A scene from The Divine Order, a film about regular people demanding their right to an equal. Image Credit: Daniel Ammann

If you associate Switzerland only with its breathtaking snow-capped mountain peaks, chocolates and cheese, Petra Volpe’s new film, The Divine Order, is an eye-opener on a dark chapter in Swiss history. Women’s enfranchisement may not be a burning issue for the contemporary woman since the right to vote is taken for granted in most countries. While New Zealand is considered to be the first country to grant voting rights to its women in 1893, Saudi Arabia allowed its female population to vote and run for office in municipal elections only in 2015.

Volpe’s story harks back to the 1970s when women in Switzerland had no say in anything; they could not even work outside home without their husband’s consent. Set in 1971, The Divine Order follows the life of Nora, a homemaker and a mother of two boys, who becomes the poster child for her town’s suffrage movement.

What drives the simple Nora — who is content looking after her family which includes her father-in-law — to spearhead this campaign for women’s enfranchisement and convince other women in the neighbourhood to join in her mission?

Besides winning the Audience Award for Best Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival (2017) and Audience Award for Best Fiction Film at Traverse City Film Festival (2017), The Divine Order is Switzerland’s entry for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Nora’s role also fetched lead actress Marie Leuenberger the Best Actress award at Tribeca.

An alumnus of the Film Academy “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Volpe wrote and directed shorts before making feature films. Out of her three prime time television movies, Autumn Spring Fever won the German Television Award. Her first feature film, Dreamland (2014) toured several film festivals and was nominated for four Swiss film awards. Volpe next wrote the screenplay for Heidi (2015), an adaptation of the popular children’s book by the same name, and directed by Alain Gsponer.

In an email interview, Volpe says The Divine Order is a tribute to all the women who fought hard to get the right to vote in Switzerland. “Post release of the film, we were the wonder women of Switzerland. Women were grateful to see their story on the big screen. The international audience, I hear, found it touching and unfortunately very timely. A lot of men loved the film. Their reaction is often very emotional because the film does not portray them as villains but shows how patriarchy is also a prison for men.”

Women in politics

The title of the film has been borrowed from an original quote from the anti-suffragette movement in Switzerland. In the film, the female antagonist Mrs Wipf comments that women in politics is against the divine order.

“The argument was that God did not intend for women to [be in] politics and that if women started to be more active in the public sphere, this would disrupt society and create chaos,” says Volpe. “So women in Switzerland were not only up against men, but God himself.”

Being the first feature film about Swiss women’s suffrage, the subject opened a wide field. “When I went to school, this subject was not present in my school books,” recalls Volpe. “It’s so typical for women’s history that it’s not considered relevant, when in fact one could say that Switzerland was not a real democracy until 1971.”

Volpe felt it was about time to bring this little known phase of Swiss history to the big screen and spark a discussion about the past but also point at how “we still don’t live in an equal society.”

“Research for the film was extremely important,” explains Volpe, “to understand how it felt to live in these times and to know how people moved and talked so I could instruct my actors.”

Delving into the past, she met several women who had dedicated their lives to the movement for women’s enfranchisement. Reading books on feminist literature, she tried to understand the particular atmosphere of Switzerland at the time and why it took them so long to give the women this basic democratic right. “All the characters are inspired by this research and an amalgam of many women.”

The trigger for Nora’s character came from a green deposit slip in the women’s archives, the only one founded by Marte Gosteli, a passionate advocate for the right to vote. On it, a young housewife and a mother who had never been politically involved, expressed her anger in the face of a call by the opponents of the vote. With a modest budget, Volpe and her crew of women, Judith Kaufmann (DOP), Su Erdt (Set Design), Linda Harper (Costume Design) and Annette Focks (music composer) began work on the look of the film three years before they began filming. The colours, furniture and costumes contribute on a basic visual level to show the limitations with which, not only women, but men lived. “Both sexes are prisoners of their roles, and this is expressed in the furnishings, make-up and costume,” adds Volpe.

The writing took time too.

“I also looked at material from that time for the staging of the characters. People moved differently and spoke differently. They were all much more subdued and slower. I wanted to take that into account but in a way that [it] wouldn’t appear too slow for today’s audience. That was a big challenge. We had to rehearse a lot to find a good balance,” she says.

Volpe cast Marie Leuenberger to essay Nora’s role after the actress chosen to play the lead role backed out as she fell pregnant. “Working with Marie was a wonderful experience,” says Volpe. “She gave herself completely to the role. I am grateful every day for her deep trust in me and my whole team.”

From the beginning, Volpe was clear that her story will be a simple one and stay focused on Nora. “I wanted to tell a story that depicts how un-free women were back then, how much they were treated like possessions and how great the opposition was, even in 1971, when women demanded equal political rights.”

The idea was to show how a political process can be brought into motion by one person who realises that the personal is political. However, The Divine Order is not only about Nora but several women around her. “Every character is an example of how the marital law discriminated women. And that law did not change until 1988,” explains Volpe. “It was also important to me to show that this discrimination was against women of all ages.

Interestingly, Nora’s adversary is a woman. Educated women and academics who had established themselves very well in society probably didn’t want their cooks to have a say, reveals Volpe.

“When you look at interviews with them, you can see an almost pleasurable demeanour of submission. Women speaking out against equality in eager obedience, more vehemently than most men, is a phenomenon that we can still observe today. I thought a woman who sides with the opponent was more exciting, because it raises more questions. The antagonism of the men in the story is a given, it is reflected in the mentality of the times and in the fact that whether women would finally get full citizens’ rights was dependent entirely on the male voting citizens, due to our direct democracy.”

The Divine Order was shot in Appenzell, showcasing Switzerland’s rolling hills, beautiful farms and mountaintops. In Appenzell Ausserrhoden, the neighbouring canton, women did not get the right to vote until 1990.

Volpe says these women brought much passion to the set. “It almost seemed like it was their little revenge to be in the movie. Every day we were inspired by them and they gave us the sense that it was truly relevant to bring their story to the big screen.”

Filming the scene where the men come and violently fetch their wives from the streets was not easy for Volpe. “It made us uncomfortable and sad because violence against women is still happening everywhere.”

Volpe’s journey into films was never planned. Her Italian immigrant father worked in a factory and her mother was a secretary. When she expressed her desire to do something creative, her parents suggested that she become a hairdresser.

“They did not know better,” she says. “Now they are extremely proud of me.”

Volpe’s next is a mini-series on Switzerland after the Second World War when the country was a hub for people fleeing from Germany in the hope of finding protection from the horrors of war.

Her next feature film is a story set in an American men’s prison. “It’s an emotional story set in a very inhuman place.”

Mythily Ramachandran is a writer based in Chennai, India.