Switzerland did not go unscathed in the Second World War — there were border skirmishes and even erroneous Allied bombing raids on its towns and cities — but the Swiss story of WWII remained one not of war but of diplomatic brinkmanship, which is the subject of this new film by Laurent Nègre, who channels the nation’s experience through Heinrich Zwygart (Michael Neuenschwander), the Swiss ambassador to Germany.
Zwygart is a fictional character based closely on Ambassador Hans Frölicher, who, amongst other things, failed to stop the execution of Maurice Bavaud, a Swiss student who plotted to assassinate Hitler. With Zwygart as its allegory, A Forgotten Man imagines the toll this took on Frölicher’s psyche in the spring of 1945, when the forces of atonement — and punishment — swept the continent.
This is weighty history, but A Forgotten Man, like the country it’s set in, is a rather sedate experience. Nègre uses psychotic visions to try and load the stuffiness with something visceral, but they are trite and unscary (like most dream sequences). These moments do not negate the film’s overall aesthetic, though, which polishes the outfits, locations and set design with a beautifully lit black and white palette.
Centring this velvety aesthetic is Michael Neuenschwander, whose performance is the best thing about A Forgotten Man. He depicts Zwygart as a model of European sophistication with a lofty exterior that’s unflappable until it’s not. Neuenschwander is especially good during an exchange with his daughter’s new boyfriend, who asks to interview him for his law school’s newspaper.
“A diplomat’s opinion doesn’t matter,” states Zwygart when asked about Hitler’s annexation of Austria, but this cop-out proves uncomfortable to stick by when the young man unravels a list of dubious actions: he agreed to ban Swiss papers in Germany, he limited the number of refugees entering Switzerland, he conceded the “J” in German passports (meaning Jew).
Zwygart responds with a haughty, swaggering demeanour — legs spread, an arm extended along the back of the sofa — but this attempt at worldly authority does not cow the righteous upstart. If Zwygart’s psyche had been fraying at the edges, then this encounter tore it with both hands.
The ambassador’s soul searching takes him on a confessional mission to an American diplomat, who dismisses Zwygart’s concerns as irrelevant in the new conflict with the Soviet Union. It’s a clear critique of political cynicism and it doesn’t quite ring true. There’s a contrivance to the American’s performance, especially when he offers Zwygart a cigar — a filthy cliché of power and corruption. However, the problem may lie not with this scene or the American but with Zwygart’s whole story, which may stir those with niche historical interests but weary many others.