” whose personal problems seemed minor compared to the dangers they were facing. The main theme of Schwarzenbach’s prose is, in fact, solitude: the author consciously sought out locales and situations where the feeling of aloneness was tangible.

While Schwarzenbach felt doomed to inaction in Europe, she found hope in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and felt obliged to inform her Swiss readers about the victims of the Depression and FDR’s attempts to address the crisis. Schwarzenbach had no previous experience in documentary photography, but from 1936 to ’38, when she lived in Washington, D.C., her style was decisively influenced by the work of the Farm Security Administration. In fall 1937 she and Barbara Hamilton-Wright drove a Ford through Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, visiting plantations, factories, prisons, and schools for workers. Few newspapers or magazines in Switzerland were interested, and the papers in America were full of bad news from Spain, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union.

A Swiss Rebel presents interviews with Breslauer, whose pictures of Schwarzenbach have contributed a great deal to her cult, with Schwarzenbach’s sister and gay former husband, and with others involved in her work or her life. Material from the family archives shows life at the family estate, Bocken, where Schwarzenbach’s mother hosted parties that attracted the creme de la creme of Zurich as well as composer Richard Strauss and conductor Arturo Toscanini. Schwarzenbach’s own photos document her journeys, and voice-overs of a variety of texts give a well-rounded and intimate sense of her writing, always at the center of her life. Bonstein carefully defines the conflicts in Schwarzenbach’s life as she tries to escape her family and Europe through travels and morphine or through political commitment. As biographer Areti Georgiadou states, Schwarzenbach followed in the tradition of Romanticism, reveling in pain, loneliness, and amorous longing as the ultimate source of creativity, but her journalistic prose is driven by a sharp sense of injustice that led her to take sides in Europe and the U.S.

Up until the 1980s, Swiss history showed little sympathy for the victims of genocide and tended to ignore people like Schwarzenbach who were more sensitive to the world’s victims. In the past two decades, however, the changing cultural and political atmosphere in Switzerland has begun to welcome voices from the periphery, and Swiss historians began to revise the country’s self-satisfied view of its own neutrality. Just this year an independent commission appointed by the Swiss Federal Council and parliament released a five-year study examining the country’s role in World War II and the Holocaust. Its ongoing work has helped to reattach Switzerland to the past and present and to steer the discourse away from harsh moral judgments to a more informed assessment of the Swiss position. In this climate perhaps the nation will find a place of greater honor for someone like Annemarie Schwarzenbach, who understood that neutrality was a kind of death, and that making choices was vital.