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Thomas Imbach, a filmmaker unafraid of masculinity

Thomas Imbach
Born in Lucerne in 1962, Thomas Imbach first rose to prominence in the 1990s and has since developed a maverick reputation as a filmmaker. Film Festival Locarno

An online retrospective of filmmaker Thomas Imbach offers the chance to discover the work of one of the most daring Swiss directors. Imbach's range of topics and styles is probably the broadest in the Swiss film scene and even his earlier films still resonate today.

One cinematic discipline in which Switzerland excels as a filmmaking nation is documentaries. To become an established figure in such a scene is no small feat, but one filmmaker is currently attracting attention internationally.

From November 22, the international streaming platform DAFilmsExternal link, curated by Doc Alliance, a creative partnership of seven European documentary film festivals, will launch No Short Cuts: The Films of Thomas Imbach, an online retrospective of ten works by the Swiss director.

Born in Lucerne in 1962, Imbach first rose to prominence in the 1990s and has since developed a maverick reputation, not least through his perennial blurring of the traditional lines between documentary and fiction filmmaking.

Where you can watch the films

Imbach’s films can be accessed in the following countries:
EUROPE: Denmark, Portugal, Poland, Germany, France, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Spain, Slovakia, Austria and the UK. 
AMERICAS: USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. 
ASIA: Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines.

Mary, Queen of Scots can also be accessed in all these countries above, except the USA.

Well done for a start

His retrospective begins in 1994 with Well Done. Although Imbach had already directed two short features beforehand, Well Done is well chosen as a point of departure, as, even 27 years on, it is a grand artistic statement.

Set in an Zurich-based financial data centre, the film details the everyday routine of several employees – an IT technician straining to balance his professional and private life; a female executive battling sexist attitudes; the small army of women operating the phones; account managers discussing the movement of tens of millions of Swiss francs; heads of department overseeing a workforce racked by nervous breakdowns.

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While Well Done does plenty of borrowing – Godfrey Reggio’s KoyaanisqatsiExternal link and veteran observational documentarian Frederick WisemanExternal link come to mind – it is also unquestionably a milestone of Swiss documentary cinema: a portrait of Zurich at the dawn of the internet age.

This was followed by 1997’s GhettoExternal link, a companion piece of sorts. The film focuses on a group of rowdy suburban teenagers at the end of their secondary school education. Ghetto dials down the experimental editing of its predecessor and raises the emotional stakes. The protagonists are more accessible, their struggles more clearly delineated and their sense of disillusionment more tangible. Although it is full of contemporary moral panic about youth delinquency, the film is, much like Well Done, a fascinating sociological time capsule of Switzerland at the end of the millennium.

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Instead of doubling down on the technical innovations of these works, or settling into the niche of hyper-immediate milieu studies, Imbach went on to explore the swaggering masculinity he encountered in Well Done’s board rooms and Ghetto’s teenage haunts. His films in the 2000s – Happiness Is a Warm Gun (2001), Happy Too (2002), Lenz (2006), I Was a Swiss Banker (2007) and Day Is Done (2011) – are all, in one way or another, concerned with toxic male behaviour.

High on toxic masculinity

Happiness Is a Warm Gun is a particularly thorny case. The film is based on the 1992 murder of German Green Party official Petra Kelly at the hands of her partner, former military general Gert Bastian. The docudrama imagines the two figures, played by Linda Olsansky and Herbert Fritsch, in a kind of purgatory, working through their fraught relationship against the backdrop of an airport.

Imbach says he intended to grant Kelly a more “meaningful” death than being shot in her sleep. However, Happiness mainly reads like a somewhat misguided attempt at making poetic sense of femicide. This is enough to make Happiness Imbach’s most troubling film.

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The films LenzExternal link and I Was a Swiss Banker, meanwhile, see Imbach’s documentary and fiction filmmaking fully merge. In the case of Lenz, which takes its narrative cues from Georg Büchner’s eponymous story, the main character is a self-obsessed director desperately trying to reconnect with his ex-wife and son on a skiing holiday in Zermatt. Here Imbach ropes unsuspecting passers-by into increasingly awkward conversations, with lead actor Milan Peschel demonstrating both Lenz’s slipping grasp on reality and the emptiness lurking behind Zermatt’s cheerful chalet façades.

Lenz’s summery mirror image is the modern fairytale I Was a Swiss Banker. It is about a vain banker seeking true love in order to escape the clutches of an evil witch. The film flirts with Dadaism, combining vérité-style imagery, non-professional supporting actors and zany lead performances into a messy journey across Switzerland’s storied lakes.

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These stories of overzealously performed masculinity are bookended by Day Is Done – a collage of images shot from the window of Imbach’s Zurich studio, accompanied by answering machine messages that tell the story of an emotionally unavailable artist named T. Over the course of 111 minutes, we learn of his father’s death, his son’s birth and his marital breakdown – yet T doesn’t answer the phone; he just listens and watches.

Measured against his entire body of work, Day Is Done may be Imbach’s premier achievement as an auteur. Returning to the fragmented views of Zurich glimpsed in Well Done and Ghetto, he offers a fictionalised memoir, a sombre portrait of the elusive artist as a middle-aged man, which comes to double as a reckoning with – and perhaps also an underhanded celebration of – the toxic masculinity at the narrative centre of several of his films.

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Containing multitudes

In yet another twist, however, Imbach’s work after Day Is Done seems marked by efforts to rethink some of his earlier themes. 2013’s Mary Queen of ScotsExternal link, for example – a rare foray into unequivocal historical drama – is a more conventional but also more graceful attempt to re-evaluate a famous woman’s death than Happiness Is a Warm Gun. Likewise, My Brother, My Love (“Glaubenberg”, 2018), a mythologically and autobiographically charged drama about a teenage girl pursuing a sexual relationship with her older brother, is a more convincingly realised descent into love-induced madness than Lenz.

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Finally, Nemesis (2020), a chronicle of the demolition of Zurich’s old freight yard, shot in the same manner as Day Is Done, sees Imbach renew his interest, first glimpsed in Well Done, in sociological issues. They erupt in Nemesis’ voiceover narration, which is composed of testimony from immigrants awaiting deportation, making a forceful political point: just as Switzerland bulldozes its historical structures, it appears to be paving over its humanitarian tradition.

There is no pretending that Imbach’s entire career has been building to this act of pointed criticism. It is obviously consistent with some of the thematic interests that his films espouse. But the true beauty of what can be discovered again in the ten titles of No Short Cuts: The Films of Thomas Imbach is not the hidden set of fixed ideological or artistic tenets – it is the challenging, frustrating, and exhilarating realisation that Imbach is a rare Swiss director who, to quote the poet Walt WhitmanExternal link, truly contains multitudes.

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