Alpine Activism: Petra Volpe’s 'The Divine Order' chronicles Swiss women’s battle for the vote

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Where did women not have the right to vote until 1971? Where did they still need their husbands’ permission to work in 1988?  Where do political parties still advocate no punishment for rape in marriage? The Middle East? Africa? Central Asia? No: It’s Switzerland, where the Church believed that giving women the right to vote violated the divine order. In The Divine Order, Switzerland’s submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, Petra Volpe tells this historically bizarre story with a good deal of insight and a great deal of charm. Director Talk recently spoke with the writer-director.

Director Talk: When Americans think of Switzerland, we think of mountains. We rarely think of the people or the social history. Is Switzerland such an enigma to other countries as well?

Petra Volpe: Switzerland was very good at pushing a very particular image. After 1945, there was a very conscious process of the Swiss creating a very positive image of the country. There are a lot of positive things like the Red Cross and the chocolate, but there was a big scandal in the 1990s when the banks were sued because they had hidden all this Jewish money—that was the first time Switzerland got a little black mark. But I think in general Switzerland was very successful at consciously building a very positive image. Every country tries to do that, but Switzerland was really very successful.

DT: It almost feels like a world apart from Europe.

PV: It is, actually. Switzerland is not in the EU. It always kept to itself. It has always had a very special position within Europe: It wasn’t harmed by the wars, not the First World War or the Second. In the Second World War, all of Europe was in ashes, burned to the ground, and Switzerland was like a little oasis.

I believe that contributed to the conservatism in the country. There’s very much a notion in Switzerland that we must be doing something right. Our little system must be OK as it is, let’s not change anything. A woman’s right to a vote would change things in our society and we don’t want that. We want to maintain the old, traditional Switzerland because it’s good for everybody. So there was also a very nationalistic idea why Swiss women shouldn’t vote. It was considered anti-Swiss to be for the right to vote.

DT: Can you talk about the real suffragette movement the film was based on?

PV: As I found out in my research—I didn’t learn any of this in school, because it doesn’t exist in schoolbooks in Switzerland—

DT: Still?

PV: I think there are certain chapters in the schoolbooks now, but when I went to school there was absolutely nothing. Of course I knew that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1971, but we didn’t read or learn anything about the hundred-year history of women fighting for the right to vote, about this very, very rich women’s movement. These women in Switzerland were internationally connected, they were networking, they were going to international congresses, they were doing political work, but it was like a parallel society of women doing very important social and political work but not being allowed to vote.

DT: They were doing this work in Switzerland?

PV: And also internationally, supporting other women. They petitioned, they put forward a lot of motions, for a hundred years they constantly said we need the right to vote, you can’t deny it to us. In 1959, the first time men went to the ballots with this—Switzerland is a direct democracy, so the men voted on it—it was struck down. It’s the only direct democracy where it happened like this. Sixty percent of the men were against women’s right to vote. 1959 was already so late. Here [in the U.S.], they had it in 1920. In Germany, all of the surrounding countries, women had the right to vote already for twenty years, but in 1959 in Switzerland the men struck it down. It was a huge humiliation for the women in Switzerland and also for all the organizations that worked so hard to bring it to the ballot. It took another twelve years until they voted on it again.

But it wasn’t a case of the women sitting back and waiting submissively until they were given the right to vote. They were fighting for it, but they were ignored by politics. It wasn’t just the population that was against it. The politicians and the churches didn’t support the idea either. In 1971 they were about to sign a human-rights treaty in Europe [Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms], but they wanted to sign it with a special chapter saying “but in our country the women can’t vote.” That gave the last push to the women’s movement, which said: There’s no way you’re signing this without us having the vote. Internationally, it was so embarrassing for the Swiss that they just couldn’t keep it up anymore. So they supported the women’s right to vote because they were embarrassed internationally—not because they thought it’s so unfair towards our women.

DT: The Divine Order is very dark in some ways, but it’s also very humorous.  How much did you veer from the reality of the real-life right-to-vote movement?

PV: What I tried to do was really capture the atmosphere of 1971. I wanted to make a very sensual story. I didn’t want to make a school lesson. I wanted to really look at the times and what it meant for women to live in these times; to make it almost a physical experience, how they were treated like objects, how they were treated like little children who couldn’t make their own decisions, who couldn’t go to work if they didn’t have their husbands’ permission. So it wasn’t really about depicting this whole movement but depicting this moment in time, showing how women were treated, and how realizing that the private is political, which is a very, very universal topic that can bring this person, this Nora, a very simple wife and mother who was a little bit like my mother, into motion. I felt that it was also very timeless. She’s definitely a woman of her times, but the process she goes through is also very timeless. We see it in the media today, happening now with all these women coming forward to talk about how they’ve been sexually harassed and abused. This whole thing was brought into motion by one woman speaking up. She made the first step, somebody wrote about it, and now all these women come out in solidarity. I think there is power in that.

DT: Switzerland has four language groups. The one depicted in The Divine Orderis Swiss German. It was an extremely oppressive culture, not only to the women but also to the men—the grandfather in the film absolutely destroyed his sons. Can you talk about that specific culture?

PV: It’s very Swiss. The grandfather is modeled a little bit on my Swiss grandmother. The French part of Switzerland is a little bit more progressive, and they’re always very angry with the German-speaking part because they’re politically more conservative. They vote more conservatively, and the French don’t like that. The Italian part of Switzerland is also more conservative. The French part is really the most progressive and the most leftist.

The village in the film is like a metaphor for Switzerland. It’s a deeply conservative society, and it was not good for men and women. There was a lot of social control and a lot of ideas about what is a true man and what is a true woman. All these ideas were supported by the Church, who said: This is the divine order. This is what a man is, this is what a woman is, and if we start to disrupt this order, there will be apocalypse. That was really still an argument in 1971—they said it’s against divine order that women go into politics. God didn’t intend for women to be political. So the women in 1971 weren’t just up against the men; they were up against the divine.

DT: That’s a tall order! Are you speaking about the Lutheran Church?

PV: Switzerland is very Protestant and Catholic; it’s a mixture. The most conservative areas of Switzerland are Catholic, so the Catholics believed that if women vote, it will disrupt the peace in the family, the couple will fight, politics is dirty, women shouldn’t do dirty work. All of the arguments used by the antagonist in the movie—who is a woman—are all original quotes from their propaganda. I didn’t invent them. They would actually say that emancipation is bad for women. It’s a great gift that you can work for your family only. It’s against the divine order. I took that title from original material.

DT: Did the Protestant and Catholic churches work together?

PV: When it came to the women’s right to vote, they were pretty much on the same page. They wanted to maintain a traditional family, and for that they needed the women at home. They also had this image that if women go to vote, they don’t do the housework anymore, they don’t cook. It was very exaggerated, really propaganda. They also had these shows on television where professors would explain why women shouldn’t do politics. They created a science around it, how women are more for the inside and for the family, their brains weren’t wired for politics. They had a science proving that…even in 1971.

I really love one of their posters. You see a cradle and a baby falling out of the cradle. The window is open and a black cat sits in the window, and it reads, “Mother went to the ballots.” One of my favorite arguments is “Look what happened in Germany when the women were allowed to vote. They voted for Hitler.” That was one of the arguments why women shouldn’t vote in Switzerland—they could vote for a potential new Hitler!

DT: Where are the mountains? Where’s the edelweiss?

PV: Unfortunately, I’m ruining the nice image.

DT: That’s OK. How much has the country changed since women got the vote?

PV: Of course it’s changed, like it’s changed here. I grew up with more liberties and freedom than my mother and grandmothers, and laws have changed. Marital law changed in 1988 so that a woman didn’t have to ask her husband for permission to work or open her own bank account. It took another many more years for marital law to be changed. Only thirteen years ago, they voted on whether rape in marriage is punishable. There was still one party that was against the punishment.

DT: This is the image we have of Saudi Arabia.

PV: Exactly, and it’s not so long ago. We were always pointing a finger at them and saying: Look how primitive they are. I have a very good quote. One of our politicians was speaking to the Chinese minister, talking about human rights, and he said, “When did you women get the right to vote in Switzerland?” I thought that was a really good answer. We always think it’s so far away, and what they’re doing is so cruel and horrible. No question, women’s rights is a huge issue there, but we have enough shit in front of our own doors.

We can see the whole thing happening right in front of our eyes right now with the Harvey Weinstein scandal. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. So you ask if Switzerland has changed. Yes, it did change, the law changed, women are studying, a lot of young women feel they’re free to do what they want, but if you talk to them after they’ve become mothers, you can still say that a woman’s life after she gets married and has children goes back to the 1950s. That’s a bit exaggerated, but it’s true. Switzerland is still very conservative. It doesn’t encourage mothers to work—I I think Switzerland rates very, very low when it comes to support for mothers who want to work. Underneath all these changes there’s still the very traditional idea that a mother stays home with the kids and the husband brings home the money. We don’t have pay equality.

DT: We don’t have it here either.

PV: Yeah, it’s like here. We don’t have enough women in politics, we don’t have enough women in high positions in all kinds of industries and work environments. There’s a deeply rooted gender bias, and it’s as rampant as it is here [in the U.S.] and everywhere else.

DT: Did you have trouble making the film?

PV: Actually, no. Because everybody was a little bit ashamed, they were like: Oh my God, this is such a horrible part of our history, we should support this film because maybe we can redeem ourselves. I had quite a hard time to get money for my previous film, about human trafficking in Switzerland. Then I wrote Heidi, which was very, very successful, so I already had a little bit of a track record. For this movie, we got all the federal funds we needed. We got a lot of support, because these cultural organizations really saw the necessity for the movie and its timeliness also, so that’s a good thing.

DT: Can you talk abut the Swiss film industry? The only thing most Americans know about it is Alain Tanner.

PV: That was a long time ago.

DT: Exactly.

PV: The Swiss film industry is not really an industry. It’s extremely small. We have federal funding and state funding, so all our films are funded. There’s hardly any private money in our films, which is a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is you can get screenplay funds and treatment funds, so if you have a good producer and you write stuff that people want to see, you get paid for writing. I haven’t written a single word in the last fifteen years without getting paid. That doesn’t happen for writers here, because you first write, then you might get paid or not.

Of course, it doesn’t work like this for everybody. The funding system also has a dark side, because it’s sometimes very random. When they didn’t give me the money for my human-trafficking film, we couldn’t have done the film if my producer hadn’t stepped in. Then you don’t know: Is it a political decision? It’s always dependent on who the people are on these juries. You may be unlucky, or they’re people who have a beef with your producer or are biased against you for some reason. It’s such a small scene, where everybody knows everybody, and on these juries are all the people from this business. They’re not objective, and that’s a huge problem with the funding system in Switzerland.

DT: What about international co-productions? Can you look for money outside Switzerland?

PV: You can, but it’s not so easy. You can look for money in Germany, but of course the Germans also have a funding system, and usually they want to give the money to their people. There are also co-production possibilities with France, but that doesn’t apply to every movie. This movie, for example, is such a Swiss topic that we knew we weren’t likely to get money. We thought we’d be able to sell it internationally once it was made and it will be easier once it’s clear that it appeals to an international audience, but on the paper, people would say, “Why should we fund this movie? It’s completely Swiss, it’s about Swiss history.” So for this movie, we really had to find the money within the country. That’s why we had a really small budget for a historical film, and it was only possible because I had the most amazing crew: a lot of women. Director of photography: woman. Composer: woman. Set designer: woman. Costume designer: woman. A lot of other positions: women.

DT: Good for you!  How’s the film dong in Switzerland?

PV: It’s a huge box-office success. We can say it’s the Wonder Woman of Switzerland.

The Divine Order opens today in New York City at Film Forum. Click here for the trailer and theatre listings near you. The author thanks Jessica Uzzan of Hook Publicity, for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017