×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Chris The Swiss’

Mixing animation, reportage and memoir, Anja Kofmel explores the story of her cousin, who died mysteriously during the Yugoslav wars.

Director:
Anja Kofmel
With:
Megan Gay, Joel Basman, Michael Würtenberg, Veronika Schwab, Carlos Ilich, Ramirez Sanchez, Sinisa Juricic, Heidi Rinke, Julio Cesar Alonso, Alejandro Hernandez Mora. (Swiss-German, German, English, Spanish dialogue)

1 hour 30 minutes

The past can be a prickly thing. One of the strengths of Anja Kofmel’s part-animated documentary investigation into the death of her cousin Chris in Croatia in 1992 is that it does not attempt to sand the troubled history it explores down to smoothness. Instead, Kofmel, who was a child when 27-year-old journalist Christian Würtenberg was found strangled in a Balkan field wearing the uniform of a mercenary unit embroiled in the Yugoslav War, uses a variety of approaches — talking heads, newsreel footage, excerpts from Chris’ diaries and her own hand-drawn animation — to embody those contradictions without claiming to understand them. It’s a multicolored wreath of roses to lay against her cousin’s legacy, thorns and all.

Chris was a good-looking, Bradley Cooper-esque young man with a thrill-seeking nature that Michael, still clearly furious with his brother after many years of grief and therapy, prefers to describe as “reckless” and “irresponsible.” At a young age, after a restless childhood that it’s hinted was spent chafing against the values of his middle-class family, Chris left Switzerland in search of adventure on several continents, before being magnetically drawn, as were so many young men back then, to the conflict in the Balkans.

But life as a war correspondent somehow did not satisfy his desire to be part of the action, and Chris fell in with the PIV (the First International Brigade), a dubiously motivated troupe of foreign mercenaries, career soldiers and adventurers under the shady leadership of the ambitious Bolivian Eduardo Rózsa Flores, aka Chico. Many years later Chico would himself be killed while planning the assassination of Bolivian president Evo Morales, and, as reported by a fellow PIV member, the outfit took its ruthlessness from him: targeting children and increasingly becoming little more than Chico’s personal, lawless militia. It’s impossible to conclusively decide now whether Chris actually believed in the PIV’s manifesto of self-interested violence, or whether, as he claimed in his diaries, he wanted to write a book about its workings (an outlandish third option is put forth by, of all people, Carlos the Jackal in a phone call from prison). The passage of time, some mysteriously missing pages from Chris’ notebook and the general hazy fog of war that hangs over that period in the region, have conspired to obscure truth.

But Kofmel’s film is not stymied by this discovery — if anything it is liberated from being a slavish work of investigative journalism and free to develop into a more compelling and artistic hybrid of memoir, biographical documentary and general discussion of why young men feel their pulses quicken at the idea of fighting in a foreign war. How much they are driven by the cause and how much their own ambitions and philosophies is a question that haunts Kofmel’s sensitive, if necessarily fragmentary portrait.

Her animations are particularly lovely, evoking the hero worship she felt as a child for her larger-than-life relative — the boldly drawn continuous lines of black and white, solid and simple, in which Chris forever wears an identifying stripy scarf, and the bad guys, like Chico with his dark-ringed eyes and widow’s peak, have the decency to look like villains. It’s a contrast to the uncertainty, contradictions and banality of the live footage, often shaky and amateurish, of a conflict that more than one commentator refers to as “filthy.”

The animation also provides the child’s-eye counterpoint to the journey Kofmel undertakes as an adult to retrace Chris’ final steps, which ends anticlimactically in a field like the one he died in. It may even be the exact one he died in, but there’s no way to tell, just as there’s no way to tell that these placid Croatian cornfields ever saw bloodshed at all. “I wanted to be just like him,” confesses Kofmel at one point, evaluating the role her glamorous and charismatic cousin played in her own early development. But, as all artists must do with the influences that shape them, with “Chris the Swiss” she honors her muse, interrogates him and, finally, moves past him.

Film Review: 'Chris The Swiss'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Critics' Week), May 14, 2018. Running Time: 90 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — Switzerland-Croatia-Germany-Finland) An Urban Distribution presentation of a Dchoint Ventschr Filmproduktion, Nukleus Film, Ma.Ja.De. and IV Films production (International Sales: Urban Distribution, Paris.) Producers: Samir, Sinisa Juricic, Heino Deckert, Iikka Vehkalahti.

Crew: Director, writer: Anja Kofmel. Camera (color, widescreen): Simon Guy Fässler. Editor: Stefan Kälin. Music: Marcel Vaid.

With: Megan Gay, Joel Basman, Michael Würtenberg, Veronika Schwab, Carlos Ilich, Ramirez Sanchez, Sinisa Juricic, Heidi Rinke, Julio Cesar Alonso, Alejandro Hernandez Mora. (Swiss-German, German, English, Spanish dialogue)

More Film

  • John Hodges

    Jax Media Taps A24 Co-Founder John Hodges as Head of New Film Division

    TV production powerhouse Jax Media is expanding into film and tapped John Hodges, one of the founding partners of A24, as its new head of film. “I’m thrilled to be joining the team at Jax,” Hodges said. “Theirs is a potent brand that I’ve admired for a long time, and their reputation as innovative partners [...]

  • Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost,

    Hong Kong's TVB Plans OTT Boost, Sets 'Court Lady' With Huanyu

    Hong Kong’s Television Broadcasts is set to boost its OTT platforms locally and abroad with new packages and initiatives targeting the Southeast Asian market. The city’s biggest broadcaster has also renewed its partnership with China’s Huanyu Entertainment following the wild success the two enjoyed last year with court rivalry drama “Story of Yanxi Palace.” The [...]

  • Blue Planet II

    Documentaries Show Strong Signs of Growth in Global Markets

    Nearly 40% of exhibitors at FilMart this year are currently involved in documentary films. This year, there are 290 such exhibitors from 26 countries and regions, an increase of 30% from the year before, and 24 nonfiction titles in screening sessions, nearly double last year’s 13 titles. The market launched its “Doc World” section in [...]

  • Palanquin Offers New Business Model for

    Palanquin Offers New Business Model for East-West Productions in SVoD Era

    For Westerners making movies in Asia, logistics can be problematic. And, for Asian filmmakers able to navigate local conditions, screenwriting for international audiences and access to markets can still be stumbling blocks. Veteran producer and executive Guy Louthan (“The Mist,” “Raising Arizona”) is now developing a business that straddles East and West, deploys American production [...]

  • 'The Fall,' 'Out of Crimes' and

    Oriental Intl. Debuts at FilMart With Six New Films and Classic Fare

    Oriental Intl. makes its FilMart sales debut with a line-up of six new titles and a library of 20 arthouse classics and shorts. The firm is the Hong Kong branch of Chinese state-run radio and TV broadcaster CRI-CIBN’s smart TV division. The company has five employees but only one employee based permanently in Hong Kong. [...]

  • Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong

    Ethnic Minorities in Spotlight at Hong Kong Asian Project Market

    Historically, ethnic minorities around the world have suffered, and 2019 sees no change in this regard. A brace of HAF projects highlight some of the problems faced by them. From Iran, Arsalan Amiri’s horror/black comedy “Zalava” is set in a village terrified by demonic possession, where a young, agnostic police officer arrests challenges local beliefs [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content