When Is The Past Only The Past?
Nothing is fixed in our memories. We remember and forget. But what we remember or forget changes over time. At a given moment, perceptions evolve of an event that took place. At the recent Locarno Film Festival, two movies touched on dramatic events in contemporary Swiss history. “Un Juif pour l’exemple” and “Il Nido” are films about the past, the memory of which are ongoing, including the films themselves. The movies are part of the process of memorialization.
In April 1942, in Payerne, Switzerland, the Jewish merchant Arthur Bloch disappeared. Soon after, the remains of his body were discovered. Several local Nazi sympathizers were arrested and later convicted of murder. In 1977, Jacques Pillet wrote a book, “Le Crime nazi de Payerne.” In 2009, 67 years after the crime, Jacques Chessex, a well-known author from Payerne and the only Swiss to have won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, wrote a novel condemning the people of Payerne accusing them of complicity in the hideous murder.
Chessex was vehemently criticized in his village. “One must stop with this story. If one doesn’t speak about it one better forgets,” said the nephew of one of the assassins, placing the blame on the context of World War II. “Many people here were sympathetic to the Nazis,” he explained.
Chessex proposed that a square be named in memory of Arthus Bloch. “One shouldn’t forget, but for me, the obligation of memory has been carried out,” another local remarked. “Why should this murder have more merit to have a commemorative plaque than another?” someone questioned.
Chessex was ridiculed in Payerne, the subject of a racist float in the Carnival parade. The film “Un Juif pour l’exemple” shows how the murder of Arthur Bloch haunted his life. It remains to be seen how the film will be received in Payerne.
“Il Nido” tells a different story that remains undecided, but it also shows the context and evolution of memory. Set in Italy, the film is a thinly disguised recounting of the Affaire Luca. In February 2002, two young Italian boys were walking the family dog in the woods in Valais, Switzerland. One of the boys was later discovered wounded and naked, abandoned in the snow, to be revived but blind and tetraplegique. The official version was that the guilty party was the family dog. Many pieces of evidence remain missing. Little was done to gather definitive forensic proof.
Many doubt the official version. Many suspect a cover up within the village. An anonymous book appeared in 2010 calling into question the official version. Moreover, the anonymous author of the book turned out to be Oskar Freysinger, currently the Conseiller d’Etat in the Valais and responsible for security. The Italian government interceded. The case has been re-opened for investigation. Even though the film takes place in a small town in Italy, it leaves little doubt that the dog was not guilty of attacking the boy.
Although both films are about local Swiss events, they raise the question of memory over time in general and the evolution of perceptions. Do we want to know what really happened? Can we ever objectively know what happened? The Arthur Bloch affair was settled by a court of justice, but the reaction of the population remains ambiguous. After a screening, the director, Jacob Berger, told me that the Jewish residents had taken up a collection to help the assassins once they were released from prison. He is eager to see the reaction to the film now in Payerne. The Affaire Luca has not been settled, but the locals have shown a determination not to call into question the official version that the dog was guilty.
Memory is an ongoing process. Memorialization is never fixed in time.