Switzerland: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves

To get in the mood for your trip, consider these books and films, which take place partly or entirely in Switzerland.

Books: Nonfiction

For a look at how this diverse nation holds itself together, try Why Switzerland? (Steinberg), which explains how a country with four official languages can still have a common culture. Swiss Watching (Bewes), though campy and superficial, covers all the basics in an easy-to-digest look at 21st-century Switzerland. Swiss History in a Nutshell (Nappey) has information that’s concise and enjoyable, yet not dumbed-down. La Place de la Concorde Suisse (McPhee) follows a mountain unit of the Swiss Army on patrol, exploring how mandatory military service (for men) keeps Switzerland from breaking apart (despite its French title, it’s written in English).

Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad is a humorous account of Twain’s 1878 “walking tour” through the Alps. For more about mountains, try The White Spider (Harrer), which chronicles the first successful ascent of the Eiger’s north face; The Climb Up to Hell (Olsen) about an ill-fated 1957 Eiger climb; and Jon Krakauer’s collection of mountaineering essays, Eiger Dreams.

Books: Fiction

The most famous novel about Switzerland (and the source of many Swiss clichés) is the children’s classic Heidi (Spyri). A refreshing antidote is Max Frisch’s 20th-century riddle I’m Not Stiller.

Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann was German, but his masterpiece, The Magic Mountain, takes place in a sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, where troubled patients are trying to recover from tuberculosis as World War I is about to start. Another Nobel laureate — Ernest Hemingway — set the climax of his antiwar epic A Farewell to Arms on Lake Maggiore and in Lausanne.

In Hotel du Lac (Brookner), the heroine is sent by her friends to a Swiss hotel to recover from a misguided love affair, but her stay turns out to be much more than a simple rest cure. A different Swiss inn is the setting for John le Carré’s thriller The Night Manager, where a fussy hotel worker is recruited by British intelligence to bring down a millionaire gunrunner. The Watchers is a detective/fantasy thriller set in the cobbled streets of Lausanne’s old town (Steele).

Einstein’s Dreams (Lightman) plays with preconceptions of space and time while painting an evocative picture of turn-of-the-century Bern. While several novels and movies recount the story of William Tell, the most enduring version of the legend is by German poet/philosopher/playwright Friedrich Schiller, whose now-classic play broadened the tale into a rallying cry against tyranny.

Movies

Hollywood has largely typecast Switzerland as little more than a range of high mountains. (One exception is 2002’s The Bourne Identity, which set key scenes in urban Zürich...but filmed them mostly in Prague.) Clint Eastwood directed and starred in The Eiger Sanction (1975), a spy thriller partially shot in Kleine Scheidegg. The James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) includes stunning action sequences on the slopes of the Schilthorn, in the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant, and down a bobsled run. Five Days One Summer (1982) is a Sean Connery flick with some breathtaking climbing sequences sandwiched between soap-opera scenes about an incestuous love triangle. The excruciatingly realistic North Face (2008) imagines the disastrous 1936 attempt by an Austrian/German team to scale the Eiger’s “wall of death.”

For Switzerland beyond the mountains, try some foreign-language films. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red (1994), the last part of his Three Colors trilogy, is set in Geneva. Alain Tanner is Switzerland’s most acclaimed director, and his 1975 French-language film, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, takes a Big-Chill look at former student activists living in Geneva. Xavier Koller’s Oscar-winning Journey of Hope (1990) follows three members of a Kurdish family in search of a better life in Switzerland.

The Swissmakers (1978), a multilingual comedy about foreigners trying to get Swiss citizenship, is the most popular Swiss movie ever made (but may still be hard to find in the States). Or, if you’re in the mood for something completely different, many of India’s “Bollywood” movies use Swiss scenery as a stand-in for Himalayan locales (driving increasing numbers of Indian tourists to Switzerland). The romance Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (literally The Brave Heart Will Take the Bride, 1995), which ran for a record 11 years in Indian movie theaters, was shot in Swiss locations with its actors speaking a mixture of Hindi and English.