Restored films reveal Switzerland's past

Woodcutters in Lausanne in 1896 (Cinémathèque suisse) Keystone

Cinema fans can now sample on DVD some of Switzerland's oldest film footage, thanks to restoration work carried out by the Swiss National Film Archive.

This content was published on January 2, 2003 - 10:00

The DVD, entitled "Es war einmal... die Schweiz" ("Once upon a time... in Switzerland"), contains 156 minutes of film from 1896-1934.

"These were the first films ever shot in Switzerland and the very first ones made by the Lumière brothers," Hervé Dumont, director of the Lausanne-based Swiss National Film Archive told swissinfo.

"The films have never been shown since their first projection nearly a century ago," he added.

The DVD opens a window on Switzerland's past, transporting the viewer to a number of Swiss cities frozen in time on film.

The short pieces document Swiss people at work and at play, as well as recording the visits of international dignitaries - such as the King of Siam - and tourists.

Swiss traditions are captured on the film, as well as the two national exhibitions of 1896 (Geneva) and 1914 (Bern).

Quintessential moments include Yverdon's school of housekeeping, where women in long smocks learn to iron and cook, and metal workers in Frauenfeld in 1912.

The film also features Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, making an address to the League of Nations, during which he swears that Germany is a pacifist nation.

Unstable substance

The old films were made on cellulose nitrate, an unstable substance that bursts into flames at high temperatures and decomposes over time.

"We started working as quickly as possible but were always working against the clock because of the deterioration of film," said Dumont.

Lack of funds, and possibly foresight, meant a restoration programme was not started until 1996, when Dumont took over at the helm of the organisation.

At the time, many of the nitrate films in the archives were in a terrible state, and some had to be destroyed as they were in an advanced state of decomposition.

Around one fifth of early Swiss films were lost. But, thankfully, there were many more that could be restored.

However, the Swiss National Film Archive has come up against two obstacles: time and money.

"If we had the money we would have started working on this 20 years ago," explained Dumont.

Painstaking work

Film restoration is often a long and painstaking process since almost everything has to be done by hand. The original footage had to be chemically treated and cleaned, and perforations repaired.

Over the last six years, restorers have managed to save at least 20 forgotten Swiss films.

But with an annual budget of only SFr3 million ($2 million), the organisation is facing a shortfall in funds.

The institute estimates that it would cost SFr9 million to restore its entire archive of Swiss nitrate films.

In an inspired move, no doubt designed to draw attention to the cultural significance of the restoration project, Dumont sent copies of the DVD to members of the Swiss government.

An accompanying letter thanked the powers-that-be for supporting the institute's work over the years.

swissinfo, Faryal Mirza

The DVD is available from Swiss book and video shops for SFr39.50 in German, French, Italian and English. It can also be purchased direct from the institute (

In brief

A series of films from the turn of the century have been restored - they are the first films made in Switzerland.

The films include footage of Swiss people at work and at play, as well as visits by foreign leaders, such as Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.

Many of the reels were beyond repair, but the Swiss National Film Archive managed to restore at least 20 forgotten Swiss films.

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