Petra Volpe on Swiss Myths of Neutrality in WW2 & After

Filmmaker Petra Volpe grew up “half-Italian” in Switzerland and looks askance at the myths of Swiss history: “We are connected to the past because it also determines our present.” Her directing debut film The Divine Order – winner of the Nora Ephron Prize at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival – entertainingly showed international audiences how Swiss women organized to finally get the right to vote at the late date of 1971.

Despite its potentially controversial subject matter, Petra’s film was filled with warmth and good humor, and FF2 was proud to serve as a sponsor when it was shown at the 2018 Athena Film Festival at Barnard College (NYC).

Inspired by how Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland used the mini-series format to tell the full story of Czech protests against Soviet occupation in Burning Bush (2013), Petra turned next to writing the screenplay for Labyrinth of Peace (Frieden) with the goal of puncturing Switzerland’s comfortable myth of neutrality during World War II.

Petra immersed herself in extensive research on everything from personal memoirs to the Swiss government’s international Commission of Independent Experts on financial relations with the Nazis (released in 2002). She also checked elements of her scripts with leading history, science, and business consultants, so “the core of the story (of what happened during and just after the WW2) stayed as close to reality as possible.”

While the six 50-minute episodes (directed by Mike Schaerer) unfold like an enthralling novel, the fictional characters and situations are inspired by real people who faced what Petra calls the moral dilemma “responsibility and justice versus profit.” The most unnerving dialogue and incidents are actually documented.

As the creator, writer, and showrunner of this series, Petra marshaled over 70 actors, 1,200 extras, and 60 crew members. The shoot – in multiple cities, towns, and villages across Switzerland – took four months, with exemplary recreations of period hairstyles, wardrobe, furniture, and rooms, with antique vehicles.

Each episode opens with footage of 1945 celebrations, then hones in on a brilliant symbol of Switzerland’s view of the end of the war: an origami dove made of currency with a gold, diamond-studded olive branch in its beak. Chilling!

Three charismatic young Swiss optimists are Petra’s central protagonists.

Klara Frey (Annina Walt) feels noble as she welcomes children from Buchenwald concentration camp to the Swiss Red Cross’s recuperation facility. She is about to marry Johann Leutenegger (Max Hubacher), who is impatient to take over her family’s traditional textile factory. Johann’s brother Egon (Dimitri Stapfer) – haunted by memories of the Jewish refugees he had to turn away while serving on border patrol – hopes to help the Federal Prosecutor turn Nazi war criminals over to the Americans.

Nothing will be what they expect, and as ugly truths about their country are revealed, all of these characters take risks and make unpredictable choices to achieve their goals. Labyrinth of Peace also features other strong, realistic female characters, such as journalist/Nazi hunter Dorothy Rosenberg (Lou Strenger).

Labyrinth of Peace first aired in November 2020 as the centerpiece of the SRF network’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the end of WW2. (Note that the acronym SRF stands for Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen = “Swiss Radio and Television.”) The network produced a multimedia context for Switzerland in 1945, with online audio and video of contemporary witnesses remembering those times, a web series of intergenerational conversations, and a podcast.

Two documentaries were also included: The Boys of Buchenwald who challenged their Swiss sponsor’s disdainful antisemitism, and The Hidden History of the Dark Helpers on how specific Swiss businesses continued to collaborate with Nazi financiers, lawyers, and scientists during the post-war period. While none is available to Americans, you will still feel Volpe’s goal: “In the end, it’s all about empathy.”

© Nora Lee Mandel (1/12/22) Special for FF2 Media®

LEARN MORE

Labyrinth of Peace screens virtually from 1/25 – 1/30. Click here to order “Virtual Cinema” tickets from the Film Society of Lincoln Center if you want to stream Labyrinth of Peace at home.

Visit Petra Volpe’s IMDb page for her full filmography.

Click here for complete information about the 2022 NY Jewish Film Festival including all in person and streaming options.

Read about the Nora Ephron Award Petra Volpe won at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.

Enjoy photos of Petra Volpe with FF2 team members at the 2018 Athena Film Festival.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Images courtesy of the New York Jewish Film Festival co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center & The Jewish Museum (Manhattan). All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Agnieszka Holland, Athena Film Festival, Labyrinth of Peace, New York Jewish Film Festival, Nora Ephron Prize, NYJFF, Petra Volpe, The Divine Order

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Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. After high school weekends spent learning film history at NY’s Museum of Modern Art, she studied film criticism at New York University. In addition to many years of writing for national and New York City organizations in the arts, education, history, and city planning, her reviews of documentaries, independent, and foreign-language films, books, television, exhibitions, and music have also appeared in such outlets as: Film-Forward.com, FilmFestival Traveler and Lilith Magazine, the independent Jewish feminist quarterly. Her ongoing Critical Guide to Jewish Women in Movies, TV, and Pop Music has been the basis for her talks around the New York region.
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