Film honours ‘coolest Swiss ever’

On track: Jo Siffert's teammates celebrate another victory. Hugofilm

Jo Siffert, the Swiss racing driver and model for Steve McQueen in the film Le Mans, is himself the subject of a documentary currently in Swiss cinemas.

This content was published on January 14, 2006 - 11:05

Director Men Lareida tells about the film, Jo Siffert: Live Fast Die Young, which was nominated for the Swiss Film Prize 2006.

"I actually wanted to make a feature film about the 1970s, but as I was planning that I came across a biography of Jo Siffert," Lareida said.

"I read it and thought 'Wow! What a great story!' I thought that in this case real life was more interesting than fiction."

The story – poor boy from Fribourg becomes globe-trotting Grand Prix winner only to die on track aged 35 – is part hero-profile and part historical document of a time when drivers ran to their cars at the beginning of the race, didn't know the meaning of the word "brake" and as a result had a seriously short life expectancy.

"The great thing about Jo Siffert is that his story is also the story of Formula One," Lareida said. "He started in 1960 and although that was not when Formula One started, it was when it began to become professional."

For Lareida, 37, the film is clearly a homage to a national icon and a period which brings back fond memories.

"I probably belong to the last generation that grew up without television, but my grandmother had a set and I was always allowed to go round and watch Formula One races. So naturally I became a huge Formula One fan as it was the only chance I had to watch television!"

Many of the older cinemagoers, however, were probably among the 50,000 Swiss who attended Siffert's funeral in 1971, one of the largest ever in Switzerland.

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Oil rags to riches

Born in Fribourg to a poor family in 1936, Siffert was barely a teenager when he caught the racing bug and decided to make the need for speed his life.

The film tracks Siffert's career from his humble beginnings to his greatest successes on the world's racing circuits, including his first Formula One win at the British Grand Prix in 1968.

Jo Siffert: Live Fast Die Young is certainly not from the critical warts'n'all school of documentary making. All the talking heads – from former mechanics to former wives – have nothing but praise for "Seppi", who, they assure us, was a charismatic, crazy adrenalin junkie and famed seducer.

But viewers new to Siffert will have to take the interviewees' word on this, as it is certainly not reflected on screen.

Despite certainly looking the part, Siffert comes across in his few stilted interviews as a borderline introvert, living only for cars, who would give a self-conscious wave when he won a race.

Yet he clearly had charisma. He only had a fleeting appearance in the classic 1971 film Le Mans, starring Mr Cool himself Steve McQueen, but his influence on the star was considerable. When McQueen was asked by the film's production what he wanted to look like, he said: "I want to look like Jo Siffert."

McQueen's seal of approval resulted in many commentators hailing Siffert as the coolest Swiss sportsman of all time.

Indeed Lareida has given the film a distinct Seventies feel, using a mock-retro soundtrack and split-screen techniques straight out of McQueen's other classic, Bullitt.

Old versus new

Conspicuously absent from the documentary, however, are any modern Formula One figures.

"To be honest, I didn't even try," Lareida admitted. "I knew how much it would cost and I didn't think it was that important bearing in mind our tight budget [just over SFr300,000 ($235,000)]."

For all his admiration for Siffert, Lareida doesn't think the Swiss would often make it onto the podium against today's generation of racers.

"Drivers nowadays are excellent drivers and excellent communicators regarding engine technology. Siffert's quality was that he got in the car and sped off – I think he'd be too impulsive today!"

Language barriers

Jo Siffert: Live Fast Die Young was one of four documentaries to feature in the ten most commercially successful Swiss films of 2005.

"I'm very satisfied. The film came out relatively late and I think that's a really great result," Lareida said.

"Switzerland has a long tradition of documentaries going back I believe to the 1960s and Siamo Italiani. Documentaries are realisable with the budgets that we have here."

As for distributing the film abroad, Lareida said he hadn't got anything against that but didn't think it was very realistic.

"I made the film for the Swiss market and what makes the film difficult to sell abroad is the language." The film features Swiss-German, French, English, Italian and a German voiceover.

"Subtitles are common in Switzerland but elsewhere they're not particularly popular. It's not the easiest film to sell."

Lareida said television channels which previously might have shown films with subtitles now almost never do, "and that means we have to dub them, which is very expensive".

"But the film went down really well in Austria at the Viennale [the Vienna International Film Festival] and I've also had interest from England and Germany, so there are people all around who are interested in it."

Jo Siffert

Joseph "Seppi" Siffert was born in 1936 in Fribourg and died in 1971.

He started 100 Grand Prix races, winning two: the 1968 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch and the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix.

Siffert died in October 1971 in an end-of-season non-championship Formula One race (also at Brands Hatch). The car's suspension broke, Siffert crashed and he could not get out of the burning wreck.

His funeral in Fribourg was attended by 50,000 people.

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Swiss films

The most successful film ever in Switzerland, which has a population of 7.4 million, is Titanic (1997), with just under two million tickets sold – almost double the runner-up, Finding Nemo (2003).

The most successful Swiss film ever is the 1978 comedy Die Schweizermacher – in fourth place overall – which sold just under a million tickets.

In 2005 Swiss cinemas showed 466 films from 66 countries.

Madagascar was the most popular film in Switzerland last year (684,958 tickets). The most successful Swiss film was Mein Name ist Eugen (503,000 tickets).

Jo Siffert: Live Fast Die Young was released in French-speaking Switzerland at the end of October and in German-speaking Switzerland at the end of December and had sold 10,428 tickets by the end of the year.

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