A Swiss Rebel (Frameline, NR)

dvd_swiss-rebel.jpgAnnemarie Schwarzenbach’s name is not exactly a household word in the English-speaking world today; the 16 million volumes of the New York Public Library Research Division include not a single English translation of her work, nor any biography of her in English.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Among the many revelations of Journey to Kafiristan, the under-appreciated 2001 feature film by Donatello and Fosco Dubini, is Jeanette Hain’s portrayal of the enigmatic Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach. Hain’s evocation of Schwarzenbach’s androgynous beauty is unforgettable, while her portrayal of Schwarzenbach’s tragic vulnerability mirrors the doom threatening Europe in 1939 when their journey began.

Schwarzenbach’s name is not exactly a household word in the English-speaking world today; the 16 million volumes of the New York Public Library Research Division include not a single English translation of her work, nor any biography of her in English. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, Schwarzenbach was well known in the German-speaking world as a journalist, photographer and novelist. She was also known as an outspoken critic of the Swiss policy of pacifism as the Nazis rose to power, and was among the first to report on the widespread poverty and racial inequality existing in the United States in the 1930s.

Carole Bonstein’s excellent documentary film A Swiss Rebel should help restore Schwarzenbach to her rightful place in history. Weaving together interviews, archival materials, re-enactments and readings from Schwarzenbach’s works, it’s an excellent introduction to the writer and her times. Who knows, perhaps this film will spark sufficient interest in Schwarzenbach that we’ll see English translations of some of her writings soon, and an English-language biography as well.

Born in 1908 to a wealthy Swiss family, Schwarzenbach lived openly as a lesbian, which was a constant source of conflict with her conservative family. She had or is rumored to have had relationships with many well-known women, from the author and actress Erika Mann to the daughter of the Turkish ambassador to Iran. Schwarzenbach was also emotionally unstable, becoming addicted to morphine and attempting suicide several times.

Schwarzenbach began working as a journalist while studying at the University of Zurich, and published her first novel in 1930. She became friends with Klaus and Erika Mann and lived in Berlin until the Nazis came to power, then began the series of journeys which would define her life and career. She traveled to the Pyrenees with the photographer Marianne Breslauer, then embarked on a six-month journey through the Middle East. While in Tehran, she met the French diplomat Claude Clarac, a gay man whom she would marry the following year.

In the years 1936 to 1938, Schwarzenbach traveled in the United States and Europe. In the coal-mining regions of America and in the Deep South, she documented the poverty and racial inequality she witnessed, and in Europe she reported on the rise of fascism.

In 1939, Schwarzenbach met Ella Maillart (who is interviewed in A Swiss Rebel) and they embarked on the journey which forms the basis of Journey to Kafiristan. It’s also Maillart’s book The Cruel Way, in which Schwarzenbach is referred to as "Christina." It’s amazing today to think that two women could simply get in a car in Zurich with the intent of driving to the Hindu Kush, but that’s what they did. They parted company in Kabul, due in part to Schwarzenbach’s resumed drug use; Maillart continued on to India, where she spent most of World War II, while Schwarzenbach returned to Switzerland.

Schwarzenbach continued to travel and write, including a trip to the Belgian Congo as a journalist and another to Morocco. However, she suffered a serious bicycle accident in Switzerland in September 1942, and died from complications on November 15 of that year at the age of 34. Her legacy is that of a free spirit who insisted on living life on her own terms, and a gifted writer who did not have the opportunity to fully develop the talents displayed in her early works.

A Swiss Rebel is distributed by frameline. Further information is available from their website http://www.frameline.org/ or by calling 415-703-8650. | Sarah Boslaugh

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