“Switzerland is a small steep country, much more up and down than sideways, and is all stuck over with large brown hotels built on the cuckoo style of architecture.”
After an extended holiday break and a much needed return to the United States, I made it back to Belgium in early January, and within a week was already feeling quite restless. The inspiration for my journey into Switzerland came to me during my flight from JFK to Brussels, where one of the inflight offerings was the recently released biopic on Lou-Andreas Salome, a woman known mostly for her affairs with turn of the century intellectuals such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Rainer Rilke, and later work with Sigmund Freud. I was quite taken by this film, not only for its service in bringing to light the life and work of a person who instead of being the witness to history and associate of great men as often portrayed, was in fact an active participant in the major philosophic, literary, and psycho-analytic movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I particularly enjoyed about the film’s portrayal of Salome’s life long struggle not only for her own intellectual and creative freedom, but also her unwillingness to give in to the expectations and obsessions of the men she involved herself with intellectually. Her famous rejection of Nietzsche and the subsequent blame his sister placed on Salome for her brother’s eventual decent into madness is well-addressed in the film, with a revised perspective in which Nietzsche himself is reduced to suffering from “nice-guy syndrome.” It’s an overplayed corrective for sure, but as I’ve discovered in my own research into silent film actresses of the same period, an all prevalent occurrence. You can find the film’s trailer here, there are no subtitles, but the German title cards and the dynamics of the exchange should be pretty straightforward in conveying the film’s overall message:
The scenes in Lou Andreas-Salome (2016) that struck me most were the scenes set in Switzerland, particularly the sequences involving her, Paul Ree, and Nietzsche. So with the film in mind, I decided to make the trek to Sils Maria, and satiate my inner nineteen year-old nihilist. Since this was Switzerland in January, only part of the path way was open to tourists. Yet the path to the tip of the peninsula leads past picturesque bays and corner to the Nietzsche stone, which is inscribed with verses from “Thus spoke Zarathustra.” The stone is situated at the tip of the peninsula, which was once a favorite-spot of this famous philosopher, who spent many summers there. I also paid a brief visit to the Nietzsche-Haus, which has turned into a small museum with comprehensive exhibits that set out to document the philosopher’s life and work. What I thought was quite cool is that the House is also a guesthouse, study and research center, which keeps the museum dust from settling over it. The Nietzsche-Haus Foundation provides scholars and culturally interested parties an opportunity to stay and do research at the House for a maximum of three weeks with the goal of promoting lively discussions among the researchers. Sadly the weather prevented me from having the transcendent mountaintop experience he often wrote about. So instead I’ll have to rely on Alain de Botton to demonstrate what I was hoping to experience:
The next morning I took an early bus up to Zurich, where I had about a ten hour layover before catching a night train back to Ghent. The whole way I was simply awe-struck by the scenery and finally fulfilled in seeing more snow in my 36-hours in Switzerland than the entire winter I spent in Belgium. With limited daylight, I made the most of walking through as much of the surrounding mountainside as possible. The most rewarding view of the city came after I reached the top of the Üetliberg, and took a nearly two mile trek downward toward the center, with increasingly rewarding views both as I ascended and descended. Another highlight of my limited time in Zurich was a visit to “Clouds” a cocktail bar 35 stories up, that provided a breathtaking view of the city and surrounding scenery. My wanderings through the city were nothing short of experiencing a full-on winter wonderland.
Later in the evening, with only a slight amount of time to left to kill, I made a short visit for a drink at Caberet Voltaire. This was a nightclub founded by Hugo Ball, with his companion Emmy Hennings as a cabaret for artistic and political purposes. Events at the cabaret proved pivotal in the founding of the anarchic art movement known as Dada.
In recent years, the building which housed Cabaret Voltaire fell into disrepair, and in the winter of 2001/2002 a group of artists describing themselves as neo-Dadaists, organised by Mark Divo, illegally occupied the cabaret to protest its planned closure. They declared that it was a signal for a new generation of artists to align themselves with a revival of Dada. Since then the cabaret has once again become a sought after tourist destination with plenty of performances, parties, poetry evenings and film nights. For more of an idea of what Cabaret Voltaire offers its visitors both past and present, feel free to look over this BBC Culture Review of a film night held at the cabaret last year.
Although my visit was brief (which also means this entry will also be mercifully short) and I feel that I only had yet to scratch the surface of this amazing and visually stunning country, my short time in Switzerland did much to help reinvigorate my creative and intellectual aspirations as I being the second half of my year abroad. I was reminded of the inspirations that come from travel as well as following in the footsteps and artists that extend beyond the world of film. Also after my short time here, I feel that I can completley and whole-heartily disagree with the moral-relativist argument that Orson Welles’ Harry Lime put forth in The Third Man (1949). Where the first part of the scene is downright shocking, his historical justification for progress had always been something that I’ve mulled over in my head, particularly his remark that in 500 years all Switzerland had produced was “the cuckoo clock.” Although a stunning scene which I regularly annoy friends and family alike by quoting, after visiting Switzerland, I’ll once more have to revise my statement and include that Switzerland has far more to offer than Harry Lime could have anticipated.