Running Time: 85 mins
UK Distributor: Sovereign Film Distribution
UK Release Date: 10 November 2023
WHO’S IN A FORGOTTEN MAN?
Michael Neuenschwander, Manuela Biedermann, Yann Philipona, Cléa Eden, Peter Wyssbrod, Sabine Timoteo, Victor Poltier, Margherita Schoch, Yves Raeber, Simon Romang, Dominik Gysin, Sebastian Krähenbühl, Jeff Burrell, Sophie Kandaouroff
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Laurent Nègre (director, writer), Andreas Roald and Dan Wechsler (producers), Ladislav Agabekov and Christophe Calpini (composers), Diego Dussuel (cinematographer), Stefan Kälin (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
After the fall of Nazi Germany, a Swiss ambassador (Neuenschwander) faces the consequences of his complicity…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON A FORGOTTEN MAN?
As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, stage-to-screen adaptations are very difficult to pull off. Not only do you have to rework the very wordy dialogue into a medium where visual language is arguably more important than simply saying stuff, but there’s the extra hurdle of overcoming its theatrical origins, such as the minimal sets and locations, the limited cast of characters, and other storytelling techniques that might work better on the stage than on the screen.
In the case of writer-director Laurent Nègre’s war drama A Forgotten Man – a very loose adaptation of Thomas Hürlimann’s stage-play The Envoy – it’s an intimate attempt to steer away from some of its stagey traits, but ultimately its slight execution can’t quite shake off its overwhelming theatricality.
Set in 1945, as Nazi Germany crumbles in the wake of Hitler’s death, Swiss ambassador Heinrich Zwygart (Michael Neuenschwander) – a fictional rendition of real-life ambassador Hans Frölicher – returns to his family estate in his native Switzerland, largely satisfied by his efforts to keep his country in a neutral state throughout the war. Once he’s back home, Zwygart makes plans to continue his political career by campaigning for a seat on the Swiss Federal Council, but he finds himself ostracised by fellow officials for his cosying up to the likes of Hitler, as well as his complacent acts that resulted in Switzerland being seen as more of an ally to the Nazis than intended. Then, there’s the small matter of his handling of Hitler’s would-be assassin, the young Swiss student Maurice Bavaud (Victor Poltier) who figuratively and literally haunts Zwygart as his professional and personal relationships, as well as his own dignity, all begin to tear away at the seams.
Shot in crisp black-and-white, via cinematographer Diego Dussuel’s intriguing gaze, A Forgotten Man sets out to explore the so-called neutrality that Switzerland claimed to have during the war (hence, perhaps, the black-and-white palette). There are some interesting areas that Nègre’s script covers, such as how this particular person – Zwygart in the film, but Frölicher in real life – got so caught up in the stoic nationalism that Hitler promoted, that he seems to have subconsciously taken them to heart. You can tell in scenes where he is talking with his family or fellow associates that he has modelled his confidence and even some of his orator skills after the German dictator, which Nègre includes as a sly wink towards his moral corruption that is devastatingly picked apart as the film plods along. It isn’t just Zwygart who still shows strong admiration for the Nazis, but other Swiss officials too, some of whom go full fanboy over stuff like copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, and the filmmaker again uses that as an often-uncomfortable window into the hypocrisies of Switzerland’s neutrality status, especially since they’ve become rich after effectively funding the Axis alliance.
However, the film often shows a strange theatricality in its execution of certain scenes and dialogue, with even the performances feeling like they’re better suited for the stage. Michael Neuenschwander, a fine actor who commits wholeheartedly to the psychologically demanding lead role, tends to deliver his lines in one of two ways: elegant and soft-spoken, or shouty and rage-fuelled. It’s the kind of performance that isn’t necessarily bad, but perhaps isn’t right for the medium of film, where there is no live audience to project his voice onto and which requires more emotional restraint as it’s meant to replicate real-life a bit more. Many of the other actors, including Manuela Biedermann as Zwygart’s wife Clara and Yann Philipona as the pressing new boyfriend of his daughter Helene (Cléa Eden), also act as though they’re on a stage instead of in front of a camera, while Nègre frames her scenes within a number of recurring sets and centre-stage blocking that, again, reeks of stage production origins.
It’s enough to take you out of the film and simply imagine all of it being performed live instead, because while A Forgotten Man is competently constructed as a piece of cinema, the material ultimately lends itself few favours by justifying it even being projected on the screen at all. I feel as though the stage would be a far more appropriate place for a loose adaptation of Thomas Hürlimann’s play, because then at least there would be the opportunity to expand on the original text while also retaining its sense of theatricality without losing anything in the process.
Unfortunately, because A Forgotten Man is meant to be consumed on the screen rather than on the stage, it makes the experience less powerful than it clearly wants to be. It isn’t bad as a whole, but more so misplaced from its correct medium.
SO, TO SUM UP…
A Forgotten Man is a competently made and occasionally intriguing war drama that unfortunately cannot shake away many of its theatrical origins, which detracts from the overall cinematic experience.