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Bernese Oberland becomes Hollywood set

A member of the film crew prepares for the celluloid shoot. Unicorn Media

Hollywood has transformed parts of the Bernese Oberland into a set for a new television series. It's the stage for the last days of battle in World War Two, as seen through the eyes of elite American soldiers.

Swiss producer, Leonard Gmur, is in charge of the shooting in Switzerland on behalf of Steven Spielberg’s film company, Dreamworks. The mini-series will be called “Band of Brothers” and is based on a best-selling novel by Stephen Ambrose, who was the historical consultant on the blockbuster film, “Saving Private Ryan”.

While Spielberg hopes to cash in on the success of Saving Private Ryan, Gmur thinks the Bernese Oberland can cash in on its stunning scenery and well-preserved towns.

Gmur was unable to find suitable locations in Austria and Germany where the real story unfolded.

“It’s very difficult to shoot at the original location,” says Gmur. “It’s overcrowded by tourists and redevelopment has meant that many of the old buildings have been demolished. We also didn’t think it would have been appropriate recalling that period at the original location.”

A section of the Grimsel pass is being used as a substitute for the approach to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Bavaria, while the Grand Hotel Giessbach on Lake Brienz is being transformed into the local German army headquarters.

“To be honest, it looks better here than in the original place,” explains Gmur.

One of the focal points will be the village square in Unterseen. Tucked into a corner just behind the large resort of Interlaken, it’s the setting for a liberation scene.

“Everybody is very pleased that Spielberg is coming to us to produce a film,” says Unterseen mayor, Hans Schutz. The square is only a five-minute walk from the busy streets and souvenir shops of Interlaken, but it could as well be a century away.

There are few outward signs that the past 100 years have made a mark on the square or the surrounding buildings. The film crew has only to remove a few cars and parking meters and replace streetlights to return the square to the 1940s.

They don’t have to do very much at the Hotel Giessbach either. The grandiose building on the shore of Lake Brienz looks very much as it did at the end of the 19th century. Many visitors arrive at its doorstep by steamboat, and take an aperitif or dinner on the terrace overlooking the Giessbach falls.

During the shooting, an actor will sit on the terrace and be filmed reading a book with the falls rumbling in the background. Assistant hotel manager, Thomas Lüthy, will try to ensure he’s not bothered, and in turn, doesn’t disturb the more than 300 guests who’ll be taking lunch at the same time.

“We can’t close the whole hotel for the film,” says Lüthy. “We’re used to this, though, because two or three movies a year are shot at the hotel, so we try to arrange everything so the films can be made, and we can keep our guests happy.”

“We are making the film while everyone here is busy with tourists,” says Gmur. “We were asked to come later in the year, and we said, ‘if you can guarantee that the sun will still be shining and the leaves on the trees still green’, we would be glad to do so.”

One of the biggest challenges faced by Gmur is competing with Japanese and American tourists for hotel rooms, and finding a way of bringing vintage army jeeps and trucks no longer licensed for the roads into Switzerland.

Nick Komornicki, a weapons expert in the British film crew, has been hard at work mounting a machine gun on one of the trucks stationed at the local airfield.

“A lot of the German machine guns are original, as well as the American M1 rifles ” he says. “We’ve produced a certain amount of rubber weapons, which we’ll hand out to background extras. They have a steel shaft in them so the weight’s the same, so when the actors are carrying the weapons, they don’t seem to be carrying something that looks rubbery and light.”

Out on the airstrip, two other members of the crew are lifting a Dakota aircraft into position. It’s hard work, but they can manage without a crane since the plane is only a replica – made out of wood and propped up by a long metal stand.

The nerve centre of the production is a nondescript office building and warehouse behind the train station in Interlaken. The location manager, Stefan Zürcher, calls the shots here. He’s been busy getting temporary offices ready for members of the British crew.

Zürcher is relaxed. “It’s the countdown before the whole circus arrives,” he says. “We’re in good shape, everything is going as planned.”

Zürcher got his start in the film business as a stuntman in the Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, which was also shot in the Bernese Oberland.

“But you have to know your limits when you get older,” he explains. “I loved working in that film so much that I moved to the production side.”

The wardrobe department has taken over a large hall behind the office. Hundreds of old uniforms, boots and caps hang from racks or overflow from large wooden bins.

Costume designer, Joe Hobbs, has made it his business to find out everything possible about the paratroopers from the American 101st Airborne division, which is portrayed in the television series.

He found that many of the American uniforms in France and Norway – two European countries which, he says, adapted their military dress from the Americans after the war. That made his life easier, but he still had details to worry about.

“The Norwegians used a very similar combat uniform until a few years ago but the buttons were different. I’ve had them all changed because a lot of collectors and historians would see the buttons in the film and know it’s the wrong jacket.”

Zürcher, in a playful mood, tries on an officer’s hat. He and producer Gmur seem to have everything under control.

They see themselves as mercenaries, helping Hollywood in its battle to complete the filming. “It’s our job to make things happen,” says Gmur. “We have to do it as well as we can so they come back. The next job is always more important than the current one.”

by Dale Bechtel

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR