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Military up in arms over new film

The film pokes fun at recruit school Keystone

A new film about the Swiss Army featuring generous amounts of sex and drugs has provoked anger at Switzerland’s defence ministry.

This content was published on September 17, 2003 - 15:30

“Achtung, Fertig, Charlie!” (Ready, Steady, Charlie!) is a comedy set in recruit school, where all young Swiss men are expected to serve for four months.

The film is aimed at the youth market, it has a catchy soundtrack and the love interest is played by former Miss Switzerland Melanie Winiger.

It also has strong backing from Hollywood and is the first Swiss film to have a major distributor.

And when it went on general release, it opened in 43 cinemas simultaneously – a record for any Swiss film.

But the film’s raunchy humour and its portrayal of young recruits as having insatiable appetites for sex and drugs has offended Switzerland’s top brass.

Questionable taste

“Many at the defence ministry regret that such promising film-makers didn’t rise to the occasion of producing a work of art,” defence ministry spokesman Martin Buhler told swissinfo.

“What we’ve got instead is a film which is on the slippery downward slope of questionable taste.”

The ministry is all the more incensed because the Swiss Army initially provided a lot of support for the film.

“We gave equipment, jeeps, weapons, uniforms, even a barracks,” said Buhler.

But Mike Eschmann, the film’s director, says he can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

“They had the script right from the start,” he told swissinfo. “They were there during the filming, and we had great cooperation with them until a few weeks ago, when I guess one of the bosses saw a rough cut and was obviously shocked.”

Drug use

The defence ministry says it finds many of the sex scenes in the film simply juvenile, but its main concern is with the treatment of drug use in the film.

“There is one recruit who seems to be stoned for the entire four months of recruit school,” explained Buhler. “This is just impossible: if you take drugs in the army you are thrown out immediately.”

The Swiss Army has made great efforts in recent years to stamp out drug use among recruits following a string of scandals.

Director Eschmann admits that the issue is a sensitive one but doesn’t believe this is a reason to avoid it.

“It’s a well-known fact that people smoke pot at recruit school,” he said. “In fact many people start smoking it there.”

“This is a comedy,” he continued. “We did a lot of research for this film and we created this character who is really into pot, and we tried to make him funny.”

“I think the people in the defence ministry just don’t have a sense of humour.”

Humour failure

The joke is certainly lost on Defence Minister Samuel Schmid who has urged people not to go and see the film. He also declined an invitation to appear as guest of honour at the film’s premiere.

Furthermore, the army’s gift of jeeps and camouflage netting to decorate cinemas, along with free Swiss military biscuits for the audience, has also been hurriedly cancelled.

The real root of the argument may well lie in a generational clash over the very existence of the Swiss Army.

Among older Swiss, the military is generally regarded as a pillar of Swiss society - a unifying factor in a country with four different languages and the force which has protected Switzerland from its enemies.

Sacred cow

But the young men who have to serve in the army now tend to see things rather differently.

“It’s a sacred cow in our society,” said Eschmann. “Everybody takes it really seriously except the young people.”

Actor Martin Rapold, who plays Corporal Weiss in the film, agrees. He went to recruit school himself not so long ago, and he insists that the film is very true to life.

“Everything you see in the film really happens in recruit school,” he told swissinfo, “and much crazier things, believe me.”

Rapold points out that society’s sacred cows are legitimate targets for humour, even if some people may be offended.

“The Swiss Army is a perfect target for humour,” he said. “We are a neutral country – which I think is great – but we have this huge army to defend us. It’s a bit like the Boy Scouts – it’s fantastic comedy.”

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Achtung

All Swiss men are required to go to army recruit school at the age of 20. After that they must serve in the army at regular intervals up to age of around 40.
The Swiss defence ministry was initially pleased with the concept for the film and donated SFr40,000 ($29,000) worth of military equipment.
The Federal Office for Culture invested SFr400,000 in the film.
Achtung, Fertig, Charlie! is being distributed by Hollywood giant Buena Vista.
It is the first Swiss film to have a major Hollywood distributor.

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