Alain Tanner obituary: leading Swiss director and John Berger collaborator

Following his BFI-funded debut, the Free Cinema documentary Nice Time, Tanner became a pioneering figure in Swiss cinema, often working in tandem with the British novelist and critic John Berger.

23 September 2022

By Tom Overton

Alain Tanner © Photo by Pierre Perrin/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Alain Tanner died on 11 September. Jean-Luc Godard died two days later. “I would be completely incapable of doing what Godard does,” Tanner told an interviewer in 1976. “What he is doing is filming theory. What I want to do is to use theory to film things.” For Godard himself, the problem was not how to make political films, but how to make films politically. Less out of patriotism than out of resistance to the deadening omnipresence of American or even French cinema, Tanner became a kind of politician of film. He helped make Swiss cinema possible, and used it to make films people outside of Switzerland wanted to see.

Tanner was born and educated in Geneva. After an economics degree, he worked a stint on a cargo ship – much like Bruno Ganz in Tanner’s second most successful film, In the White City (1983) – and then moved to England. He wrote for Sight and Sound, worked at the BFI and for the BBC, assisting on a series called Living with Danger, “about people who risk their lives in the course of their daily work”. His BFI-funded debut, Nice Time (1957), was made with Claude Goretta, a friend from Geneva University film club: a lively 17-minute document of London nightlife, and of the Free Cinema of the British New Left. Passing through Paris on the way home confirmed Tanner’s sense that this, rather than the Godardian French New Wave, was where his sympathies lay.

Tanner’s first feature film, Charles, mort ou vif (1969), is essentially about a man driven mad by appearing on television. Back in Geneva, this had been the format he initially worked in, with documentaries on independence and nationalism in Wales, Israel and the Jura area of Switzerland; Une ville à Chandigarh (1966) combined footage of Le Corbusier’s Indian city with a voiceover from the novelist and critic John Berger, then living in Geneva. Despairing of cinematic infrastructure, particularly in French-speaking Switzerland, Tanner founded the filmmakers collective Le Groupe 5 in 1968. They negotiated an agreement where, in return for broadcast rights, the national French-language broadcaster (SSR, then TSR, now RTS) would support new filmmaking. 

Swiss women only got the right to vote in federal elections in 1971. Tanner was wry about his country’s reputation for smug conservatism. But it also gave him an interest in the perspectives of the periphery, both in form and content, and a desire to use them to think more globally. As the Canadian critic Jerry White put it, his films described “an unstable, unpredictable space where nonconformist visions of both tradition and modernity collide into each other”. 

Le Salamandre (1971)

1971’s Le Salamandre, a direct collaboration with Berger, debated the relative merits of fiction and documentary on the screen, through the characters Pierre and Paul. It’s also a film about generational struggle, and the attempted revolutions of 1968: Tanner had reported from Paris, Berger from Czechoslovakia. Berger described the global situation afterwards as one of normalisation, vapid consumerist choice masking political stasis. The leading man of Le Milieu du monde (1974) is its apotheosis, a deliberately colourless electoral candidate whose campaign unravels when he has an affair with an Italian economic migrant. This character, a waitress, was Berger’s attempt to balance the masculine focus of his and Jean Mohr’s 1975 book on migrant labour, A Seventh Man.

Berger and Tanner worked on similar ideas for at least two decades. Sometimes it was explicit collaboration, sometimes not, as with Docteur B., médecin de campagne’s (1968) closeness to Berger and Jean Mohr’s 1967 book A Fortunate Man. 1985’s No Man’s Land is set in the same alpine borderland as Berger’s Into Their Labours trilogy. Berger supplied much of the material for Le Retour d’Afrique (1973) without a credit.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976)

Their last film together was 1976’s Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000. Its gentle, unhectoring attitude to the future brought international audiences and criticism alike. The US journal Jump Cut welcomed “a responsive chord in all of us isolated and alienated intellectuals”, while attacking its politics, most trenchantly on gender. Tanner’s darker next film, Messidor (1979), used a title from the French revolutionary calendar and a plot which prefigured Thelma & Louise (1991). With Bernard Comment, the collaborator of his later years, he returned to the Jonah idea from an oblique angle in 1999’s Jonas et Lila à demain: a jaded filmmaker Anziano offers advice to the 25-year-old, now a filmmaker himself. 

One of Tanner’s legacies is inspiring the career of Berger’s son, the filmmaker Jacob. This Berger acted in Tanner’s La Vallée fantôme (1987), and made his own feature debut, Angels (1990), with Tanner’s support. In 2010, Berger made a short tribute, Je pense à Alain Tanner, and now works regularly for RTS: the network interviewed him as Tanner’s death made Swiss front-page news.

  • Alain Tanner, 6 December 1929 to 11 September 2022

Tom Overton has a biography of John Berger on the way with Allen Lane. 

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